As many of us plan our summer travels, we should note that this week marks the 60th anniversary of the Federal Highway Act signed by President Eisenhower in 1956, and which established the Interstate Highway System. As a general during World War II, Eisenhower was impressed by Germany’s autobahn system, and he decided that the United States needed something comparable. The Interstate Highway project was the largest public works project in American history. It took 35 years and it cost more than $100 billion–the first coast-to-coast interstate highway, I-80, was completed in 1986, running from New York City to San Francisco.
Below is an excerpt from Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating The Interstate System by Richard F. Weingroff, from an archived version of the Federal Highway Administration Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology’s Public Roads Magazine, Issue No: Vol. 60 No. 1, Date: Summer 1996.
His first realization of the value of good highways occurred in 1919, when he participated in the U.S. Army’s first transcontinental motor convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.
When Eisenhower and a friend heard about the convoy, they volunteered to go along as observers, “partly for a lark and partly to learn,” as he later recalled. On the way west, the convoy experienced all the woes known to motorists and then some – an endless series of mechanical difficulties; vehicles stuck in mud or sand; trucks and other equipment crashing through wooden bridges; roads as slippery as ice or dusty or the consistency of “gumbo”; extremes of weather from desert heat to Rocky Mountain freezing; and, for the soldiers, worst of all, speeches, speeches, and more speeches in every town along the way.
On Sept. 5, 1919, after 62 days on the road, the convoy reached San Francisco, where it was greeted with medals, a parade, and more speeches. During World War II, Gen. Eisenhower saw the advantages Germany enjoyed because of the autobahn network. He also noted the enhanced mobility of the Allies when they fought their way into Germany. These experiences shaped Eisenhower’s views on highways. “The old convoy,” he said, “had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.” In 1953, the first year of the Eisenhower administration, the president had little time for highways. He was preoccupied with bringing an end to the war in Korea and helping the country get through the economic disruption of the post-war period. However, 1954 was a year in which a new federal-aid highway act would be needed, and from the start, during the State of the Union Address on Jan. 7, Eisenhower made clear that he was ready to turn his attention to the nation’s highway problems. He considered it important to “protect the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system.” Having held extensive hearings in 1953, Congress was able to act quickly on the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954.
Again, however, Congress avoided radical departures that would alter the balance among competing interests. All the programs, including the interstate system, were funded at higher levels, so each of the interests was satisfied. The main controversy involved the apportionment of the funds. Heavily populated states and urban areas wanted population to be the main factor, while other states preferred land area and distance as factors.
The 1954 bill authorized $175 million for the interstate system, to be used on a 60-40 matching ratio. The formula represented a compromise: one-half based on population and one-half based on the federal-aid primary formula (one-third on roadway distance, one-third on land area, and one-third on population). During the signing ceremony at the White House on May 6, 1954, the president said, “This legislation is one effective forward step in meeting the accumulated needs.” But he knew it was not a big enough step, and he decided to do something about it. Eisenhower planned to address a conference of state governors in Bolton Landing on Lake George, N.Y., July 12, 1954. Because of the death of his sister-in-law, the president was unable to attend, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon delivered the message from detailed notes the president had prepared. Nixon told the governors that the increased funding authorized earlier that year was “a good start” but “a $50 billion highway program in 10 years is a goal toward which we can – and we should – look.” Such a program, over and above the regular federal-aid program, was needed because “… our highway network is inadequate locally, and obsolete as a national system.” The vice president read the president’s recollection of his 1919 convoy, then cited five “penalties” of the nation’s obsolete highway network: the annual death and injury toll, the waste of billions of dollars in detours and traffic jams, the clogging of the nation’s courts with highway-related suits, the inefficiency in the transportation of goods, and “the appalling inadequacies to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come.” What was needed, the president believed, was a grand plan for a properly articulated system of highways. The president wanted a self-liquidating method of financing that would avoid debt. He wanted a cooperative alliance between state and federal officials to accomplish the federal part of the grand plan. And he wanted the federal government to cooperate with the states to develop a modern state highway system
On March 19, the House Ways and Means Committee reported out a bill, developed by Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana, that contained the financing mechanism. The Highway Revenue Act of 1956 proposed to increase the gas tax from two to three cents per gallon and to impose a series of other highway user tax changes. Acting on a suggestion by Secretary of Treasury George Humphrey, Rep. Boggs included a provision that credited a revenue from highway user taxes to a Highway Trust Fund to be used for the highway program. The Committee on Public Works combined the Fallon and Boggs bills as Title I and Title II, respectively, of a single bill that was introduced on April 21. On April 27, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 passed the House by a vote of 388 to 19. The bill was sent to the Senate, which referred the two titles to different committees for consideration. The Public Works Committee removed the program portion of the House bill and substituted the Gore bill with some changes.
Two major changes were that, like the Fallon bill, the new version established a 13-year program for completing the interstate system and the 1956 version adopted the funding level and the 90-10 matching ratio approved by the House. A key difference with the House bill was the method of apportioning interstate funds; the Gore bill would apportion two-thirds of the funds based on population, one-sixth on land area, and one-sixth on roadway distance. Byrd’s Committee on Finance largely accepted the Boggs bill as the financing mechanism for the interstate system and the federal-aid highway program. Byrd responded to a concern expressed by the secretary of the treasury that funding levels might exceed revenue by inserting what has since become known as the Byrd Amendment. It provided that if the secretary of the treasury determines that the balance in the Highway Trust Fund will not be enough to meet required highway expenditures, the secretary of commerce is to reduce the apportionments to each of the states on a pro rata basis to eliminate this estimated deficiency. On May 28 and 29, the Senate debated the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 before approving it by a voice vote. The House and Senate versions now went to a House-Senate conference to resolve the differences. The conference was difficult as participants attempted to preserve as much of their own bill as possible. On June 25, the conferees completed their work. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that emerged from the House-Senate conference committee included features of the Gore and Fallon bills, as well as compromises on other provisions from both.