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The Birth of the Interstate Highway System: How America Changed Forever

An average of 196,425 vehicles per day roll over this section of the Capital Beltway, shown in the mid-1960s. (This statistic is from traffic counts in 1994.) President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, "Together, the...

p96su12 An average of 196,425 vehicles per day roll over this section of the Capital Beltway, shown in the mid-1960s. (This statistic is from traffic counts in 1994.)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, "Together, the united forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear - United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts." These words perfectly capture the essence of the interstate highway system that connects every corner of America. But have you ever wondered how this remarkable transportation network came to be?

A Vision Takes Shape

By the late 1930s, the need for transcontinental superhighways was becoming apparent. President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the potential of toll superhighways in generating jobs for the unemployed. Congress decided to delve into the concept, and thus, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 was born. This act commissioned the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to study the feasibility of a toll network. The resulting two-part report proposed a nontoll interregional highway network and laid the foundation for future interstate highways.

p96su14 Early freeway in Newton, Mass., circa 1935, showing access control.

Post-War Planning

As World War II was coming to an end, President Eisenhower foresaw the challenges of post-war employment. He believed a massive highway program could provide a solution. In 1941, he appointed the National Interregional Highway Committee to investigate the need for a limited system of national highways. This committee produced a report that refined the concepts introduced in the previous report and recommended the construction of a 63,000-kilometer interregional highway system.

Legislation and Opposition

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 maintained the status quo and did not prioritize the interstate system. It wasn't until 1952 that the first funds were authorized specifically for interstate construction. However, dissenting voices hindered progress. Senator Harry Flood Byrd vehemently opposed bond financing for the grand plan, which delayed the establishment of a comprehensive system.

The Turning Point

In 1955, President Eisenhower's impassioned speech at a conference of state governors reignited the push for a modern highway system. Although the Clay Committee's financing plan was ultimately rejected, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 became the turning point. Named after President Eisenhower, this landmark legislation authorized $25 billion over 13 years for the creation of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

p96su16 The Clay Committee presents its report with recommendations concerning the financing of a national interstate highway network to President Eisenhower on Jan. 11, 1955. Standing behind the president are (from left) Gen. Lucius Clay, Frank Turner, Steve Betchel, Sloan Colt, William Roberts, and Dave Beck.

Construction Begins

With funding secured, construction of the interstate system began in earnest. By 1990, the network was renamed the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways to honor the president's pivotal role. The system revolutionized transportation and transformed America, connecting people and goods like never before.

p96su46 BPR officials in 1966 celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which launched the federal-aid highway program. From left to right: former Director of Administration James C. Allen, former BPR Commissioner Charles "Cap" Curtiss, Director of Planning E.H. "Ted" Holmes, Deputy Administrator Lawrence Jones, Administrator Rex Whitton (cutting cake), Director of Engineering and Operations George M. Williams, and Chief Engineer Francis C. Turner.

A Lasting Legacy

The interstate highway system remains an integral part of American life, facilitating trade, travel, and economic growth. It stands as a testament to President Eisenhower's visionary leadership and the collaborative efforts of federal and state agencies. As we travel these modern highways, let us remember the remarkable journey that brought them into existence.

p96su49a Unveiling the Eisenhower Interstate System sign on July 29, 1993, are (from left): Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), John Eisenhower (President Eisenhower's son), Federal Highway Administrator Rodney Slater, and Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.).