Transportation is fundamental for the success of a nation. Being able to transport domestic and international freight on well built, easy to navigate roadways is vital to our way of life. Beyond the commercial reasons for highways this transportation paradigm allows you and I to drive ourselves not only around town but also across country. This is a brief account of the history of America's highways.
The beginning of the United States' highway system goes back to the late 1930s when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office. As president, he repeatedly articulated awareness of the need for a network of highways to be constructed as means to provide more jobs for the unemployed people of the nation. At that time Roosevelt believed that, three north - south and three east - west super roadways would be sufficient for the country's needs.
In 1938, the Federal-Aid Highway Act allowed the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to conduct a study on the viability of a six-route toll system. The result was a report entitled Toll Roads and Free Roads, which was based on surveys and analysis of the statewide highway plans. One part of the report maintained that the amount of transcontinental traffic was not sufficient to support the network of toll roadways suggested.
A second part recommended a non-toll inter-regional highway network. This network of roadways would follow existing roads whenever possible. If traffic exceeded two thousand vehicles a day more than two lanes of traffic would be constructed. Access would be limited to this type of roadway so that vehicles entering it would not harm the flow of traffic. There was also the need for traffic to bypass a city and link to expressways that entered the city center.
Roosevelt's response to the report was to recommend to Congress to take action on starting a system of direct inter-regional highways. These highways would have connections through and around cities as well as be designed to fulfill the requirements of the national defense as well as the needs of peacetime motorist traffic.
The 1939 World's Fair in New York contained an exhibit that helped to popularize the idea of an interstate highway system. This exhibit showed a futurist view of superhighways, 14 lane ones that crossed the nation both east to west and north to south. Because of the nation being on the brink of war, the realization of the highways recommended by Roosevelt would still take many years to come about.
In 1941, Roosevelt appointed a committee to examine the need for a system of national highways. The report that came about from this investigation was released in 1943. It revised the 1938 report by recommending an inter-regional highway system that would be designed to accommodate traffic for 20 years after the construction date.
The next big step in the history of highways was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, which sanctioned a National System of Interstate Highways, which would be selected by a joint action of state highway departments. These routes, the states were directed, should connect as directly as possible the main metropolitan areas, cities and industrial centers. This would serve both the national defense needs and motorists. The roadway should also connect at points at which would enable continental routes to both Canada and Mexico.
The BPR was now called the Public Roads Administration (PRA) and wanted quickly to implement these sanctions. The PRA thus requested states to submit recommendations on which routes that should included in the interstate network. This meant dealing with state officials and the American Association of State Highway Officials to develop standards for the interstate system.
Construction of the interstate system moved slowly due to state officials disagreeing about various aspects. Many states did not want to redirect federal monies from local needs to the highway system. Then in 1950, the nation was involved in a war in Korea that shifted the focus from civilian needs to the military needs. In 1952, an Act passed authorizing millions for the interstate highway system on a fifty-fifty matching basis. Disagreements continued though within those appointed to getting this job done.
In 1954, Dwight Eisenhower became president and found that fewer than 25 percent of the interstate roads were sufficient for the current traffic needs. Also very little of the roadways were constructed to meet the needs of a motorist 20 years in the future. President Eisenhower had long known the advantages to a well-constructed highway system so recognized the need to get it accomplished during his presidency.
When Eisenhower was in Germany during WWII, he saw the benefit of the autobahn roadway system. For military needs, he remembered how the well-constructed autobahn improved mobility of the Allied troupes as they marched into Germany. This made Eisenhower aware of the wisdom of building broader roadways across a nation.
Unfortunately, this new president did not have time at the beginning of his presidency to establish the interstate road network due to the war in Korea and the ensuing economic depression. During this time though Eisenhower made it clear that he did value the nation's highway system and wanted a grand plan for a suitable detailed system of highways.
For this system, Eisenhower wanted a way in which to finance the roadway network without incurring debt. Another main need was cooperation between state and federal officials so that a modern state highway system could be properly developed. A way in which to finance the system, such as issuing bonds and using gas tax revenue was organized.
There were many rejections by Congress but finally in 1956 an Act passed calling for a uniform interstate plan. Bridges, tunnels and toll roads could be included in this network if they met system standards. In 1956, American citizens saw the establishment of a Federal Highway Administer position. Then in 1957, the numbering format was unveiled for the interstate highways. It was a red, white, and blue shield. Finally, the construction of the interstate system was under way.
The interstate highway system has continued to grow since that point in the late 1950s. With federal funding, states have added to the route network as well as broadening the already existing roadways. As of 2008, there was more than 46,000 miles included in the mileage tabulation of the interstate highway network.
In 1990, President Bush signed legislation renaming the network of roadways to the "Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways". This was to give recognition to Eisenhower's vital role in the creation of the roadway program. Under Eisenhower, the key basics for the system were established. Eisenhower himself noted that the Interstate Road System was his favorite domestic program because of its major impact on the American economy and American people.
The modern marvel known as America's Interstate Highway system is one of our country's greatest tools for transportation. Since its inception, it has not only linked the nation but boosted productivity and the gross national produce tenfold. This solidifies it as the backbone to America and its economy. The implementation of an interstate highway is what allowed our country to grow and thrive in the years past and hopefully into the future years to come. If the highway is not running smoothly, it affects everything from our goods from being delivered promptly to our own driving habits.
Reference: US Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration