One of the major headlines of 1956 was " President Eisenhower signs Interstate Highway Act ". What did that legislation entail, and how did it impact the nation?
What Was the Interstate Highway Act?
Before the Interstate Highway Act, maintenance of roads was seen as primarily an intra-state affair. Roads maintained within states might be straight or meander along property boundaries.
President Eisenhower was considered about national highways and infrastructure for several reasons, a main one of which was the difficulty of moving material and people across the country in case of World War 3 with Russia or evacuating people quickly and efficiently if possible before a nuclear strike. That would require a nationwide network of straight, non-stop roads crisscrossing the nation. The interstate highway project was inspired by the German autobahns for moving troops quickly across the country during World War 2.
Construction of the Interstate Highways
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 funded a network of straight, essentially non-stop roads across the country. The original plan was for 41,000-miles of highway that would link 90% of all towns over 50,000 people. The Act called for the federal government to pay 90% of the construction costs while individual states paid for 10% of interstate highways built in their state. The original construction program was scheduled to end in 1972.
As construction began, charges of corruption and mishandling of contracts arose. In 1961, the Congress was told it would have to cough up an additional $11 billion dollars to maintain the construction schedule.
Rex Whitton was the Federal Highway Administrator in 1962. He challenged the American Association of State Highway Officials to complete half of the interstate system by the midpoint of the program. By the end of 1962, 14,300 miles of interstate highway had opened. By the end of 1963, 16,600 miles of interstate highway were open.
Alterations to the Legislation
One impact of the legislation was the four cent per gallon gas tax implemented to pay for the highway construction. When passed in 1959, it was considered a temporary measure. The tax has remained in effect, though the gas tax rate has varied over time. During the intervening decades, money from the federal gas tax has been mixed with the general fund to the neglect of road construction and maintenance or allocated to other transportation projects. A similar problem plagues state gas tax monies that are levied to fund road construction and maintenance but added to the general fund. In 1961, President Kennedy signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1961 to make the gas tax to fund the interstate highway network permanent. It included funds to pay those displaced by highway construction in the cities, a maximum of $200 per displaced individual. That 1961 act also authorized an additional 27 billion dollars to the project through 1971, an amount equal to what Congress was told in 1956 the entire project would cost. This is in addition to the money states spent to build the highways.
Long Term Impact
The interstate network has been expanded over the years. In the 2000s, the Federal Highway Administration now spends $40 billion dollars maintaining around 160,000 miles of highway. These roads are around 2% of the U.S. paved roads but carry up to half of its traffic. Almost all long distance travel between the states and across the country is on these roads, barring rail traffic.
Another impact of the interstate network was a demographic shift. Those cities and towns along highways thrived, while those along smaller byways diminished. Suburbs began to spread along the highways first and foremost as the population came to rely on cars instead of public transit.
Trucks started to replace trains as a primary means of shipping goods. While trains remained cheaper on a per ton basis, highways permitted suppliers to load up a truck and send it directly to the customer instead of going through costly intermediary modes of transportation. Even today, the ubiquitous cargo container is designed to fit on the back of an 18 wheeler truck. The same cargo container fits on the back of a train or stacks up on a cargo container vessel, but is designed to snugly snap onto the back of a truck for transit at least part of the way on the interstate highway.