Interstate Highway Act

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By 1919 the need for a planned system of national highways became apparent with the increasingly common use of the automobile in the United States. The emergence of the trucking industry in the 1930s further increased calls for long-distance interstate superhighways. The limited-access German autobahn system provided a model concept for a similar system in the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945) envisioned highway construction as an ideal public works program, and Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1938, which directed a feasibility study of a toll road highway network. The study concluded that a toll system was impractical, but it did recommend creating a 26,700 mile non-toll highway network. Roosevelt forwarded the proposal to Congress in 1939, but the nation was soon drawn into World War II (19391945), and Congress shelved the idea. Roosevelt, however, maintained an interest in the proposed highway program throughout the war, expecting that such a massive public construction program would help the postwar economy rebound. In 1941 Roosevelt established the National Interregional Highway Committee to further refine the concept. The resulting 1943 committee report recommended a 39,000 mile interregional highway system. Also focusing on urban freeways, the committee recognized the great influence such transportation networks would have on urban development and stressed the importance of careful design.

Further debate highlighted conflicting interests, such as urban versus rural needs, states with dense populations versus those with a sparse population, and state versus federal control. The resulting Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944 authorized a 40,000 mile interstate highway system connecting primary metropolitan areas and industrial centers, and serving national defense needs. But the act set no priorities for construction and, significantly, provided no special funding. It did require state and local governments to determine the most appropriate routes and to development national design standards. In 1945 the federal Public Roads Administration adopted a set of standards and, in 1947, designated almost 38,000 miles of routes for construction. With no special funding, however, the resulting construction was slow, as states were reluctant to divert funds away from other priorities.

The Cold War and the Korean War (19501953) emphasized the need for improved highways for military use. Consequently, the 1952 Federal-Aid Highway Act provided the first specifically authorized federal funds for interstate highway construction: $25 million to states on an equal match basis. By 1953 states had constructed almost 20 percent of the designated interstate highway system, at a cost of nearly $1 billion. Little of it, however, was considered of suitable quality for even existing use.

With newly elected President Dwight Eisenhower (19531961) taking special interest in the proposed system, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954, authorizing $175 million on a sixty-forty matching basis. Still disappointed with the meager funding commitment, Eisenhower formed an Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program to press for more sweeping legislation. Finally, overcoming opposition of the trucking industry to a proposed user tax to support the program, Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956. The act established a 40,300-mile national system of highways to be built over a 13-year period. The federal government would contribute 90 percent of construction costs, projected to exceed $30 billion, with states responsible for later maintenance costs.

Avoiding major debt, Congress created a pay-asyou-go program. The unique funding strategy included creation of the Highway Trust Fund and the Federal Highway Administrator position to manage the massive program. Funding was also provided to purchase right-of-way not already acquired by the states. Motorist-related user taxes on various fuels (including gasoline) and on truck use (including tire and equipment sales) formed the basis for funding. Those enterprises selling the taxed products, such as service stations, paid the excise tax directly to the government and then were reimbursed through consumers' purchases the following year. The tax revenue annually raised more than the federal portion of construction expenses. The excess funds were invested in special U.S. Treasury securities, with the interest from the securities placed in a trust fund. The federal government reimbursed the states after the highway construction expenses were incurred, placing limits on how much states could spend annually. How these funding limits were apportioned to the various states, a very contentious issue during original passage of the act, was based on a formula taking into account populations served, total roadway mileage in a state, and the land area served.

The act stipulated uniform design standards to meet interstate demand projected through 1975, including fully divided highways with complete control of access, minimum distances between interchanges, and set lane widths. Use of overpasses or underpasses for road intersections and railroad crossings was required initially for only the more heavily traveled segments, but after 1966 was required for all interstates.

Upon passage of the 1956 act, the federal government provided over $1 billion to begin construction. The interstate legislation was hailed as one of the greatest public works programs in U.S. history. The unique numbering system and interstate marker designs were selected in 1957. In 1990 President George Bush (19891993) re-designated the system as the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Although comprising only one percent of U.S. roadways, the interstates supported over 20 percent of vehicular traffic and almost 50 percent of trucking traffic.

The interstate program had substantial socioeconomic effects on U.S. society, some anticipated and some not. The cement and concrete industries boomed spurring advances in pavement technologies. Goods could be moved much more efficiently, and increased mobility allowed commuting workers to live in areas farther from their places of work. Not fully anticipated was the mass movement of city residents to the suburbs. The exodus left some cities with declining populations and a demise in the quality of life resulting from a substantial loss of tax revenue. In addition, the freeways undercut mass transit prospects in the United States.

By the mid-1990s, over 40,000 miles of the interstate system had been constructed, at a cost of $137 billion. The system extended across the lower 48 states, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Maintenance expenses and increasing congestion had become major concerns by the 1990s.

See also: Suburbs (Rise of)


Goddard, Stephen B. Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: Building the Inter-state Highways, Transforming American Life. New York: Viking, 1997.

Rose, Mark H. Interstate Express Highway Politics, 19411989. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

Seely, Bruce E. Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

St. Clair, David J. The Motorization of American Cities. New York: Praeger, 1986.

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Interstate Highway Act

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