Eisenhower’s interstate highway system

Interstate highways near Chicago, IL
The interstate highway system provides vital transportation throughout the United States. Shutterstock image.

Throughout the United States, many interstate highways carry the name “Eisenhower” to honor the president who promoted the concept. But Eisenhower’s interstate highway system is showing its age.

President Biden seeks to fund a wide-ranging overhaul of our nation’s infrastructure. He describes it as a jobs program as well as an investment in infrastructure. However, as Ed Sullivan, Chief Economist at the Portland Cement Association, makes clear, the  construction jobs will not begin until 2023. That’s because it will take time to pass the bill in Congress, complete the federal and state paperwork, plan and design the projects, and let the contracts. Because not all of the money is allocated in the first year, the full effect on the economy will not be apparent until 2026.

We’ve had several previous blogs about infrastructure—good and inadequate, sustainable, resilient, and not. It’s clear that to build and maintain good infrastructure, good government policy is essential. In order to see what’s at stake for transportation, let’s look at how our interstate highways came about.

A 1918 proposal for a national highway system

In December 1918, E.J. Mehren, editor of Engineering News Record, proposed a 50,000-mile national highway system. It would “tie the nation together by a network of highways more effective…than even the rail lines which form our secondary system of transportation.” He gave four reasons for this massive expenditure of public funds: (1) economic, (2) spiritual, (3) military, and (4) “because of the example it would afford for all classes of highway construction.”

The economic argument is familiar to us today. We see for ourselves the costs of ageing infrastructure. Our cars’ suspensions take a beating from potholes. Traffic jams and an inadequate rail system delay shipments. Blocking the Suez Canal for a week cost billions of dollars. And inadequate internet service keeps many students from participating fully in distance learning. Clearly, good infrastructure adds a great deal to our nation’s prosperity.

The spiritual dimension isn’t one we’d normally consider in this context, but maybe we should. Mehren believed that by enabling us to travel around the country, interstate highways help us see ourselves as one nation. For example, visiting a historic site in a different part of the country helps connect us with the nation and its history.

We don’t usually think of the military aspects of an interstate highway system, either, but at that time the Great War was fresh in people’s minds. The need to transport troops and munitions from military bases or factories to ports was paramount. In fact, that was Eisenhower’s primary motivation in promoting it forty years later.

And although most people don’t realize it, the Federal Highway Administration does indeed set the example for highway construction. Most highway innovations in this country originate from the FHWA.

“Through darkest America with truck and tank”

Dwight Eisenhower became aware of the need for an interstate highway system when, as a 28-year-old army lieutenant, he volunteered for a cross-country road trip. The Transcontinental Motor Convoy left from the White House grounds in July 1919. Its mission was to drive to San Francisco in order to assess the suitability of our nation’s roads for military uses. Eisenhower later described his trek “through darkest America with truck and tank”. However, bad trips make the best stories. This one transformed America.

In those days, of course, there was no highway system. In fact, there was no system at all—and in some places no road, either. Each jurisdiction, whether municipality, county or state, built roads or didn’t as it saw fit. There was no connection from one jurisdiction to the next, so it was difficult to travel between them.

But the military convoy was prepared for anything. The 81 vehicles included not only cars, but also trucks carrying tires, water, and gasoline; a mobile kitchen; a blacksmith van—and even a tank.

In the eastern states the roads weren’t too bad, having benefited from the Good Roads Movement. The gravel roads extended as far as the Illinois border, beyond which each day brought its own trouble: broken crankshafts, leaking radiators, dangerous bridges, cars sliding off muddy roads. In Wyoming they had to build their own roads and repair bridges before they could cross them. It was a full two months before the surviving 70 vehicles arrived at the Presidio in San Francisco.

The Interstate Highway Act of 1956

Understandably, the memory of his American road trip stayed with Eisenhower over the following decades. During World War II, he saw the benefits of good roads as the Allied troops advanced into Germany. The Autobahn made transporting and supplying them much easier. His 1919 road trip “had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”

He spent 1953, his first year as president, ending the Korean War. After that he was ready to turn his attention to the interstate highway system. Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1954, but in Eisenhower’s view it was only “one effective forward step in meeting the accumulated needs.” That is, it wasn’t enough. Eisenhower saw five “penalties” of an inadequate and obsolete highway system. These included deaths and injuries, economic losses due to traffic jams and detours, highway-related lawsuits, inefficient transport of goods, and inability to cope with natural disasters or an atomic war. He wanted a plan for a system of highways, a means of funding it without debt, and cooperation between the states and the federal government to get it done.

More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America…. Its impact on the American economy—the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up—was beyond calculation.—Dwight Eisenhower, Mandate for Change 1953-1956

There was, naturally, some wrangling in Congress over how to raise the necessary revenue. But in June 1956 the House and the Senate were able to reconcile their differences, and Eisenhower signed the bill into law. The interstate highway system was his favorite of all his domestic programs. And it did indeed “change the face of America”.