U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
202-366-4000


Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration

Highway History

The Greatest Decade 1956-1966

Celebrating the 50TH Anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate System

Part 1 Essential to the National Interest

by Richard F. Weingroff

The Greatest Public Works Project in History produced the greatest decade in the history of highways. And problems to match.

It was August 2, 1956. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 just 1 month earlier on June 29. In Jefferson City, Missouri, S. W. O'Brien picked up the telephone and called the headquarters of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) in Washington. As District Engineer for the BPR's Missouri office, O'Brien had watched as the Missouri State Highway Commission awarded a $1.1 million contract to Koss Construction Company of Des Moines, Iowa, shortly after 10 am to lay 13.3 miles of 24-foot concrete pavement on U.S. 66 in Laclede County.

O'Brien's call to headquarters confirmed what everybody in the room believed: The project on what would become part of I-44 was the first contract awarded under the new program to build the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

After awarding two projects on U.S. 40/the Mark Twain Expressway (future I-70), bringing the total Interstate contracting to over $5 million, the commission documented the historic moment in photographs. Behind the commission stood Chief Engineer Rex Whitton, who had helped get the program through Congress, had stockpiled projects so Missouri would be the first in the Nation to get underway, and would one day help save the program from those who would kill it.

The Interstate program was underway.

The Interstate Idea

The Interstate System was born in two reports to Congress, Toll Roads and Free Roads (1939) and Interregional Highways (1944). They recommended construction of what the 1939 report called a "system of direct interregional highways, with all necessary connections through and around cities, designed to meet the requirements of the national defense in time of war and the needs of a growing peacetime traffic of longer range."

Congress agreed. Section 7 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 directed designation of a 40,000-mile National System of Interstate Highways by joint action of the State highway agencies, subject to approval of the Administrator of the Federal Works Agency, which housed the Public Roads Administration (PRA), as the BPR was then called. On August 2, 1947, Major General Philip B. Fleming, the Federal Works Administrator, and Commissioner of Public Roads Thomas H. MacDonald announced designation of 37,681 miles of principal highways, including 2,882 miles of urban thoroughfares carrying the main line through cities.

The remaining 2,319 miles of the authorized 40,000 miles had been reserved for circumferential and distributing routes. This process was completed in September 1955, when the agency, renamed the BPR in 1949, released General Location of National System of Interstate Highways Including All Additional Routes at Urban Areas (known as "The Yellow Book" because of the color of its cover). It contained maps showing the location of the urban Interstates.

What was missing was a program to pay for and build the Interstate System.

Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who took office on January 20, 1953, understood the value of roads. In 1919, he had participated in the U.S. Army's first transcontinental convoy of military vehicles, a 2-month journey from Washington to San Francisco that convinced all participants of the country's need for better roads. During and after World War II, he used Germany's Reichautobahnen network of rural superhighways, built mostly under Adolph Hitler and studied and envied by American engineers during the pre-war 1930s. Eisenhower would say, "The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land."

On July 12, 1954, he laid the challenge before the Nation's Governors, who were meeting at Bolton Landing along Lake George in New York. When a death in the family prevented Eisenhower from attending, Vice President Richard M. Nixon took his place in asking the Governors to help the President devise a grand plan for a properly articulated system of highways. Each level of government would upgrade its roads to overcome the "appalling inadequacies" of the Nation's highway network, with the Federal focus on the National System of Interstate Highways.

President Eisenhower asked his friend and advisor, General Lucius D. Clay (U.S. Army, retired), to head a committee to develop a Federal response to the challenge. Based on estimates prepared by the BPR for the 37,681 miles designated in 1947, the Clay Committee believed the 40,000-mile Interstate System would cost $27 billion, with $23 billion of that amount for the rural segments. Although the President favored a self-financing toll network, the committee proposed creation of a Federal Highway Corporation to issue $25 billion in bonds to pay 90 percent of construction costs. The existing 2-cents a gallon Federal gas tax, which went to the general Treasury without linkage to highway expenditures, would be dedicated to retiring the bonds over 30 years.

On February 22, 1955, President Eisenhower submitted the Clay Committee's report to Congress along with legislative proposals. "Our unity as a nation," he said, depended on "individual and commercial movement over a vast system of interconnected highways crisscrossing the country and joining at our national borders with friendly neighbors to the north and south."

The Clay plan was a flop. Even the President's Republican allies in Congress gave only token support to the plan, which tied up the gas tax for 30 years to repay the bonds, including $12 billion in interest. As Congress searched for an alternative financing plan in 1955, the highway-related interests that supported the Interstate System agreed on only one thing-they didn't want to pay for it. Why, they wanted to know, should highway users pay for a highway network that would benefit the entire country, not just motorists?

Legislation failed in 1955 because of the financing issue, but over the winter, supporters realized they would have to compromise to get the highways they wanted. With tax compromises in place, the final bill moved through Congress with little controversy in 1956. It combined features from a bill drafted by Senator Al Gore, Sr. (D-Tn.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads and approved by the Senate in 1955 without a financing provision; a bill drafted by Representative George H. Fallon (D-Md.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads; and a financing mechanism drafted by Representative Hale Boggs (D-La.) of the House Ways and Means Committee. At the suggestion of Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey, Boggs used the Social Security Trust Fund as a model for the Highway Trust Fund. Revenue from taxes on highway user products would be credited to the Highway Trust Fund for use exclusively on the Interstate System and other Federal-aid highway and bridge projects.

On June 26, the Senate approved the bill 89 to 1, with Senator Russell Long (D-La.) voting against it because he opposed a provision increasing the gas tax to 3 cents. The House approved the bill on a voice vote.

Having fought for this bill, President Eisenhower would be denied a signing ceremony. He was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center following emergency surgery for an intestinal ailment. June 29, his last full day in the hospital, the President was given a stack of bills, including the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, to sign. Without fanfare, a photograph, or a statement, he signed the legislation and was, according to Press Secretary James C. Hagerty, "highly pleased."

The key phrase was in Section 108:

It is hereby declared to be essential to the national interest to provide for the early completion of the "National System of Interstate Highways", as authorized and designated in accordance with section 7 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944.

The section also changed the name of the Interstate System to reflect its importance to national defense: "The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways."

The legislation expanded the Interstate System by 1,000 miles to 41,000 miles and authorized $25 billion to be made available in fiscal years 1957 through 1969 for its construction to accommodate traffic demand in 1975. The Federal share of costs would be 90 percent.

For the first 3 fiscal years, Interstate construction (IC) funds would be apportioned based on the formula used for the Federal-aid primary category (mileage, area, and population). After that, IC funds would be apportioned based on a factor computed from the ratio of the cost of completing the System in each State compared with the cost in all States. This factor would be based on an Interstate Cost Estimate (ICE) to be prepared by the BPR, in cooperation with the State highway agencies, every other year. This method was designed to ensure the States completed their parts of the Interstate System at roughly the same time.

Immediately after President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 on

June 29, 1956, the Department of Commerce apportioned $1,125,000,000 in FY 1957 IC funds to the States. On August 1, a second IC apportionment was made, this one for FY 1958.

(For a more detailed account of the origins of the Interstate System, see the Summer 1996 issue of Public Roads at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/96summer/.)

The Firsts

As it happened, the Laclede County project on U.S. 66 was not the first to go to construction under the 1956 Act. That honor went to the work on the Mark Twain Expressway in St. Charles County. The project included 2.6 miles of bridging, grading, and two 24-foot wide portland cement concrete pavements from Cole Creek to the new Missouri River bridge and a half-mile of grading and 48-foot wide pavement on the Fifth Street connection to the Expressway.

Cameron Joyce and Company of Keokuk, Iowa, which won the contract with a bid of $1,866,015, began construction on August 13. The Missouri State Highway Commission placed a sign on the project declaring it to be the first project on which "actual construction" was begun under the 1956 Act. The Missouri River bridge, the State's largest divided four-lane bridge to that date, would be completed with ceremonies on August 16, 1958.

On August 31, 1956, the Kansas State Highway Commission awarded a contract for concrete paving of a two-lane section of U.S. 40 (future I-70) a few miles west of Topeka between Valencia and Maple Hill Roads, a distance of about 8 miles. Construction had begun before enactment of the 1956 Act, but under the new contract, paving began on September 26 with the new IC funds. A brief ceremony took place because this would be the first paving under the Interstate program. Joined by officials of the BPR and the contractor (Koss Construction Company of Pauline, Kansas), First District State Highway Commissioner Ivan Wassberg wrote "9-26-56" in the fresh concrete.

Governor Fred Hall and Senator Frank Carlson (R-Ks.) joined State officials and representatives of the construction company for a ribbon cutting ceremony on November 14, 1956. A sign was posted proclaiming this project to be the first completed under 1956 Act. The two lanes would carry traffic in both directions until an additional two lanes were built on the other side of a wide median to allow separation of opposing traffic.

Off to a Flying Start

On July 17, AASHO and the BPR agreed on design standards for the Interstate System. Access would be controlled on all segments, with cross roads generally carried over or under the routes. In sparsely settled rural areas where traffic volumes were low, intersections at grade would be permitted in some cases. No at-grade railroad-highway grade crossings would be permitted. Nearly all of the System would consist of divided highways with four or more 12-foot lanes. In flat country where drivers can see great distances, two-lane highways would be permitted if 1975 traffic was not expected to exceed 5,000 vehicles. The roadway would be built to one side of the right-of-way so an additional pavement for a divided highway could be constructed when needed. The highways would be designed for speeds of 50 mph in mountain terrain, 60 mph in rolling terrain, and 70 mph in flat terrain. Bridges and overpasses would be built without overhead obstructions, but all structures would allow at least 14 feet of vertical clearance over the roadways and shoulders.

President Eisenhower announced on August 16 that he was "gratified to observe the initial speed with which this important program is developing." Interstate projects exceeding $800 million had been programmed, with the States authorized to advertise for bids on Interstate projects totaling over $36 million. He was hopeful that the States would continue "to move swiftly" in advancing projects that would "help alleviate the great deficiencies in our highway systems" and to convert the IC funds "into usable roads at the earliest possible time."

To maintain this pace, he believed the BPR would need a leader who would have the prestige of presidential appointment and Senate confirmation as he worked with State highway leaders appointed by Governors. With the support of Senator Gore, Senator Prescott Bush (R-Ct.), and others, the Administration's proposal for a position of Federal Highway Administrator became law on August 3. The Administrator would be a top advisor on highway policy and take charge of the Interstate program, while the Commissioner of Public Roads, Charles D. "Cap" Curtiss, would oversee day-to-day operations of the BPR and its other programs.

President Eisenhower's choice was Bertram D. Tallamy, the 56-year old son and grandson of general contractors. A graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he became Deputy Superintendent of Public Works for New York in January 1945, Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department in July 1947, and Superintendent of Public Works on October 1, 1948, a position he retained until December 31, 1954. He was given much of the credit for creation of the New York State Thruway, which had opened in 1954, and was chairman of the three-member authority created to build it.

Because Tallamy would be unable to sever his New York connections until February 1957, the President appointed John A. Volpe to serve as interim Administrator. Like Tallamy, Volpe was widely known and respected within the highway community. The son of Italian immigrants, he started the Volpe Construction Company with an initial capital of $300 and built it into a multi-million dollar contractor. In 1953, Volpe became Massachusetts' Commissioner of Public Works, a position he left in October 1956 to return to private life. He agreed to the White House's request that he delay doing so to serve as interim Administrator.

On October 22, Volpe became the first Federal Highway Administrator (although not confirmed by the Senate). At the White House ceremony, President Eisenhower said he wanted to make certain that the highway program got off to a "flying start." He held the Bible while Frank K. Sanderson, White House Administrative Officer, administered the oath of office to Volpe, the only Administrator whose swearing in was attended by a President. Volpe assured the President that he would do everything he could to get the program moving, consistent with ensuring that all funds are wisely spent.

Volpe, who would serve until February 1957, coordinated important decisions with Tallamy. In that brief time, Volpe reorganized the BPR and delegated authority to field offices to improve efficiency in handling the increased workload. The States, he reported to the President on February 1, were moving forward aggressively. Only five States had not obligated any of their FY 1957 IC funds; he had visited two of them, Nebraska and West Virginia, to confer with the Governors. In submitting his resignation, Volpe said, "My 100 days in Washington have been exciting, challenging, busy, action-packed, and, I trust, productive."

On February 5, 1957, Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks administered the oath of office to Bertram D. Tallamy, who had been unanimously confirmed by the Senate. He would retain that position through the Eisenhower Administration. Tallamy said that the 1956 Act had given the highway community "the greatest challenge that has ever been given to any peace-time public works agency." It was bigger, he said, "than the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Panama Canal, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Egyptian Pyramids and a lot of other big projects . . . all rolled into one." Despite the scale of what they were undertaking, he said, they had only 13 to 16 years to complete the job.

On August 21, 1957, Tallamy and Secretary Weeks announced incorporation of 2,102 miles of turnpikes into the Interstate System. One of the controversial issues facing Congress in 1956 had been demands for compensation from States that had built turnpikes in designated Interstate corridors. The 1956 Act resolved the dispute by allowing BPR to incorporate turnpikes into the Interstate System rather than build parallel toll-free Interstates.

Two months later, on October 18, 1957, Secretary Weeks announced the designation of 2,102 miles of new toll-free routes. The 1956 Act had authorized 1,000 miles of this amount, while the remainder had been freed by identification of more direct routes for the mileage designated in 1947 and 1955.

The numbers were applied to the Interstate highways in September 1957. AASHO and BPR adapted the U.S. numbering plan for the Interstate System, but in mirror image. Where the lowest odd-numbered north-south U.S. route was on the East Coast (U.S. 1), the lowest odd-numbered Interstate route would be on the West Coast (I-5). Similarly, the lowest U.S. numbered east-west route ran along the Canadian border (U.S. 2) while the lowest numbered transcontinental Interstate route was in the south (I-10). Within that pattern, the numbers were applied to the Interstate System. Another adaptation was that no Interstate number could duplicate a U.S. number in the same State. (The three-digit numbering plan for urban loops and spurs was approved in late 1958.)

The red, white, and blue Interstate shield was unveiled at the same time. The States had submitted designs that the AASHO Route Numbering Subcommittee narrowed to the four best. They were posted along a paved county road in Illinois at a time when the State highway administrators were meeting nearby and could drive by the installation in daylight, at night, and in sunshine and rain. The chosen design was a combination of designs submitted by Missouri and Texas.

As the first year ended, BPR General Counsel Clifford W. Enfield had said: "Perhaps the greatest advancement to be enjoyed by Americans during the 20th century may not come about because of nuclear energy, startling medical advances, or interplanetary communications, but by enactment of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956." Enfield added, "This legislation calls for environmental changes for the United States on a scale so staggering as to dwarf any prior peacetime endeavors of mankind."

Enfield called it "America's New Design for Living."

Pivotal Year: 1957

The highway engineers who launched the Interstate program may, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking they would be part of one of the most popular programs in American history. With the automobile long-since a key part of the American way of life, traffic volumes increasing every year, congestion in cities a problem that sapped urban energy, and growing concern about highway safety, support for the Interstate System was widespread and bipartisan.

In fact, during the debates in Congress in 1955 and 1956, there had been no opposition to the Interstate System. Even municipal, transit, and railroad interests that would later question its value expressed support for the program, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm. City officials were eager for the new highways that would relieve congestion and restore economic vitality to central business districts. Transit in the 1950's was provided mainly by private interests that asked Congress only to exempt them from the gas tax, a request the 1956 honored. The railroads were the least enthusiastic, but confined themselves to seeking higher taxes on their competitors in the trucking industry rather than trying to block a program they knew was too popular to stop.

As the first fiscal year of the Interstate program ended in June 1957, Tallamy reported that based on engineering and economic studies, the BPR had approved 80 percent of the locations within the original 40,000-mile limits. These designations dispelled the widely shared view that the Interstate highway would involve upgrading of the existing U.S. numbered highway in the corridor. Less than one-quarter of the Interstate System, Tallamy reported, would be located on the traveled way of existing highways. Further, the State highway agencies completed improvements on 737 miles of the Interstate System at a total cost of $173.3 million (Federal share: $117.8 million). The BPR added that planning and construction were "going on at a furious pace throughout the nation."

Tallamy acknowledged that problems had been encountered. For example, he noted that engineers and steel were in short supply, but added, "I see nothing in the foreseeable future that poses a real threat to the program."

The feeling of triumph that State highway officials and the BPR felt was short-lived. Throughout 1957, highway engineers would be buffeted by surprises, even shocks.

One of the problems was a requirement in the 1956 Act that the States hold public hearings if a Federal-aid highway project involved bypassing or going through a city, town, or village and consider the economic effects of the location. Based on early experience, AASHO Executive Secretary A. E. "Alf" Johnson warned highway officials at the Mississippi Valley Conference in March 1957 that the hearings required "the finest in public relations" and must present "factual data and logical reasons." If a hearing resulted in a change in project location, "the public and political reaction can be so powerful as to effectively block a subsequent location and placing the project under construction." This eventuality "should be avoided if possible."

Right-of-way acquisition was another concern because so much of the Interstate System would be built on new locations. State highway agencies had rarely needed to acquire land or to do so by eminent domain. The States would need new legislation, standards, appraisers-and they needed them quickly. In that regard, the first problems arose in Indiana, where speculators were buying land in the Interstate corridors to resell to the State at "preposterous profits," as The Washington Post and Times Herald put it. In response to the early warning signs, Tallamy established a Project Examination Division to audit and spot check BPR and State operations in construction, engineering, right-of-way acquisition, and other aspects of the program.

Perhaps the greatest shock of 1957 involved the urban Interstates, which-contrary to the $27 billion estimate-would take about half the Interstate funds. From the earliest description of the Interstate System, in Toll Roads and Free Roads, the goal was to use the new highways to invigorate blighted urban areas, reverse suburbanization, and restore city tax bases by revitalizing residential areas and business districts. To achieve these goals, the BPR had used sampling techniques developed with the Bureau of the Census to conduct extensive urban origin-and-destination surveys and worked with State and local officials before designating the urban Interstates in 1955. The BPR urged the States to concentrate on projects in urban areas because that was where the need for traffic relief was the greatest.

Given the lofty goals, the highway builders were happy to attend a conference in Hartford, Connecticut, titled: The New Highways: Challenge to the Metropolitan Region. The Connecticut General Life Insurance Company sponsored the conference on September 9-11, 1957.

The final speaker on the opening evening was Tallamy, who addressed the conference immediately after Albert M. Cole, Administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency. Tallamy told conferees that "we have the chance of a century to make our cities sparkle brightly among our Nation's brilliant collection of really wonderful cities." The Interstate System was "probably the greatest single tool" in reversing urban problems because "if we provide the required transportation arteries the picture becomes very bright." Sound planning by State highway officials and public and private agencies of the urban areas was "extremely important," but he cautioned against "wholly impractical planning schemes" that could become "road blocks to actual construction progress."

The urban Interstates would require "great vision and horse sense, determination, and courage." He recognized, however, that as soon as "a fine new highway project" is developed, "there will develop forces opposed to it." He was confident that those who criticized the program the most at the start would "probably be pushing the real supporters of the program in the background at the finish so they can cut the ribbons and take the credit they do not deserve."

Cole had agreed with Tallamy's view of highways because improving the life of urban dwellers could not be separated from the difficulties of moving people and goods. Without coordination, he said, "we will be hell-bent for Slovia, Lower as well as Upper."

Many speakers did not share Tallamy's and Cole's confidence. The final speaker on September 11, the nationally known author and social scientist Lewis Mumford, was one of the skeptics. He said, "we have good reason to be anxious" since it was obvious "that neither of these administrators had the slightest notion of what they were doing." If they did, they "would not appear as blithe and cocky" as they had. He didn't blame them. They were "men undoubtedly of high character and great ability in their own narrow line of thinking and of acting."

The real blame fell on Congress, which had approved the 1956 Act based on a study of highways, "not a study of the real problems." It had been "jammed through Congress so blithely and lightly" because of America's preference for anything that gave "added attraction to the second mistress that exists in every household right alongside the wife - the motor car." If we applied our intelligence "to the purposes of life instead of applying them merely to the means of life," Mumford concluded, "we will put the motor car in its place. We will cast off the mistress and live with our own wives instead."

The conference made national news, painting the highway experts as the "bad guys" in the dispute. The consensus among critics was that the urban Interstates should be suspended until comprehensive land use plans could be drawn so the Interstates could be relocated in accordance with the plans.

The initial reaction of State highway officials to these sentiments is reflected in a speech by AASHO president William A. Bugge, Director of the Washington State Department of Highways, to the Southeastern Association of State Highway Officials. He rejected the suggestion that the State highway officials needed "some expert assistance from outsiders." If an urban area had not engaged in planning as to land use development "it is doubtful that time can be afforded in an urban area to develop such plans." The idea of a 2-year moratorium for urban Interstates, as some had called for, "is a bit ridiculous" because the "economic penalties for delaying already vitally needed facilities for another two years would be tremendous." He conceded that the highways could be helped by "constructive planners" but not by "some others that dwell in the realm of untried theories."

Tallamy, addressing AASHO's annual meeting on November 18, 1957, was equally unrepentant. "We are not getting credit" for planning that Federal and State officials were doing "and doing properly." Urban planning was necessary to develop an idea of what metropolitan areas would look like in 1975 to predict traffic flows. If a city didn't have such plans, the highway engineer would have to go through the steps the city should have gone through to develop a master plan for transportation. It was the only sound approach to ensure "these wonderful highways which you are developing will actually stimulate metropolitan development as it should be stimulated."

Despite the warning signs, the highway community had much to celebrate as 1957 ended. The States had broken the record in dollars invested in all highway development-nearly $4.6 billion. Through December 1, over $1 billion in Federal and State funds had been committed to Interstate projects. Interstate projects totaling $247 million had been completed.

Funding Problems

Secretary Weeks released the first Interstate Cost Estimate (ICE) in January 1958. It covered 38,548 miles of the Interstate System (excluding the toll and non-toll mileage added in 1957) with an estimated cost of $37.6 billion (Federal share: $33.9 billion). However, the Secretary did not see a need for additional authorizations. As techniques for estimating costs were refined, he said, future estimates would more accurately reflect trends "either upward or downward." Until then, an increase in funding "would be premature." (In June 1959, the BPR incorporated the 1957 mileage into the estimate, bringing the total to $41 billion, with a Federal share of $37 billion.)

The Secretary's cautious request to wait for experience was soon confronted by economic reality. In August 1957, the country had slipped into a recession that would increase unemployment by 7 percent and reduce corporate profits by 25 percent by April 1958. One of the reasons the President had promoted the Interstate System was just such a situation-that he would have a public works program that could be expanded or contracted to control the economy.

To stimulate the economy and avoid losing momentum, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958. It increased Interstate funding by a total of $800 million for FYs 1959-1961 and included an emergency increase of $400 million for the Federal-aid systems (primary, secondary, and urban) in FY 1959. The Federal share of projects developed with the emergency funds would be increased to 66.6 percent (instead of 50 percent), with an additional $115 million authorized to advance to States that needed help matching the Federal share, to be repaid from future apportionments.

Because these increases occurred without a change in taxation to boost revenue, the 1958 Act also suspended the provision of the 1956 Act that required the Commerce Secretary to hold apportionments to an amount that would not result in a deficit in the Highway Trust Fund. Known as the "Byrd Amendment," it had been added to the 1956 Act by Senator Harry Flood Byrd (D-Va.), Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a long-time budget cutter, enemy of debt, and opponent of deficits.

With "serious misgivings," President Eisenhower approved the legislation on April 16. 1958, just as the recession was ending. He had favored accelerating the program to spur employment during the recession. However, he objected to the increased Federal share for the Federal-aid system projects, fearing that it might lead to attempts to continue "this departure from a sound arrangement" of 50-50 sharing. He also feared that helping States pay their matching share might prove to be an unwise precedent. He hoped these problems would be corrected in legislation that would be needed in 1959.

By the end of 1958, projects had been completed that brought 4,831 miles substantially up to standards or at least to conditions adequate for current traffic. At the same time, expenditures exceeded Highway Trust Fund receipts. Additional income would be needed to avoid reduced apportionments in FY 1961 under the restored Byrd Amendment. The looming crisis led many in the highway community to fear what the American Road Builders Association described (ARBA) as "a complete collapse of work on the Interstate system."

Critics attributed the ICE cost increase and funding imbalance to "gold-plating," especially in urban areas. They created the term "90-itis" to describe the attitude of State highway officials who, critics charged, had no reason to be economical because the Federal Government was picking up 90 percent of the cost. As Representative John A. Blatnik (D-Mn.) of the House Committee on Public Works would say, "Congressman after Congressman got up on the floor of the House and made wild speeches, frightening speeches . . . saying we had a shortage of funds because the States were playing fancy-free and foot-loose with the taxpayers' dollars."

To maintain the construction schedule, President Eisenhower recommended a temporary 1½-cent increase in the gas tax, but the Federal-Aid Highway of 1959 added only a penny, making the gas tax 4 cents a gallon. The legislation, which the President approved on September 21, also reduced FY 1961 Interstate authorizations to $2 billion but because of the Byrd Amendment, the BPR could apportion only $1.8 billion. BPR also instituted "reimbursement planning" to track reimbursements on a quarterly basis to avoid a shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.

While signing the 1959 Act, President Eisenhower disclosed that he had asked a member of his staff, Major General John Bragdon (U.S. Army, retired), to study the Interstate program. In a letter dated July 2, 1959, the President asked Bragdon to reexamine policies, methods and standards to ascertain their effectiveness in achieving national objectives; delineate Federal responsibility, versus State and local responsibility, in financing, planning, and supervising the highway program; and determine way of improving coordination between planning for Federal-aid highways and State-local planning, especially urban planning.

In another move to address the growing concerns, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (D-Tx.) appointed Representative Blatnik on September 4, 1959, to head a Special Subcommittee on the Federal-Aid Highway Program to investigate the allegations of corruption in the program. The subcommittee began by investigating allegations in Oklahoma of double billing, improper wage practices, loose handling of public borrow pits, waste in material flow, falsification of test samples, and gross laxity of duty by State employees.

The Urban Problem

The highway community that had been shocked by the intensity of objections to the Interstate System during the Hartford Conference tried to regain its footing by holding a conference at the Sagamore Center of Syracuse University on October 5-9, 1958. The Joint Committee on Highways of the American Municipal Association-AASHO, which had been formed in early 1957, and the Committee on Urban Research of the Highway Research Board joined the university in what sponsors billed as the first National Conference on Highways and Urban Development. Funded by the Automotive Safety Foundation, the Sagamore Conference featured highway officials and elected officials, primarily Mayors, who supported the goal of making the Interstate System work for the orderly and proper development of urban communities. The critics who had dominated the news in Hartford weren't invited.

The conference findings reflected the makeup of participants. The "fine relationship" between the BPR and the State highway agencies was acknowledged, as was the State highway agencies' "prime legal responsibility" for completing the Interstate System "within the prescribed time." The State highway agencies should work with local officials to plan urban highway construction. A tentative program covering a 5-year period should be developed in accordance with a jointly agreed-upon long-range plan. Local governments should consult with State highway officials on a comprehensive plan for community development and a transportation plan covering public transit and land-use controls. Regional planning should be initiated for metropolitan areas. All agencies should support presentation "of all facts relating to the plans" to the public.

The goal was a "grand accounting" in which the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative for highway users and the community were to be "added up and evaluated, in comparison with the total cost entailed." As E. H. "Ted" Holmes, BPR's Assistant Commissioner for Research at the time, would recall many years later, "Probably no one present, however, had any notion of the difficulty of measuring the community costs and benefits."

The Urban Revolt Begins

If the highway community left the Sagamore Conference with renewed optimism, it soon had a reminder of how difficult a challenge they faced in urban areas.

Several cities were experiencing resistance to Interstates, particularly from those whose homes or businesses would be acquired to make room for the right-of-way. In San Francisco, the opposition focused on the Embarcadero Freeway (I-480) that was to link the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (I-80) with the Golden Gate Bridge (U.S. 101). City officials had proposed the freeway in 1943 as a way of using a needed transportation artery to revitalize a blighted area in the vicinity of the Ferry Building and a former farmer's market. To accomplish these purposes, State highway officials used a double-deck design that they considered "an ultramodern highway facility." After the initial section opened in February 1959, it came to symbolize what the San Francisco Chronicle called "a crime which cannot be prettied up."

On January 27, 1959, the Board of Supervisors of the city and county of San Francisco held a meeting to discuss the proposed Western Freeway (I-80) through the Sunset District. With over 160 freeway opponents cheering, the board adopted a resolution opposing construction of all freeways in the San Francisco Master Plan, including the remainder of the Embarcadero Freeway and the Junipero Serra and the Park-Presidio Freeways (both part of I-280). The resolution cited "the demolition of homes, the destruction of residential areas, the forced uprooting and relocation of individuals, families and business enterprises" as well as the loss of property from the tax rolls.

San Francisco was not the first city to raise concerns about freeways. But after San Francisco, there was no turning back.

The concerns about the impact of the Interstate System on urban areas would be summarized in the April 14, 1960, issue of The Reporter magazine. "New Roads and Urban Chaos" was written by Daniel P. Moynihan, a professor who had served on the staff of New York Governor Averill Harriman from 1955 until the Governor lost his reelection bid in 1958. Moynihan began by quoting The Wall Street Journal's description of the Interstate program as "A vast program thrown together, imperfectly conceived and grossly mismanaged, and in due course becoming a veritable playground for extravagance, waste and corruption." He quoted Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Mn), who summarized the program by saying, "You'll be able to drive eighty miles an hour along superhighways from one polluted stream to another, from one urban slum to another, from one rundown college campus to another."

Moynihan's real concern was the impact on urban areas. He acknowledged that the earliest vision of the Interstate System, dating to the 1939 report Toll Roads and Free Roads, was to use the highways to implement a "radical revision of the city plan." However, doing so without considering other forms of transportation "seemed lunatic" to Moynihan. He lamented the absence of planning to conform highway plans to metropolitan land-use plans in the context of general economic and social objectives. No such plans existed in 1956.

Moynihan referred to "an increasing awareness" by metropolitan officials that "to do nothing more than build bigger highways only produced bigger traffic jams." Mass transit was urgently needed "if only to make automobile transportation feasible." Moynihan declared that, "The crisis has come. In one metropolis after another the plans have been thrown together and the bulldozers set to work." At this late stage, metropolitan planning would be difficult, especially given the shortage of planners. Still, he said, "Almost any effort to think a bit about what we are doing would help." He advocated funding flexibility because he was convinced that city officials would use at least 50 percent of the Interstate funding for mass transit and commuter facilities if they could.

He was sure the pending congressional investigations would turn up thieving, mischief, and blunder ("if not," he said, "it will be necessary to investigate the investigators"), but hoped for a more serious reappraisal in the next Administration. "We may yet impart some sanity and public purpose to this vast enterprise." He added in closing, "Roads can make or break a nation."

As President Eisenhower Leaves Office

The Eisenhower Administration ended on January 20, 1961. By then, 10,440 miles or 25 percent of the 41,000-mile Interstate System had been opened to traffic. This total included 2,264 miles of turnpikes, 3,041 miles that were adequate for present traffic but needed additional work to meet full Interstate standards, and 5,135 miles needing only minor work to meet full standards. Over $10 billion had been expended on the Interstates.

The Interstate shield was increasingly recognized "as a beacon signaling swift, safe, tension-free driving," as the BPR put it, but the perception within the highway community was that the program was 3 years behind schedule. The Administration would leave office with several lingering concerns that would have to be addressed by incoming President John F. Kennedy and his appointed officials.

Accusations of corruption and goldplating were one problem that newspapers and magazines kept in front of the public. The accusations were given national attention in the July 1960 issue of Reader's Digest, which published Karl Detzer's article "Our Great Big Highway Bungle." The blurb at the start of the article stated the theme: "Haste, waste, mismanagement and outright graft are making a multibillion-dollar rathole out of the Federal Highway Program." With "good old Uncle dishing out the cash, many a community has developed some pretty grandiose needs," the article said, adding that "many a state official has developed an easy-come, easy-go attitude."

Detzer presented examples that he said demonstrated extravagant designs, disruption of people, businesses, and cities, and chicanery in right-of-way acquisition. The BPR was "inept" and its State partners "reckless of public responsibility." He understood that his article would be greeted with calls to proceed "for the good of the nation" but he argued that it was time to stop. "Judging by the record to date, it is time to stop and evaluate, to make every possible effort to cut out the waste, graft and stupidity, if that beautiful dream we all once had is to come true."

The BPR issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Detzer's article, but complaints continued about the urban segments while other magazines and newspapers publicized allegations about what Detzer had called "this 40,000-mile muddle." Amidst these challenges, the highway community awaited two reports, namely the Bragdon Report to the President and the new ICE, that were expected to provoke additional concerns. Rumors about the Bragdon Report had been circulating for months, particularly that it would call for abandoning the urban Interstates, downsizing the program, and converting it to toll facilities. Bragdon and his staff had peppered the BPR with questions and requests for a year before issuing a 12-page report on January 17, 1961, just 3 days before the end of the Eisenhower Administration. (By then, President Eisenhower had appointed Bragdon to the Civil Aeronautics Board; the report came from his successor, Floyd Peterson.)

Although Bragdon's untimely report was ignored, Congress could not ignore the 1961 ICE. This estimate, submitted to Congress on January 11, 1961, covered 40,472 miles of designated Interstate highways, including 48 miles added in August 1960 for routes in Hawaii following statehood a year earlier. The estimate omitted 220 miles for which detailed locations had not been determined and 308 miles that had been reserved for adjustments in final measurement.

The total cost of the Interstate System was estimated to be $41 billion (Federal share: $37 billion), roughly the same as in the previous ICE. The cost of remaining work totaled $32.9 billion. Based on work underway, the key number was the cost of work remaining to be financed: $25.5 billion, with a Federal share of $23.4 billion. About 55 percent of the remaining work was in rural areas ($18 billion), with 45 percent in urban areas ($14.5 billion). The average cost per mile was $639,000 in rural areas and $3,658,000 in urban areas.

In short, Congress would have to find an additional $11.6 billion to complete the Interstate Construction Program on schedule-or scale it back.

As the Eisenhower Administration came to an end, General L. W. Prentiss, Executive Vice President of ARBA, put the situation facing the Interstate System in stark terms: "The highway program is in for the battle of its life."

To be continued in the March/April Issue of Public Roads

Richard F. Weingroff is the Information Liaison Officer in FHWA's Office of Infrastructure.

Additional Reading:

The FHWA Highway History Web site has many other articles about the Interstate System at: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/history.cfm.

Lewis, Tom, Divided Highways: The Interstate Highway System and the Transformation of American Life, Viking Press, 1997.

McNichol, Dan, The Roads That Built America, Barnes and Noble Books, 2003.

Rose, Mark H., Interstate Express Highway Politics 1941-1989, University of Tennessee Press, 1990 (Revised Edition).

The States and the Interstates: Research on the Planning, Design and Construction of the Interstate and Defense Highway System, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, 1991.

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