President Dwight D. Eisenhower came into office in 1953. Before this, he was a commanding general for the United States during World War II. He led his forces to victory in Europe. He is well known for lessening the tension of the Cold War. He also fought to end segregation of the armed forces. President Eisenhower is known for many things, but his success in highway construction is rarely noted. Because of President “Ike” Eisenhower, millions of Americans are able to travel on Interstate Highways. [1. Freidel, Frank and Sidey, Hugh. The Presidents of the United States of America, “Dwight D. Eisenhower”. The White House Historical Association, 2006. https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/dwightdeisenhower]
President Eisenhower was exposed to the importance of highways through his military career. In 1919, he was part of the first convoy across the United States. It began in Washington D.C. and ended in San Francisco. The journey took more than 60 days. Throughout the trip, Eisenhower saw icy, dusty, and muddy roads. He and the other travelers also dealt with broken bridges and poorly equipped vehicles. Through this convoy, Eisenhower realized how much of an affect poor roads can have on motorists.
This experience was contrasted by Eisenhower’s time in Germany in World War II. Germany was home to the ground-breaking Autobahn. The Autobahn is one of the reasons why Germany was able to fight on two fronts. It also gave the Allied Forces increased mobility in Europe. The Autobahn was striking enough to inspire the construction of a new American highway system. [1. Weingroff, Richard F. “Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate System”. Public Roads, http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/96summer/p96su10.cfm]
The German Autobahn began in Cologne on August 6, 1932. Mayor Konrad Adenauer started the project, but Hitler later claimed it as his own. The first section was finished in 1935, but construction continued until 1941. This was when wartime in Germany brought the project to a halt.
Even once construction ended, the Autobahn caused many problems. Germans didn’t own enough cars to justify the expensive project. Unlike America, home of Ford’s Model T, Germany didn’t have a cheap car model. Most Germans could not afford a car. Hitler tried to fix this by demanding the instruction of the Volkswagen, also known as the “People’s Car”. This brought even more problems to light. Hitler opened a plant to build these new, affordable cars. Only after did he realize that there were not enough workers to run it. This caused him to bring in more than 1,000 workers from Italy. This quick fix did not last long, though. The plant only made Volkswagens for a short time. Later on, Hitler forced the plant to start building military vehicles. Many Germans had purchased Volkswagens in advance and never took their cars home.
Although the public did not make use of the Autobahn, the military did. It was a key tool for the German forces of World War II. The German military technique, Blitzkrieg, required their forces to move quickly. The Autobahn was perfect for this. Even the Allied Forces used the Autobahn to travel when they were in Germany. Many historians think this is why President Eisenhower was so intent on building American Interstate Highways. [1. Weingroff, Richard. “The Reichsautobahnen”. US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, 2015. https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/reichs.cfm]
Eisenhower wanted a highway system as effective as the Autobahn without the financial stress the Autobahn caused. As a result, once the Korean War ended, he devoted his resources to the highways. President Truman had designed a plan to build the highways, but it still needed work. Congress debated over whether the plan should give more funding to states with larger populations or to states with more space. Eisenhower had to research to find a plan that resolved this issue and many others. His first attempt at a revised Federal Aid Highway Act was passed in 1954. [1. Ibid.]
This bill gave $175 million to highway construction. This was the first step in the largest public works project ever taken on by the United States. The money would be spent on a 60-40 spending ratio. This means that the federal government would pay for only 60% of the costs. The remaining funds would have to come from state and local governments. The money given to each state was determined mostly in relation to the population of the state. The funding also took into account the size of the state and the length of the road, but did not consider these as greatly.
The funding plan proposed by the 1954 bill caused outcry from state governments. Large states wanted their size to grant them more funding. Smaller states disagreed and liked the idea of population based funding. Some states thought the federal government had no business building highways. They believed that it was the states’ responsibility to provide highways for their citizens.
To increase approval of the Interstate Highway System, President Eisenhower organized an assembly of state governors. He planned to address them on July 12th, 1954. Due to the death of a family member, though, he had to send Vice President Richard Nixon in his place. Nixon used Eisenhower’s notes to deliver a riveting speech. He explained the necessity of the Interstate Highway system by pointing out the cost of traffic jams. He also proposed a new bill giving $50 billion to highway development over the next ten years. Nixon closed the assembly by asking for the governors’ cooperation.
After the assembly, Eisenhower created the President’s Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program. This committee is commonly called the “Clay Committee” because it was run by the retired US General, Lucius D. Clay. This committee was created to plan a way to fund the new highways. The system they proposed required state governments to fund a large portion of the highways. The rest would be paid for by a Federal Highway Corporation, which would raise revenue by issuing bonds. The bonds would be covered by raising the tax on gasoline. This meant that the government would accrue lots of interest on the bonds they issued as time went on. As a result, the highways would be more expensive than was necessary.
The plan did not pass in the Senate. Instead, Senator Al Gore issued his own plan. This plan allocated $10 billion towards the construction of the highways through the fiscal year of 1951. It also suggested that the federal government fund more of the construction than the Clay Committee’s bill did. However, because finance bills must begin in the House of Representatives, Gore did not suggest any way to raise the revenue he needed.
As a result, Rep. George Fallon created another bill. This bill suggested that the federal government pay for even more of the highway construction. The revenue would come from raising the Highway User Tax. His bill did not pass at first, and congress adjourned soon after.
Then, in Eisenhower’s State of the Union Address, he highlighted the importance of completing the Interstate Highway System. Afterwards, Congress attacked the funding problem with renewed vitality. Eventually, they settled on a revised version of Fallon’s bill. This became the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. [Ibid.]
Going from mud paths to paved roads was just the first step. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was the final stepping stone bridging the gap between isolation and mobility for US Citizens. This bill apportioned $25 billion, to be used from 1967-1969, solely to construction of the Interstate Highway System. In this plan, the federal government paid for 90% of the highway construction. The revenue needed to pay for this project would come from raising the gas tax and highway user tax. States received funding on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. The states that required more money to build the highways would receive it. All of this work required performance and payment bonds under the Miller Act of 1932 or the various state’s “baby Miller Acts”.
Between this plan for funding and the passing of the Marshall Act in 1935, the highways were ready to be built without financial disaster. The Marshall Act required contractors to post surety bonds when working on public projects. The surety bonds ensure that the contractors complete the jobs as they are contractually obliged to. By requiring the surety bond, the Marshall Act protected the US government from possible liability. Surety bonds are still required for most construction jobs today. Because of this extra protection, the Interstate Highways could safely be built without the problems faced by Germany after the construction of the Autobahn. [3. “Interstate System”, Federal Highway Administration, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/interstate.cfm]
Less than a year after the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the first portion of the highway was opened. It took more than a decade for construction of the whole system to be completed.
The American economy grew dependent on cars and trucks. Businesses began to use trucks for the transportation of goods more often. This resulted in the highways becoming more and more important.
Before the highways, the US had been experiencing massive traffic jams nationwide. Additionally, the courts were full of traffic related lawsuits. The highway system ended many of these problems and provided thousands of jobs. Because of this, some believe it is the reason the United States did not face a post-war recession.
At first, the new highways did cause some problems. Previous routes were surrounded by roadside businesses. Whole towns prospered off of providing for weary travelers. Family-owned diners and gas stations survived due to their proximity to the heavily traveled roads. Sadly, the new Interstate Highways prohibited roadside businesses. They were designed for fast travel more than leisurely road trips. As a result, many of these small roadside businesses withered away. Their owners often had to move to more populous cities to find work. In the end, when these businesses disappeared, they often took entire towns with them.
The land close to highway entrances and exits became highly sought after. This led to it becoming expensive real estate. Only highly profitable businesses could afford to open up close to the highways. Mega-malls and gas stations owned by large oil companies grew more and more common.
Additionally, the birth of the highway made commutes much more realistic. Because Americans no longer had to live where they worked, suburbs began to grow. Areas of land that were previously dedicated to agriculture became rich urban centers.
As a result of President Eisenhower’s hard work, the American Interstate Highway System was born. Since its creation, it has revolutionized the American physical and social landscapes. [1. The Landscape Change Program. “History and Social Impact of the American Highway System”, 2011, The University of Vermont.]