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Vast Interstate Highway System Marks Half a Century


Fifty years ago this Thursday, on June 29, 1956, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower signed a law that dramatically changed the future of America. It called for the creation of the Interstate Highway System -- a vast network of high-speed expressways, criss-crossing the nation. Later in 1956, the first spade of dirt was turned in rural Missouri. This interconnecting ribbon of concrete is now seen as a blessing by some -- and a curse by others.

President Eisenhower vigorously campaigned for a safe, fast, interlocking system of highways that would connect cities but be free of cross traffic and signal lights. In 1954, Vice President Richard Nixon read Eisenhower's proposal to Congress, because the president was away at a family funeral.

"Let us look at the highway net of the United States as it is," Nixon told Congress in 1954. "It is obsolete because in large part it just happened. It was governed in the beginning by terrain, existing Indian trails, cattle trails, and arbitrary section lines. It was designed largely for local movement in an age of transcontinental travel. Every year there's a wastage of billions of hours in detours, traffic jams, and so on, amounting to billions of dollars in productive time.

As a solution, President Eisenhower proposed a $50 billion highway program to be completed in just ten years. As it turned out, the final piece of the system as planned and funded -- an astounding tunnel and bridge project called The Big Dig in Boston -- opened in 2004 -- 50 years, not ten, after the Nixon speech.

Richard Weingroff, an informal historian at the Federal Highway Administation, says two experiences ignited Dwight Eisenhower's interest in superhighways. One, while he commanded the Allied push into Germany during World War II, was a close-up look at Adolf Hitler's super-fast Autobahn freeways. The other, 25 earlier, was a frustrating drive across the United States in an Army convoy.

"During this convoy tour, the participants experienced everything that was wrong with the nation's highways: dirt roads, mud roads," Mr. Weingroff says. "Some roads were so bad, they were called 'gumbo' because the tires would sink so far into the ground. Some vehicles blew off of cliffs. The bridges were too narrow, too weak. He saw how bad the roads were, and how vital they were to the nation's economy, to its defense."

President Eisenhower and supporters in Congress envisioned that the new interstate highway system could be funded largely by tax revenues from the sale of gasoline -- a kind of user-fee. But to Eisenhower's dismay, Congress in 1955 buckled under pressure from truckers, oil companies, and other highway interests. It defeated every bill to get the new interstate system up and running.

However, notes Richard Weingroff, "Over the winter, they began to realize that they had killed the goose that lays the golden egg -- that was going to benefit them greatly, even if gasoline taxes went up a little bit."

And so what many credit as history's most ambitious engineering project got underway. The final tab for 66,000 kilometers of divided, high-speed highways 50 years later: more than $130 billion.

Writer Dan McNichol, who has written several books about Boston's Big Dig, took a broader look at the Interstate Highway System in a book entitled The Roads That Built America. He notes that wide interstates are safer, straighter and more level than most conventional roads and have become a powerful economic engine.

"For all practical purposes, the warehouse of America today is a 36,000-kilo, eighteen-wheeler truck hauling materials along the interstate system," McNichol says. "After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, Federal Express, and the United Parcel System, the United States Postal Service unloaded their planes -- all of them grounded -- rushed their fleets of trucks to the airport, took the precious cargoes out of the bellies of the planes -- like blood and medicines -- and moved them along the interstate system. So for those two or three days after the attacks, we kept moving."

As it turned out, interstate highways, especially near cities, were not always smooth, free-flowing arteries. In the area surrounding Washington, traffic reports regularly mention heavy traffic that slows travel and accidents that jam up lanes.

Susan Tolbert, the curator of an exhibit called America on the Move at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington a couple of years ago, notes that interstate highways have many critics, especially in urban areas, where it was thought a superhighway would bring prosperity into town. Instead, she says, "It has cut through communities. You ride above the communities, or you have big sound barriers that cut you off. So you don't get a sense of what it's like, visually or dynamically."

Cities like New Orleans and San Francisco successfully fought plans to bulldoze historic neighborhoods for freeways. So did local activist Sammie Abbott in the Washington, D.C., area. He passed out signs reading, "White man's road through black man's home." The campaign halted Interstate 95 in its tracks in the heart of Washington.

Other observers say interstate highways spoiled the special regional flavor of places like rocky New England and saucy Louisiana and the dusty Old West.

Writer John Steinbeck wrote a scathing critique of his first drive on an interstate: "Instructions screamed at me from the road: 'Do not stop! Maintain speed.' Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind like the blow of a fist. These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. When we get these thruways across the whole country, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing!!!"

Loved or despised, ever-widening interstate highways have become a fixture across the American landscape. Congress has given states the authority to levy tolls on selected lanes of previously free interstates as a way to hurry impatient drivers past traffic bottlenecks and raise money for even more high-speed roads.

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