June 29, 2016
President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act on this date in 1956, sixty years ago, back in the day when Congress could actually pass a piece of legislation that benefited more than just their own constituencies. The law authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of The Interstate Highway System. Eisenhower’s goal was to make transportation more efficient and make it easy to evacuate big cities in case of an atomic attack.
The original portion was completed 35 years later. Today, there are more than 47,000 miles of interstate highway, making much of our country accessible to us road trippers.
The federal government allocated $26 billion to pay for the roads. This was to be 90% of the total cost, funded by a gas tax. The total cost of construction has been estimated to be over $500 billion in today’s dollars.
This wasn’t the first piece of legislation dealing with highways.The first Federal Aid Road Act was enacted on July 11, 1916, one hundred years ago, to extend and improve our country’s road system. Funding was provided for rural post roads on the condition that they be open to the public at no charge. Farmers needed roads to bring their goods to market and the Postal Service needed to a way to deliver rural mail. Prior to this, many roads were little more than trails that were muddy in the rain and dusty the rest of the time.
There have been many bumps in the road along the way. These roads caused damage to some city neighborhoods, people were displaced. Activists were able to stop construction on highways and bridges in several states, resulting in some interstate highways literally going nowhere.
The Interstate Highway System was designed to be toll-free, so that all Americans would have access to good roads. However, there were some segments where toll roads were already operating. It would have been inefficient to construct another road next to the one that was there, so Congress approved the incorporation of toll roads into the system, with the requirement that no Federal highway funds be expended for their construction or maintenance. Thus, the Interstate Highway System does have about 2,100 miles of toll roads. Drivers can go around them, of course, but that’s not always convenient. On the other hand, you might enjoy the detour where the scenery is usually far superior.
East-west highways are assigned even numbers beginning in the south, and north-south highways are assigned odd numbers beginning in the west. Spurs, routes that go around a city, or into the city, are given an extra digit in front of the Interstate number. For instance, I94 is a principal highway that goes through Minnesota, connecting Fargo, ND to Hudson, WI. I694 skirts the Twin Cities to the north and east while I494 skirts the western and southern edges, and they meet east of St. Paul to feed back into I94. I394 goes from I94 on the east into downtown Minneapolis.
I won’t address all the issues that face our interstate system today. There are plenty of others who are engaged in those conversations.
As you head out on your Fourth of July road trip, just think about the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that made it all possible, at least for now.