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FreightWaves Classics: Origins of the Interstate Highway System

Conceived in the 1930s; built primarily in the 1950s-60s

It is unlikely that highway planners of the 1930s-40s ever envisioned this complexity. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

President Eisenhower was a proponent of the interstate system as well as the legislation passed by Congress to fund the system’s construction. He signed the legislation into law on June 29, 1956. The U.S. interstate system was officially named the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways in 1990 and signed into law one day before the centennial celebration of Eisenhower’s birth. 

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

Pre-World War II

In the late 1930s, calls for construction of transcontinental superhighways were becoming more frequent. Nearing the end of his second term, President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed the idea of construction of a network of toll superhighways. However, his primary reason was to continue fighting the Great Depression; the construction projects would provide additional jobs for the unemployed. 

Roosevelt also proposed three east-west and three north-south routes. In the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938, Congress directed the chief of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to study the feasibility of Roosevelt’s six-route toll network. The BPR issued a two-part report – Toll Roads and Free Roads – as a result, which was based on statewide highway planning surveys and analysis.

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

In Part I of the report, the BPR made the point that transcontinental traffic volume was “insufficient to support a network of toll superhighways. Some routes could be self-supporting as toll roads, but most highways in a national toll network would not.” 

Part II was titled “A Master Plan for Free Highway Development.” In it, BPR recommended a non-toll interregional highway network of some 27,000 miles. The report also called for the interregional highways to follow existing roads wherever possible (which would utilize the investment in earlier stages of road improvement). More than two lanes of traffic were to be built where traffic exceeds 2,000 vehicles per day. 

In addition, the routes should be below current road level (preferred) or elevated in cities. Limited-access belt lines were conceived for by-pass traffic as well as to link radial expressways directed toward city centers. Inner beltways surrounding central business districts were conceived to link radial expressways 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 requirements of the national defense and the needs of a growing peacetime traffic of longer range.”


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

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

Even though the U.S. did not enter World War II until the end of 1941, the country was gearing up production (at first to sell war materiel to the Allies and then to use it against the Axis powers). Therefore, the timing was not opportune for a massive highway program. Nonetheless, President Roosevelt considered the future of post-war America. He worried that Depression-like financial and social hardships could recur if members of the military returned from the war and could not find employment. He believed a major highway program could help solve that potential problem. 

Planning during World War II

Therefore, on April 14, 1941, the president appointed a “National Interregional Highway Committee” to determine the need for a limited system of national highways. BPR head Thomas H. MacDonald chaired the committee. Herbert S. Fairbank of the BPR’s Information Division was the primary author of “Interregional Highways,” which was released on January 14, 1943. That report refined/expanded many of the concepts brought forward in the earlier Part II of Toll Roads and Free Roads. The new report recommended an interregional highway system of over 39,000 miles, which would be designed to handle traffic volume 20 years from its construction. 

MacDonald and Fairbank believed that urban freeways would help shape cities of the future. Therefore, it was important that the highway network be located to “promote a desirable urban development.” While that vision occurred at times, other interstate highways built during the 1950s and 1960s helped to hasten the decline of urban areas.

As the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 was being considered by Congress (with World War II still raging), highway interests were divided. In the end, major post-war changes to address highway needs could not be agreed upon. So the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 mainly maintained the status quo. However, Section 7 of the Act authorized the designation of a 40,000-mile “National System of Interstate Highways,” which would be selected by state highway departments:

An artist's conception of an interstate highway with at-grade crossings on a four-lane highway designed in conformity with the standards approved in 1945. 
(Image: Federal Highway Administration)
An artist’s conception of an interstate highway with at-grade crossings on a four-lane highway designed in conformity with the standards approved in 1945.
(Image: Federal Highway Administration)

“… so located as to connect by routes, as direct as practicable, the principal metropolitan areas, cities, and industrial centers, to serve the national defense, and to connect at suitable border points with routes of continental importance in the Dominion of Canada and the Republic of Mexico.”

However, although Section 7 of the 1944 Act authorized the interstate highway system, it did not give the system priority over other projects based on its national importance. It also did not authorize special funding or commit the federal government to construct the system.

The BPR had been renamed the Public Roads Administration (PRA). Its leadership sought to implement Section 7. It requested that states recommend routes that should be included in an interstate highway system. It also worked with state and local officials to develop plans for interstate highways in larger cities. PRA also worked with the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) to develop the system’s 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 for the system; rather uniformity was set where there were similar traffic, population density, topography, and other factors. Designs were to be based on traffic estimates 20 years after construction, and were to be adjusted to conditions. Most of the system was designed to have at least four lanes and full access control (where permitted by state law). But exceptions were allowed where low traffic volumes existed and were projected in the future. 

Post-war action (or inaction)

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

Members of the U.S. First Marine Division at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir (Photo:
Members of the U.S. First Marine Division at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir (Photo:

Another key to slow progress was the U.S. entry into the Korean War in July 1950. The federal highway focus turned again from civilian to military needs. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 specifically authorized the first funding for interstate construction, but it was only a token $25 million (with a 50-50 match required from the states). 

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

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was inaugurated as the nation’s 34th president in January 1953, only slightly more than 6,400 miles of highway improvements had been completed by the states. Moreover, the BPR (renamed yet again) estimated that only 24% of interstate roadway construction could handle existing traffic; let alone the traffic volume anticipated in 20 years.

Note: Material for this article came from a number of sources, including the Federal Highway Administration. There is a wealth of in-depth information about the IHS; if interested, delve deeper!

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.