Fifties History          

The 1950ís Birth of the Interstate Highway System

by Guy Belleranti

When you take a long trip by car how much do you use the Interstate Highway? My guess is probably quite a bit. In fact, many of us use the interstate just to get around town.

However, prior to the latter 1950ís, road travel (especially cross-country) was much more limited. It was in this decade that President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized funding of the Interstate Highway system.

Influenced by both the German Autobahn and by his 1919 two month long experience of crossing the country as a young soldier on the historic Lincoln Highway, Eisenhower was all for improving the nationís highways. Momentum had been building for construction of transcontinental superhighways for years. In fact, Eisenhower and others had advocated for such a system as early as the 1930ís. While governmental highway acts were passed in the late 30ís, 40ís and early 50ís, getting the necessary funding was always the stopping point.

Then, came June 29, 1956. On this day the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 set things rolling. $25 billion was earmarked for the project, of which 90% would be the Federal Government share. Over 41,000 miles were planned, all with the following design standards:

a minimum of 2 lanes in each direction
a 12 foot width for each lane
right paved shoulders of 10 feet in width
design speeds of 50 to 70 mph

Now known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, or more commonly ďThe Interstate Highway SystemĒ, this was perhaps the largest public works project in history. It was designed with a dual purpose in mind:

1 - to support automobiles and large trucks

2 - as its name implies, to support military and civil defense operations, particularly troop movements.

While the initial cost estimate was $25 billion for building 41,012 miles of interstate over 12 years, both the costs and the necessary construction time climbed. By the early part of this, the 21st, century over 42,000 Interstate Highway miles had been completed at a cost of $129 billion. And new construction continues, but now on a much smaller scale.

An interesting aspect of the Interstate Highway System is the manner in which the various highways are named. Major routes have either one-digit or two-digit numbers. Auxiliary routes traveling around a city, meanwhile, have three-digit numbers.

All north-south major routes are given odd numbers. The odd number routes increase from west to east. Thus, I-5 runs along the west coast and I-95 runs on the east coast.

All east-west major routes have even numbers. The even numbered routes increase from south to north. Thus, I-10 is in the south and I-94 is in the north.

Today it is hard to imagine the lower 48 states not having an Interstate Highway System. While we can still drive many places via scenic and narrower undivided two lane roads, the interstate provides an additional, and usually quicker, option. Businesses use it for shipping goods and services, people drive it on vacations, and it has proved invaluable during natural disaster evacuations. Indeed, the Interstate Highway System has changed the face of American transportation.

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