Highway Act of 1956

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Highway Act of 1956

Mary-Beth Moylan

Excerpt from the Highway Act

It is the intent of the Congress that the Interstate System be completed as nearly as practicable over a thirteen-year period and that the entire system in all States be brought to simultaneous completion.

Focusing on concerns of national security and economic prosperity, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made the construction of a national interstate highway system a priority of his administration. The Highway Act of 1956 (P.L. 83-627, 70 Stat. 374) was the first comprehensive plan for the construction and financing of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

While as early as the 1930s, government officials were concerned about the development of a national system of roadways, the interests of farmers, truckers, engineers, and average Americans concerning the construction and funding of the massive federal project were not in accord. At the time President Eisenhower won election in 1952 there was general agreement that a national highway system would promote traffic safety, convenience to travelers, national defense and economic opportunities in a postWorld War II America.

Once in office, President Eisenhower appointed several committees to consider a national highway system. Some advisers suggested funding the system with toll roads, while others advocated user taxes on trucks, gasoline and associated industry needs. A federal highway bill drafted by Lucius Clay, a retired general, was defeated during the 1955 congressional session. Drawing on the failed 1955 legislation, Representatives George H. Fallon of Maryland and Hale Boggs of Louisiana introduced legislation the following year. Representative Fallon wrote the portion of the legislation relating to appropriations for the construction of the interstate system. Representative Boggs is credited with creating the Highway Trust Fund. With success of the Fallon-Boggs legislation in the House, Senator Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee introduced companion legislation in the Senate. On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the act into law.

Significant provisions of the act included the appropriation of millions of dollars to states for building an interstate highway system, the directive for the project to be completed "as nearly as practicable over a thirteen-year period" and that it be completed simultaneously in all states. The act also provided that the federal government would generally provide between 90 percent and 95 percent of the funds for interstate roadways. Oversight of funding requests, the creation of standards for roadways, and the administration of the interstate system were vested in the secretary of commerce, who was directed to report back to Congress periodically. Critical to the act's success was the creation of the Highway Trust Fund and the provisions that directed a number of specific categories of taxes, including all gasoline taxes, diesel and special motor fuel taxes, and tread rubber taxes, to be deposited into that Fund. Without the money derived from these taxes, the interstate highway system could not have been built.

The interstate system was not completed in the thirteen years contemplated by the act. However, Congress repeatedly extended the deadline for completion and ordered additional appropriations for the massive network of roads that now make up the interstate highway system. Cities have sprung up all across the country along these highway routes, and more cities are blossoming as Americans seek more convenience and more services with jobs and housing readily accessible to the highway system. In 1990 the Interstate was designated the "Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways" in recognition of President Eisenhower's leadership role in its construction.

See also: Highway Beautification Act; Highway Safety Act of 1966; National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.


Eisenhower Birthplace State Historical Park. "Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956." July 2003. <http://www.eisenhowerbirthplace.org>.

Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Rose, Mark H. Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 19411956. Lawrence, KS: Regents Press of Kansas, 1979.

Weingroff, Richard F. "Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate System." U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. July 2003. <http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/history.htm>.