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The Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways

Cloverleafs across America

Sometime next year, crews in a giant tunnel under downtown Boston will paint stripes on a 10-lane roadway — a finishing touch for two mammoth projects. One is the Big Dig, a controversial and costly effort to replace downtown Boston's elevated freeways with a complex of tunnels. The other, 47 years in the making, is so familiar that the paving of its last few miles could pass unnoticed: the interstate highway system. The world's largest public-works project has left us with 47,000 miles of remarkably uniform roads that have reshaped the American landscape and way of life. They have encouraged mobility, spawned new suburbs and commercial corridors, and consummated our romance with the automobile.

They've also left a legacy of divided cities, environmental damage, and ever worsening traffic jams. In tying together a far-flung America, the interstates spurred bitter controversy that the system's designers didn't anticipate and struggled to understand when it erupted. "These guys were a bunch of civil engineers," says Tom Lewis, a historian and author of Divided Highways. "Suddenly, an act of Congress turned them into social engineers with tremendous power."

No single man wielded more power than Frank Turner, a quiet, unassuming technocrat who guided most of the design and construction of the interstates as the nation's chief roads engineer. Many travelers know to thank President Dwight D. Eisenhower, so impressed with the efficiency of Germany's autobahns, for giving life to the interstates with a 1956 law to fund them. It was Turner and a small group of engineers, nameless except to one another, who decided where to lay the concrete, directing a $130 billion project with remarkably little graft or political meddling.

The Interstate Highway System

President Eisenhower's big brainstorm of the 50's, knits our far-flung nation together. The even-numbered roads take you east-to-west, and odd-numbered ones head north and south. The Eisenhower interstate system requires that one mile in every five must be straight. These straight sections are usable as airstrips in times of war or other emergencies.

The federal government paid 90 percent of the cost, but it was the states that actually planned and built the interstates under Turner's watchful eye. He didn't persuade with charisma. "His speeches were pretty bad — an engineer's tome," says Kevin Heanue, a manager at Turner's agency. Instead, he collaborated with small groups of state officials — a tight community of white men who decided matters with handshakes, sometimes after Christian prayers.

Such was the case with Interstate 395, a mass of concrete running southwest from Washington, D.C. It was planned around 1960 after the Virginia highway commissioner proposed widening a smaller highway to eight lanes. Turner simply said, "I think that's a good idea," according to an account published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials. "And right there, in a matter of minutes, we made a very major — and correct — decision," Turner later recalled.

Safety and efficiency were the guiding principles, says Frank Griggs, a transportation engineer who also worked on the New York State Thruway. "The engineers were trained in getting people from point A to point B in the cheapest, fastest, and safest manner." Cheap often meant through wetlands, only later recognized as valuable, or through slums, bulldozed before residents could organize. "We didn't realize that poor people might not want to move — even if we thought it was for their own good," Griggs says.

Condemnation notices descended on dozens of American inner cities. By the 1970s a "freeway revolt" had broken out. Activists in Washington, D.C., famously used the slogan "White men's roads through black men's homes" to stop several proposed highways. Similar campaigns succeeded in New Orleans, Boston, and San Francisco. And it wasn't always hardscrabble neighborhoods that rose up. In Memphis, Interstate 40 would have thrust through Midtown, a picturesque enclave of older homes. Activists stopped the road in a fight that wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Where urban freeways did proceed, they sliced cities into isolated sections, and their on and off ramps created traffic jams on side streets, says transportation expert Jonathan Gifford at George Mason University. At the same time, the roads gave Americans more freedom about where to live and work. Suburbs spread into once rural landscapes, and "edge cities" of offices and stores clustered around these new rivers of concrete, while the decline of cities accelerated.

By 1969, Turner had risen from chief engineer to federal highways administrator, and more projects began allowing for environmental and social concerns, for example by elevating highways over swamps or trenching them in cities to lessen noise. But Turner always defended highways, saying of traffic and sprawling suburbs: "If this was the choice of the American people, what is wrong with that?"

By the time he retired in 1972, most of the battles were over. He died in 1999 at 90, with only a few of the original miles authorized by Congress not built. Turner may not have anticipated the effects of his interstates, but the system he left behind looks astonishingly like the original plan. Says coworker Heanue: "Turner wasn't flashy, but he was incredibly persistent."

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System, a convoy of vehicles will travel from San Francisco, CA, to Washington, D.C., from June 16 to June 29, over the old Lincoln Highway (now Interstate 80), which the first military transcontinental motor convoy, including a young lieutenant colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower, followed in 1919. Ike, an observer for the Army Tank Corps, never forgot the 3,250-mi. trip, which took 62 days at a bumpy speed of 6 mph, often splashed mud on the 81 cars and trucks where the highway was unpaved, was plagued by breakdowns, and included crossing bridgeless rivers. He later described it as a journey "through the darkest America with truck and tank."

The purpose of the cross-country expedition was to dramatize the needs for roads, and it worked. Ike later became a forceful advocate of the Interstate Highway System, which he said would "change the face of America." Roadbuilding became his primary domestic agenda, and he was a prime mover behind the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created, and funded, the safe, uniform, straight, "pay as you go" nationwide interstate system, which he said the country urgently needed.

When Eisenhower took office in 1953, 47 percent of the nation's highways were still unpaved. His "Grand Plan" would evacuate city residents much faster if they were attacked by nuclear bombs, and would greatly speed up commercial, military and private travel. "He was the individual who had the most to do with getting the law passed, and what motivated him was this horrible trip he had endured earlier in his life," said Jennifer Gavin, a spokesperson of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) in Washington, D.C., which is sponsoring the reenactment. AASHTO, founded in 1914, represents the state transportation departments that built, own, and continue to operate the interstate system. The President also remembered his experience during World War II, when "Red Ball Express" Army vehicles moved at lightning speed on Germany's Autobahn highway system.

Ike signed the bill on June 29, 1956, his last day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center following emergency intestinal surgery on June 7. He issued no statement, but was said to be "highly pleased." Thus began a nationwide project that has been called the greatest public works project in U.S. history. Standardizing an often haphazard system of highways connecting states, the Interstate Highway Act also has been praised as "doing more to bring Americans together than any other law of the past century."

Things really got rolling after Eisenhower signed the bill. On Aug. 2, 1956, Missouri became the first state to award a contract - for work on U.S. Route 66 - with the new interstate construction funding. A few weeks later, Kansas used the new funding to award a contract for concrete paving of a two-lane section of U.S. 40. As work on the initial system entered its final phases, President George Bush renamed the nationwide network of highways and bridges "The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways" in 1990.

The 50th anniversary observance comes as the formal program initiated under the 1956 act, now consisting of the 46,837-mi. interstate system, is ended this year with completion of the I-93 portion of the "Big Dig" in Boston, MA. Including 62 highways, 54,663 bridges, and 104 tunnels, the system used enough concrete to build a wall 9 ft. thick and 50 ft. high around the equator. The interstates, however, continue to be a work in progress, with new corridors being considered and advanced automated technologies being perfected to make them safer and more efficient.

Ike's convoy included cargo and shop trucks, two Cadillac touring cars, six Dodge touring cars, two White (brand) reconnaissance cars, gasoline and water tankers, motorcycles and (Ike's special interest) a military tank carried on top of a truck. Ike's job as a trainer in the Tank Corps in Gettysburg, PA, was to observe maneuvers of the tank during the trip. At least one car on the journey was owned by the Lincoln Highway Association. The military convoy left the "zero milestone" on the Ellipse just south of the White House on July 7, 1919. Traveling through 11 states, it set a record pace (at that time) of 58 mi. a day at approximately 6 mph. The vehicles arrived at San Francisco on Sept. 5, 1919.

The reenactment will retrace, in reverse, the 1919 trip, taking, of course, much less time. It will leave Lincoln Park in San Francisco on Friday, June 16, and arrive at the original zero milestone on Thursday, June 29, the actual anniversary of Eisenhower signing the interstate highway bill. A media event will take place near the milestone. "Right now we're shooting for 20 vehicles, including 10 really big ones like trucks, buses and recreational vehicles," said Gavin. "We will also have perhaps 10, or a few more, smaller vehicles like antique or newer cars. Probably half the vehicles will go all the way from coast to coast. The other half will go shorter distances, ceding their places to people who want to ride along in their states. These might, for instance, represent a state Department of Transportation."

The convoy will pass through California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland before reaching the capital. Every state on the route has been invited to join in the convoy, and, along the way, AASHTO anticipates participation from RV clubs, antique automobile associations, state and local officials, plus many others to make the reenactment a people-oriented event. Other national organizations also have been invited to enlist their members to join in.

Bob Lee, chairman of Country Coach Corp. will be prominent in the convoy because he will be driving a luxurious, customized recreational vehicle. Other vehicles may be sponsored by private organizations. AASHTO's Communications Department in Washington, D.C., and the association's public relations steering committee began discussing the original idea for the reenactment approximately a year ago. "We sat down and thought about how we could remind people of the historical importance of this anniversary, the fun of it, and its big imprint on history," Gavin said. "We want people to be happy about the interstate system, feel good about it, and also think about its future. This was our answer."

AASHTO pitched the idea to state departments of transportation, who were all for it. States along the route are planning their own celebrations as well. The Iowa Department of Transportation, for instance, has released an anniversary CD, "On the Road with Ike," produced by rock and roll legends, Jerry Martin and The Sounds. This group also will perform in a live concert at the convoy stop at the Living History Farms in Urbandale, IA, this June.

The association is partnering with the Interstate 50 Council and the council's publisher, Faircount, on a new publication, "Interstate 50: Celebrating 50 years of the Interstate Highway System." Authored by Tom Kuennen, former editor of Roads and Bridges Magazine, and scheduled for release this June, it will feature interstate projects currently under construction, the history of the system, and technologies, which will expand the capacity and increase the safety of the nation's most-traveled highways.

A half century after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed his name on June 29, 1956, to the bill creating the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and two decades after completion of all but the last few miles, America's answer to the Romans' Appian Way has altered the pace -- and the face -- of the nation. Interstate highways nurtured the growth of big-city suburbs at the expense of established business districts. They helped shift the population from North to South and from East to West. They redefined the vacation, the business trip and the trek to college by making it easy to drive hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. They gave a familiar cast to faraway places by breathing life and money into new chains of motels, restaurants, gas stations and stores.

And by knitting together the nation's far-flung cities with more than 46,000 miles of controlled-access pavement, interstates brought lifeblood to America. They energized everything from the auto industry to the service sector, from retail business to tourism and from home construction to fast food. There's a price for progress. Suburbanites' use of personal cars replaced mass transit and walking to work. America is still balancing the ledger by assessing the decay of downtowns, the cost of pollution, fossil fuel consumption and our growing waistline.

Still, few would want to return to a life before interstates. A century ago, urban areas claimed the only hard-surfaced roads, and pavement ended at the edge of town. The first coast-to-coast auto trip, in 1903, took 63 days, much of it spent traversing rocky passes and trackless rangeland in the Midwest. "Wholly unclassable, almost impassable, scarcely jackassable," read a notable complaint about those first American roads. Winter snowmelt and spring rain regularly turned the upper Midwest's deep topsoil, and thus its dirt roads, into gooey gumbo. When it rained, you were stuck. . . your wagons, your feet, you just stayed in your house until it dried. That could be two or three weeks a month," recalled Thomas MacDonald's daughter, Margaret Oberlin. MacDonald, as chief of the Federal Bureau of Public Roads, did the most to begin paving and connecting the national arteries in the early 20th century.

Multistate, hard-surfaced roads began in 1916 with the Lincoln Highway, which followed much the same route as today's Interstate 80. As automobiles improved and the network of roads expanded in the 1920s and '30s, travelers still struggled. Routes lacked multiple lanes and typically veered into congested city centers or plunged into thickets of stoplights and intersections.

Long-distance drivers caught a break when the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first state-run toll superhighway, opened in 1940. Travelers enjoyed 160 miles of smooth, reinforced concrete with two lanes in each direction. Drivers' willingness to pay a small fee in return for use of the turnpike encouraged other states, mostly in the Northeast, to create their own. But a series of toll roads among a handful of states was a far cry from a national web of pavement to all major cities in all regions. By agreeing to create the Interstate Highway System, the federal government committed to building the equivalent of hundreds of Pennsylvania Turnpikes to a uniform code of construction. States picked the routes, supplied 10 percent of the money and agreed to maintain the highways. In turn, the federal government provided the grand plan and the remaining funding.

The Bureau of Public Roads set strict rules for the interstates. Perhaps most significantly, the pavement had to be entirely free of intersections. Instead of fighting stoplights and cross traffic, motorists would exit and enter at controlled points of access. The interstate's new kind of driving experience initially mystified Americans. In Denver, motorists hesitated to use the new I-25 because they had no experience merging and yielding at high speed. In Nebraska, a writer who identified herself as a "farm wife" told the readers of the North Platte Telegraph-Bulletin of the wonders of the new I-80 in the early 1960s. She marveled at the lack of dust and clutter, as well as the ease of driving on a divided, controlled-access highway.

Smooth, unhindered travel from city to city drew more traffic, and the experience of changing lanes and checking signs at high speed became almost automatic. Drivers growing accustomed to steady conditions began talking of travel in terms of time instead of distance. A trip along the interstate into the big city became "90 minutes" instead of so many miles. That held true, of course, unless traffic became so thick the interstates designed to hasten travel became magnets for congestion in their own right.

As the interstate system entered middle age, drivers approached it with mixed feelings. It nurtured confidence but little romance. Before the interstates appeared, songwriters penned odes to the highway. Bobby Troup wrote (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 while traveling along the celebrated old road to the California coast. The pop-rock group America sang about Ventura Highway, and Bob Dylan immortalized Minnesota's Highway 61. But the sameness of the Interstate Highway System, where one interchange looked pretty much like another, inspired few poets. Rocker John Mellencamp's reference to "an interstate runnin' through his front yard" in his hit song Pink Houses may rank as the most memorable bit of superhighway pop culture.

Americans today acknowledge the interstate not so much for what it is, but for what it can do for them -- or to them. "For a few miles I suffered the tyranny of the freeway and watched rear bumpers and mud flaps," wrote William Least Heat-Moon in his book Blue Highways about seeing America via country roads. Author John Steinbeck derided the screaming signs, heavy traffic and high speed of the nascent superhighways during the journeys that became his book Travels With Charley. "When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a thing."

Ulrich Boser. The Third Reich's Concrete Legacy. U.S. News & World Report. June 30, 2003.
David Lagesse. The road warrior. U.S. News & World Report. June 30, 2003.
Pete Sigmund. U.S. Interstate System Turns 50 Years Old. Construction Equipment Guide. Publication Date: 3/31/2006.
Michael S. Sweeney is associate professor and head of the Department of Journalism and Communication at Utah State University. Fifty Years In The Fast Lane. Home & Away Magazine. May/June 2006.


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