FreightWaves Classics: Origins of the Interstate Highway System



President Eisenhower was a supporter of the interstate system as well as the legislation passed by Congress to fund the construction of the system. He enacted the legislation on June 29, 1956. The US interstate system was officially named the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate Highways and Defense in 1990 and was enacted a day before the celebration of the centenary of Eisenhower’s birth. .

However, the idea of ​​an interstate system arose long before Eisenhower took office.

Before WWII

At the end of the 1930s, calls for the construction of transcontinental highways multiplied. Towards the end of his second term, President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed the idea of ​​building a network of toll roads. However, its main reason was to continue fighting the Great Depression; construction projects would provide additional jobs to the unemployed.

Roosevelt also proposed three east-west routes and three north-south routes. In the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938, Congress asked the head of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to study the feasibility of Roosevelt’s six-lane toll network. As a result, the OPI released a two-part report – Toll Roads and Free Roads – based on statewide road planning surveys and analysis.

An old freeway in Newton, Massachusetts (circa 1935), showing access control.  (Photo: Federal Roads Administration)
An old freeway in Newton, Massachusetts (circa 1935), showing access control. (Photo: Federal Roads Administration)

In Part I of the report, the BPR pointed out that the volume of transcontinental traffic was “insufficient to support a network of toll motorways. Some roads might be self-sufficient as toll roads, but most of the highways in a national toll network would not. ”

The second part was entitled “A master plan for the development of free highways”. In it, BPR recommended an interregional toll-free motorway network of some 27,000 miles. The report also called for interregional highways to follow existing roads to the extent possible (which would use the investment in the early stages of road improvement). More than two traffic lanes were to be built where traffic exceeds 2,000 vehicles per day.

Additionally, routes should be below current (preferred) road level or elevated in cities. Limited access belt lines were designed for bypass traffic as well as to connect radial highways directed to city centers. The inner ring roads surrounding the central business districts were designed to connect the radial highways and to provide a route around the districts. President Roosevelt sent the report to Congress on April 27, 1939 and recommended action on:

“[A] special system of direct interregional highways, with all necessary connections through and around cities, designed to meet the demands of national defense and the needs of longer-range growing peacetime traffic.


Some of the president’s political opponents have opposed it as more of a “New Deal jitterbug economy”. However, the “highway lobby” generally appreciated the report. At the same time, some thought the plan should have looked more like the ‘Futurama’ exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Designer Norman Bel Geddes’ exhibit showcased the 1960s road network with 14-lane highways crisscrossing the country, with vehicles traveling at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. In addition, the vehicles were equipped with radio beams to regulate their spacing to ensure safety. In cities, traffic has shifted at multiple levels – the lowest level for service needs, such as entering parking lots, the highest for through traffic moving at speeds up to at 50 mph. Futurama’s “magic highways” were beyond the technological and financial resources of the late 1930s. However, they did help popularize the idea of ​​an interstate highway system in the minds of the public (and planners of the city). highways).

President Roosevelt (Photo: National Archives)
President Roosevelt (Photo: National Archives)

Even though the United States did not enter World War II until late 1941, the country was preparing its production (first to sell war materiel to the Allies and then to use it against the powers of the United States). ‘Axis). Therefore, the time was not right for a massive road program. Nonetheless, President Roosevelt envisioned the future of postwar America. He feared that financial and social hardships similar to depression would reoccur if the military returned from the war and could not find employment. He believed that a major highway program could help address this potential problem.

Planning during WWII

Therefore, on April 14, 1941, the President appointed a “National Interregional Roads Committee” to determine the need for a limited system of national roads. OPI Director Thomas H. MacDonald chaired the committee. Herbert S. Fairbank of the Information Division of the OPI was the principal author of “Interregional Highways”, which was published on January 14, 1943. This report refined / developed many of the concepts advanced in Part I of Highways. toll and free roads. . The new report recommended an interregional road network of over 39,000 miles, which would be designed to handle the volume of traffic 20 years after its construction.

MacDonald and Fairbank believed that urban freeways would help shape the cities of the future. It was therefore important for the motorway network to be localized to “promote desirable urban development”. While this vision did occur at times, other interstate highways built during the 1950s and 1960s helped accelerate the decline of urban areas.

As the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 was considered by Congress (with World War II still raging), highway interests were divided. Ultimately, major post-war changes to meet road needs could not be agreed upon. Thus, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 mainly maintained the status quo. However, section 7 of the law authorized the designation of a 40,000 mile “national interstate highway system“, which would be selected by state road services:

Artist's design of a highway with level crossings on a four-lane highway designed to standards approved in 1945. (Image: Federal Highway Administration)
Artist’s conception of a highway with level crossings on a four-lane highway designed to standards approved in 1945.
(Image: Federal Roads Administration)

“… located so as to connect by roads, as direct as possible, the main metropolitan areas, cities and industrial centers, to serve national defense, and to connect to appropriate border points with roads of continental importance in the Dominion of Canada and the Republic of Mexico.

However, although Section 7 of the 1944 law authorized the interstate highway system, it did not prioritize the system over other projects due to its national importance. It also did not authorize special funding or commit the federal government to building the system.

The BPR had been renamed the Roads Administration (PRA). His leadership sought to implement Article 7. He asked states to recommend routes that should be included in an interstate road network. He also worked with state and local authorities to develop plans for interstate highways in major cities. PRA also worked with the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) to develop the system design standards.

The standards were approved on August 1, 1945, just before the end of the war against Japan. However, the standards did not stipulate a uniform design of the system; rather, uniformity was established where there was traffic, population density, topography and other similar factors. Designs were to be based on traffic estimates 20 years after construction and had to be tailored to conditions. Most of the system has been designed to have at least four lanes and full access control (where state law permits). But exceptions were allowed where low volumes of traffic existed and were expected in the future.

Post-war action (or inaction)

On August 2, 1947, PRA announced the designation of the first over 38,000 miles of the interstate highway system. However, for various reasons, construction did not progress quickly. A number of states were unwilling to divert federal aid funds from existing needs (and many roads had not been repaired or improved during the war). Some very populous states have decided that federal funds are insufficient; therefore, they authorized the construction of toll roads along interstate corridors.

Members of the United States First Marine Division at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir (Photo:
Members of the United States First Marine Division at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir (Photo:

The entry of the United States into the Korean War in July 1950 was another key to slowing progress. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 specifically authorized the first funding for interstate construction, but it was only a token of $ 25 million (with a 50-50 match required of states).

Photo taken during President Eisenhower's inauguration in 1953. (Photo:
Photo taken during President Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953. (Photo:

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was inaugurated as the country’s 34th President in January 1953, only just over 6,400 miles of road improvements had been completed by the states. In addition, the BPR (renamed again) estimated that only 24% of interstate highway construction could handle existing traffic; not to mention the volume of traffic expected in 20 years.

Note: Materials in this article are taken from several sources, including the Federal Highway Administration. There is a wealth of detailed information on IHS; if you’re interested, dig deep!


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