The Interstate Highway System

Rocking across the Texas component of I-10 at 80 miles per hour dodging wind generatoreisenhower_highway_marker_thumb replacement blades and hundreds of semis set sailing across lanes by serious, mesa driven crosswinds turned my mind to the Interstate Highway System today. It is one of the legacies of the Cold War (1947-1991) that isn’t. Although President George H. W. Bush’s signature on October 15th, 1990 signed the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways bill into law, Eisenhower was just scratching an itch that several presidents before him had felt. Rather than a serious strategic push, the 46,876 mile-long Interstate system was recognition of the need to connect the country for future growth and a public works project that employed thousands of military personnel returning from World War II.

George Washington, Land Surveyor

George Washington, Land Surveyor

Many young people, like my grandsons, just assume that the highway system has always been here, it’s always been easy to get from here to there and have never questioned why. The scoop is that the need for proper roads has been recognized from the country’s beginnings.  In 1785, George Washington, a land surveyor and out first president said, “The credit, the saving, and convenience of this country all require that our great roads leading from one public place to another should be straightened and established by law . . . To me these things seem indispensably necessary.”[1]  Post roads were included as part of the federal government’s responsibilities in the U.S. Constitution;  Article I, Section 8, Clause 7.

President Roosevelt knew that the soldiers would need jobs after WWII and his experienceimages with the road construction he spearheaded as Governor of New York certainly contributed to his interest in the early studies of the Interstate System as a possible employment vehicle.  In 1944, Roosevelt signed the law to select an Interstate System. Truman, upon his assumption of presidential responsibility, agreed with Roosevelt on the need for an interstate system. Truman had once led the National Old Trails Road Association[2] that promoted a road across the country on famous roads of the past.  Once he became a Jackson County, Missouri official, Truman built a network of concrete roads. The problem was babies. Many, many babies were born after the WWII so most of the construction industry focused on building houses for the rapidly growing families. Road construction would wait for the Eisenhower administration.

How An Army Convoy Crossed America In 56 Days To Prove We Needed Better Roads

How An Army Convoy Crossed America In 56 Days To Prove We Needed Better Roads

Eisenhower was itching to get into the battlefield in WWI but was consigned to a career busting training job. He taught soldiers how to use tanks, a new weapon no one was certain had any application. Eisenhower was considering resigning because he thought his career was over. After all, he had not been able to check the WWI ‘in-theater’ box for promotion and, in most circumstances, that means that career planning in the private sector was in order. U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Motor Transport Train[3], a plan was to send a convoy of 80 or so trucks and other military vehicles across the country.

The plan served two purposes. First, it would determine whether or not WWI vehicles couldmoore-1919-01 stand such a challenge, and secondly, it would serve as a good public relations and recruiting opportunity before the existence of a convenient mass media.  The convoy took the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco, California.  Eisenhower went along to tend the tank and was one of the public speakers on that road trip and he talked a good deal about the importance of good roads. Sixty-two days after leaving Washington, the convoy arrived in San Francisco.

Parade of Truck Train Convoy in San Francisco

Parade of Truck Train Convoy in San Francisco

By the time they arrived on the west coast, they had all learned many important lessons about roads. The Lincoln highway was famous but each day scouts marked the routes so the convoy wouldn’t get lost. Most of the route was dirt road. They were alternately dusty and muddy. Convoy vehicles got stuck in sand, were blown off cliffs and slipped into ditches. Not particularly fun. Most bridges couldn’t handle the weight of the military vehicles so…along the way, they strengthened and built bridges or forded rivers if the water level was low enough. The dirt road took their toll in flat tires, broken axels and blown motors. The local mechanics were more familiar with horse drawn wagons than mechanical monsters; there was a steep learning curve. At the end of the day, the military still had to speak to their public and listen to speeches in turn. The same trip today is about five days.

Eisenhower did not resign and by 1930 he was mapping the roads of France for military

German “autobahn” network of four-lane superhighways.

German “autobahn” network of four-lane superhighways.

value.  He was impressed with the German “autobahn” network of four-lane superhighways.

By 1956, Eisenhower was President and fighting hard for the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 to update the 1952 Act and make it self-funding so it would not contribute to the National deficit. The 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act:

        • Increased the System’s proposed length to 41,000 miles,
        • Called for nationwide standards for design of the System,
        • Authorized an accelerated program,
        • Established a new method for apportioning funds among the States,
        • changed the name to the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and
        • Set the Federal Government’s share of project cost at 90 percent.

Title II of the Act created the Highway Trust Fund. Revenue from the Federal gas and other motor-vehicle user taxes is credited to the Highway Trust Fund to pay the Federal share of Interstate and all other Federal-aid highway projects-“pay-as-you-go”.

There is a large and widespread mythology associated with the Interstate system. Mythologies are fun and the stories are good but they are not true. According to the Interstate mythology:

  1. It is not true that Eisenhower conceived the Interstate System but he was in the right place at the right time to make it a reality.
  2. It is not true that Eisenhower supported the Interstate System to evacuate cities in the event of a nuclear war.
  3. It is not true that defense was the primary reason for the Interstate System, although they certainly help military logistics.
  4. It is not true that the Interstate System was launched by the Interstate Defense Highway Act of 1956; there has never been such an act.
  5. It is not true that one in five miles of the Interstate System is straight so airplanes can land.
  6. It is not true that beltways are designed to carry Interstate traffic around cities. They actually are connectors to other Interstate highways.

The construction of the Interstate System employed and continues to employ thousands of skilled people. It is not only a legacy of the Cold War (1947-1991); it is a legacy of The United States at her best. The Interstate Systems are the ribbons that tie the continental United States together in a package that has made the logistics of life and living easier for several generations.  It was not a make work project, although work was there for the taking. It was a public works project that actually meant something.


[1] James Pinkerton; The Federal Government & Transportation Infrastructure Building a Stronger America

[3] Richard F. Weingroff ; The Man Who Changed America, Part I;

3 thoughts on “The Interstate Highway System

  1. One of the ‘benefits’ that I have rarely seen discussed about the American Autobahn was that bridges over the interstate needed to be of a certain height as to allow the free passage of military convoys. Until the interstate system was built, many bridge heights necessitated time consuming detours, especially for tank transports. While the interstate system was not specifically designed for military/defense, it was a major part of the design criteria, as was the german autobahn.

    • Hi Gus,
      Thanks for your comment and the opportunity to include some additional information about the ‘defense’ component of the Interstate highway system. On 4/15/09 U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration updated the vertical Vertical Clearance requirements with a memo confirming the need to coordinate with the DoD. “The FHWA vertical clearance policy and coordination procedure are incorporated into the Federal-Aid Policy Guide, Non-regulatory Supplement, 23 CFR 625, paragraph 7. Briefly, all exceptions to the 4.9-meter vertical clearance standard for the rural Interstate and the single routing in urban areas are to be coordinated with the Military Traffic Management Command, Transportation Engineering Agency (MTMCTEA). The purpose of this memorandum is to remind all offices that the above policy and coordination requirements remain in effect.”

      The military considers the Interstate system to be the Strategic Highway Network (STRAHNET). It has defined its purpose and function as follows:

      “The two most important functions of Highway Systems are to:
      Identify the minimum public highway infrastructure that DOD needs to fulfill its mission; then integrate these public highway needs into civil policies, plans, and programs.
      Ensure the defense readiness capability of public highway infrastructure and establish policy on how DOD uses the public highway system.

      We work with the Military Services, MACOM’s, military installations, ports, US Department of Transportation, US Federal Highway Administration, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), State transportation departments, and Congress to accomplish these goals.
      We have identified DOD’s public highway needs in the Strategic Highway Network (STRAHNET) and STRAHNET Connector Routes.

      In addition, we also establish policy and provide guidance on how the DOD uses the public highway system. We assist the military in highway movement problems, work to ensure highway safety, and help guarantee the highways’ readiness condition for deployment.”

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