The history of the US interstate highway system

The history of the US interstate highway system

The US Interstate Highway System if often taken for granted. To many of us this expansive network of freeways covering over 48,440 miles and accounting for about one-quarter of all vehicle miles driven in the country might seem mundane. But the Interstate Highway System’s creation was in fact monumental. Certainly among the greatest American construction and civil engineering feats, unprecedented in both scale and rigor, it is a testament to the sheer collective and economic power of the United States, serving as its infrastructural bloodstream. This post is dedicated to marking its historical origins and importance, and is our tribute to the system that underpins our business including.

The United States government’s efforts to construct a national network of highways began on an ad hoc basis with the passage of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which provided $75 million over a five-year period for matching funds to the states for the construction and improvement of highways. Yet the nation’s expenditures associated with World War I, prevented any significant implementation of this policy, which expired in 1921.

In December 1918, E. J. Mehren, a civil engineer and the editor of Engineering News-Record, presented his “A Suggested National Highway Policy and Plan” during a gathering of the State Highway Officials and Highway Industries Association at the Congress Hotel in Chicago. In his plan, Mehren proposed a 50,000-mile system, consisting of five east–west routes and 10 north–south routes. The system would include two percent of all roads and would pass through every state at a cost of $25,000 per mile, providing commercial as well as military transport benefits.

Meanwhile, in 1919 the U.S. Army sent an expedition across the U.S. to determine the difficulties that military vehicles would have on a cross-country trip. Leaving from the Ellipse near the White House on July 7, the Motor Transport Corps convoy needed 62 days to drive 3,200 miles on the Lincoln Highway to the Presidio army base on San Francisco Bay. They experienced significant difficulties including rickety bridges, broken crankshafts, and engines clogged with desert sand.

Dwight Eisenhower, then a 28-year-old lieutenant, accompanied the trip “through darkest America with truck and tank,” as he later described it. Some roads in the West were a “succession of dust, ruts, pits, and holes” he noted. Eisenhower recalled that, “The old convoy had started me thinking about good two-lane highways… the wisdom of broader ribbons across our land.”

The Interstate Highway System gained a champion in President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was influenced by his experiences as a young Army officer crossing the country in the 1919 Motor Transport Corps convoy. Eisenhower also gained an appreciation of the Reichsautobahn system, the first national implementation of modern Germany’s Autobahn network, as a necessary component of a national defence system while he was serving as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. In 1954, Eisenhower appointed General Lucius D. Clay to head a committee charged with proposing an interstate highway system plan. Summing up motivations for the construction of such a system, Clay stated, 

“It was evident we needed better highways. We needed them for safety, to accommodate more automobiles. We needed them for defense purposes, if that should ever be necessary. And we needed them for the economy. Not just as a public works measure, but for future growth.”

His administration eventually developed a proposal for an interstate highway system, resulting in the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Unlike the earlier U.S. Highway System, the Interstates were designed to be an all-freeway system, with nationally unified standards for construction and signage. While some older freeways were adopted into the system, most of the routes were completely new construction, greatly expanding the freeway network in the U.S. Especially in densely populated urban areas, these new freeways were often controversial as their building necessitated the destruction of many older, well established neighbourhoods; as a result of the many freeway revolts during the 1960s and 1970s, several planned Interstates were abandoned or re-routed to avoid urban cores. 

Construction of the original Interstate Highway System was proclaimed complete in 1992, despite deviations from the original 1956 plan, and several stretches that did not fully conform with federal standards. The cost of construction of the Interstate Highway System amounted to approximately $114 billion (equivalent to $530 billion in 2019). The system has continued to expand and grow as additional federal funding has provided for new routes to be added, and the system continues to grow into the future.

Though much of their construction was funded by the federal government, Interstate Highways are owned by the state in which they were built. All Interstates must meet specific standards, such as having controlled access, avoiding at-grade intersections, and complying with federal traffic sign specifications. Interstate Highways use a numbering scheme in which primary Interstates are assigned one- or two-digit numbers, and shorter routes which branch off of longer ones are assigned three-digit numbers where the last two digits match the parent route. The Interstate Highway System is partially financed through the Highway Trust Fund, which itself is funded by a federal fuel tax. Though federal legislation initially banned the collection of tolls, some Interstate routes are toll roads, either because they were grandfathered into the system or because subsequent legislation has allowed for tolling of Interstates in some cases.

Today the US Interstate Highway System is estimated to daily handle over 25 percent of all traffic and more than 50 percent of truck traffic, which for the reference means over half of the 15.5 million trucks that operate in the U.S, transporting nearly $14 trillion in goods and products annually, and ensuring that our great nation continues to thrive. At Dellcy we are very proud of the US Interstate Highway System and certainly owe it all of our seamless car transportation success.