FreightWaves Classics is sponsored by Sutton Transport, an LTL leader in the Midwest for more than 40 years. Sutton Transport proudly services Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. Request a quote here.
On August 2, 1947 – about nine years before President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the legislation that formally established the nation’s Interstate Highway System, or IHS – the general locations of the first designated routes for the network of “super-highways” were announced.
This event occurred during the administration of President Harry S. Truman. Major General Philip B. Fleming, administrator of the Federal Works Agency (which included the Public Roads Administration), and Thomas H. MacDonald, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, made the announcement.
The planned 40,000-mile network had been stipulated in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944. Of course, the actual planning (and later the construction) had to wait until the end of World War II and Congressional funding. The first designated routes of what was called at the time the National System of Interstate Highways totaled 37,681 miles, including 2,882 miles of urban interstates. The remainder of the mileage was reserved for auxiliary urban routes.
A general plan for the nation
As outlined in the map above, which was prepared in advance of the announcement, the interstate system for the 48 contiguous states (Alaska and Hawaii were still territories) consisted of: “a crisscross of lines touching most of the larger cities in the eastern part of the country; and four trunk highways overlapped by four more in the west. The map confirmed the principal cities to be connected by those highways.” Following the announcement, the headline in the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette proclaimed “U.S. Super-Road Project to Link All Major Cities.” However, as can be seen on the map, it did not include any exact routes or even numbers for the network.
The various state highway departments had submitted the general locations for the proposed highways. The submissions took place after multiple conferences among state and federal transportation officials. The conferences were necessary to work out disagreements about alternate routes and connections at various state boundaries. In addition, the War Department (which became the Department of Defense on July 26, 1947) reviewed and approved the general layout.
In its assessment of the planned routes for the new network, Better Roads magazine asserted that, “This interstate system is utterly different from the astonishingly speculative projects of the superhighway planners of the 1930s. It is intended to be developed to standards suited to needs.” In addition, the magazine stated, “Without a whiff of motorway magic, designers of the interstate system may produce something pretty impressive in its own logical way.”
Planning for the Interstate System began in the late 1930s. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 charged the Bureau of Public Roads, or BPR (the predecessor of the Federal Highway Administration), “to study the feasibility of a toll-financed system of three east-west and three north-south superhighways.” According to the BPR report (Toll Roads and Free Roads), a toll network would not generate enough revenue to be self-supporting. Therefore, the report advocated for a 26,700-mile interregional highway network.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a National Interregional Highway Committee in 1941. The committee was led by MacDonald, and its mission was to evaluate the need for a national expressway system. The committee submitted its report to President Roosevelt in January 1944. Entitled “Interregional Highways,” it supported an interstate system of 33,900 miles, plus an additional 5,000 miles of auxiliary urban routes.
Designation of the Interstate System
Based on many of the report’s recommendations, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944. The act called for designation of a National System of Interstate Highways, to include up to 40,000 miles “… so located, as to connect by routes, direct as practical, the principal metropolitan areas, cities, and industrial centers, to serve the National Defense, and to connect at suitable points, routes of continental importance in the Dominion of Canada and the Republic of Mexico.”
All this led up to the August 2, 1947 announcement by MacDonald and Fleming. However, neither the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 nor later legislation in the 1940s authorized funds specifically for the IHS.
It wasn’t until the last year of the Truman administration that Congress authorized $25 million for the IHS on a 50-50 matching basis.The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 was the first legislation that appropriated federal funds specifically for interstate construction. As a result, progress on construction was slow.
It wasn’t until the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower that a president put his full political standing behind the IHS. With President Eisenhower’s public and private support, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed by Congress. That legislation appropriated a level of funding that allowed construction of the IHS to really begin.
In October 1990, President George Bush signed legislation that changed the name of the IHS to the “Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.” This change acknowledged President Eisenhower’s pivotal role in launching the program. The key elements that made up the interstate highway program – the system approach, the design concept, the federal commitment, and the financing mechanism – all occurred during his first term. According to biographer Stephen E. Ambrose, “Of all his domestic programs, Eisenhower’s favorite by far was the Interstate System.”
Eisenhower’s 1963 memoir, Mandate for Change 1953-1956, explained why: “More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America. … Its impact on the American economy – the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up – was beyond calculation.”
The Interstate Highway System has been described as “the greatest public works project in history.”
From the day President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the “IHS has been a part of the nation’s culture as construction projects, as transportation in our daily lives, and as an integral part of the American way of life.”
However, the population of the United States in 1956 was just over 164 million people. Today, the nation’s population stands at over 332.4 million – more than double the 1956 number. Interstate highways in the U.S. are crowded – particularly in and near major cities. Thirty years ago – in 1992 – the system was proclaimed complete. However, construction on the interstates continues unabated – there is always interstate highway construction taking place. Despite the many improvements and widening projects, the increased safety and the supplementary interstates that have been added, the system is burdened by too much traffic on its most critical areas.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the Federal Highway Administration, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, transportationhistory.org and other sites for information used in this article.