How the Interstate Highway System Came to Be

In June 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a landmark piece of legislation he’d been championing for years. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, more commonly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, authorized $25 billion (more than $235 billion in today’s money) for the construction of 41,000 miles of interstates over 10 years.

Popular lore tells of General Eisenhower’s interest in the strategic value of Germany’s autobahn during the war and his desire to replicate it at home. But the history is much longer than that. In fact, it predates both World War II and World War I. It does not, however, predate Eisenhower.

As popular interest in the automobile ignited in the early 1900s, Congress recognized the need for better roads for both strategic and commercial reasons, and it permanently established the Office of Public Roads under the Department of Agriculture in 1905 (now the Federal Highway Administration under the Department of Transportation). The Office of Public Roads released its first proposal for 12 transcontinental highways in 1911 based on submissions from “Good Roads” organizations around the country.

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Carl Fisher, the founder of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and believed to be the first owner of an automobile dealership in the country, conceived and launched a fundraising campaign to build the Lincoln Highway (later U.S. Route 30) from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco in 1912. He officially dedicated the highway in October 1913.

It wasn’t until 1916 that Congress opened its checkbook with the Federal Aid Road Act, signed by Woodrow Wilson to build rural postal roads. Little actual work was done before the U.S. entered World War I, sapping resources and labor.

After WWI, then-Bvt. Lt. Col. Eisenhower participated in the first-ever military transcontinental convoy in the summer of 1919. More than 80 Army trucks and other vehicles trundled down the Lincoln Highway, covering 3,251 miles in 61 days—an average of just 53 miles per day—in a test of military mobility (or immobility) in the event of invasion. Eisenhower would later credit that experience, as well as lessons learned in Germany in World War II, for his desire to build America’s Interstate system.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, replacing the expiring 1916 act, both increased funding for highway construction and resolved a number of technical and legal issues in the earlier act. It was the Pershing Map, commissioned by the Bureau of Public Roads and overseen by Army Gen. John J. Pershing in 1922, that laid the groundwork for a national highway system. The first official topographic map of the United States, it included 78,000 miles of roads in three categories of priority, with an emphasis on the coasts, transcontinental routes, and border crossings. Most of the routes identified by Pershing’s commission would become federal highways.

The first formal standards for road signs would be adopted in 1926, along with the plan to officially number highways with a white shield. But it was the Depression-era New Deal suite of job-creation programs that would get tens of thousands of miles of highways actually built in the mid- to late 1930s, including the famous Route 66.

America’s involvement in World War II would again spur a military incentive for road building. That’s part of the reason the disconnected states of Alaska and Hawaii have “interstate” highways—to connect population centers with areas of industry and to promote national defense.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 authorized but didn’t fund 40,000 miles of highways. Funding would not appear until the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952, in a token amount. It was Eisenhower, upon taking office in 1953, who would finally kick-start the interstate system.

With the Federal-Aid Highway Acts of 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1959, the Eisenhower Administration greatly increased federal funding for the Interstate system and established the Highway Trust Fund to build and maintain the new roads, funded primarily by a tax on gasoline.

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