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Highway History

What Comes After 1972?

With the end of the Interstate program in sight, Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton used the title of his annual address to the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) in October 1963 to put a simple question before State highway leaders: "What Comes After 1972?" That was the year the Interstate System was to be completed.

Whitton noted that AASHO, among others, had suggested Congress call for a needs study. The Bureau of Public Roads had established a National Highway Planning Division in the Office of Planning to consider such issues. The end of the Interstate Highway Program could, he said, "cause drastic dislocations in our economy." Although he expected calls for extension of the Interstate System, Whitton and others were thinking instead about an intermediate system:

Perhaps we need to assign part of the primary system to a new Federal-aid system, lying next to the Interstate in importance . . . . The concept of an intermediate Federal-aid system quickly raises the companion idea of an intermediate Federal cost sharing ratio, of perhaps two thirds or three-fourths.

Congress recognized the need for planning in Section 3 of Senate Joint Resolution 81 (Public Law 89-139, August 28, 1965), which called for biennial reporting on the Nation's highway needs.

The first National Highway Needs Report, submitted on January 31, 1968, questioned expansion of the Interstate System, which "is accomplishing a job that needed to be done at a particular stage in the development of the Nation's highways." The Federal Government should help the States build an intermediate, supplementary system of about 66,000 miles. It "seems unlikely" a divided freeway design could be justified for all routes on an intermediate system; two-lane roadways could be expected to serve travel needs adequately for the normal design period.

Congress rejected the recommendation. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968, approved August 23, 1968, authorized a 1,500-mile extension of the Interstate System, bringing the statutory length to 42,500 miles. On December 13, 1968, Secretary of Transportation Alan S. Boyd announced the routes added under the extension. He explained that Congress authorized the extension "to fill missing critical links which have developed since the system was first laid out in 1946." (He meant 1947, when the first 37,681 miles of the Interstate System were designated, mainly in rural areas with routes carried through urban areas.) As a result, the decision on the post-Interstate program could be postponed.

Although discussion of an intermediate Interstate network, sometimes called "Junior Interstates," would occur in later years, the issue did not receive serious consideration until approval of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987 (April 2, 1987). Because the legislation was perceived as authorizing the final Interstate Construction funds, the highway transportation community began a multi-year debate on the shape of the post-Interstate era. One of the first premises adopted by most parties to the debate: no more Interstates.

The "intermediate" Interstates, first suggested in the 1960s, became a focus of discussion because the concept included the roads of greatest national interest. The landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), approved December 18, 1991, established the post-Interstate Federal-aid highway and transit programs, adopted the idea as the National Highway System (NHS). The NHS includes the entire Interstate System, selected principal arterials serving national goals, high priority corridors identified by Congress, and other roads needed for national defense. (ISTEA also authorized additional Interstate Construction funds, through FY 2006.)

The post-Interstate structure put in place by ISTEA has remained the core of the Federal-aid highway program through two multi-year reauthorization bills, most recently the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, approved August 10, 2005. Although the NHS has not galvanized public interest as the Interstate System did, the new network remains the focus of highest Federal interest.

Updated: 10/15/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000