|FHWA > Highway History > Original Intent: Purpose of the Interstate System|
Original Intent: Purpose of the Interstate System
|Interstate (urban $11, rural $12 billion)||$23|
|Primary (urban $10, rural $20 billion)||30|
|Secondary (entirely rural)||15|
|Other roads and streets (urban $16, rural $17 billion)||33|
|TOTAL (urban $37, rural $64 billion)||$101|
The President noted that the Governors' Conference and the Clay Committee agreed that the Federal share of total needs should be about 30 percent, with the rest being the responsibility of State and local governments. Overall, the President's transmittal letter stated, the Clay Committee recommended that the Federal Government assume principal responsibility for the Interstate System, to be completed by 1964.
The President stated that a "sound Federal highway program, I believe, can and should stand on its own feet, with highway users providing the total dollars necessary for improvement and new construction." Interstate and other Federal-aid roads, therefore, should be financed by highway user excise taxes, "augmented in limited instances with tolls." All in all, though:
I am inclined to the view that it is sounder to finance this program by special bond issues, to be paid off by the above-mentioned [highway user tax] revenues which will be collected during the useful life of the roads and pledged to this purpose, rather than by an increase in general revenue obligations.
Referring to the Clay Committee's report and the BPR's pending report on highway needs, the President concluded:
Inescapably, the vastness of the highway enterprise fosters varieties of proposals which must be resolved into a national highway pattern. The two reports, however, should generate recognition of the urgency that presses upon us; approval of a general program that will give us a modern safe highway system; realization of the rewards for prompt and comprehensive action. They provide a solid foundation for a sound program.
The Clay Committee's 54-page report stated that highway transportation - 48 million cars, 10 million trucks, and a quarter of a million buses operating on 3,348,000 miles of roads and streets - is "by far the most comprehensive public transportation network in the world." The role of the automobile could not be denied:
In relatively recent years, the motor vehicle has come to occupy a unique place in America, not only because it is a major unit of transportation, but also because it is an intimate and seemingly indispensable part of our daily life. The bread winner uses an automobile to get to work; the housewife to shop; children ride in a car or bus to school, and the entire family relies on the automobile for many social and recreational activities.
Still, highways functioned as part of a transportation network:
All forms of transportation are essential to the national economy, including waterways, railroads, airways, and pipelines and their continued functioning as complementary services under equitable competitive conditions is important.
The report acknowledged the concerns of the railroad executives, who had pointed out to the committee that improved highway facilities were a competitive threat because they would result in increased truck haulage:
However, this Committee was created to consider the highway network, and other media of transportation do not fall within its province.
Before addressing the financial issues, the report summarized why highway improvements were needed. First was "The Traffic Jam," which could be reduced to its "simplest terms":
Traffic has expanded sharply, without a corresponding expansion in capacity of roads and streets.
"Simple arithmetic," as the report stated, illustrated why the Nation was experiencing "expensive, hazardous bottlenecks": 58 million registered motor vehicles driving 557 billion vehicle-miles in 1954. Prospects for the future were even worse - 81 million vehicles by 1965 traveling 814 billion vehicle-miles.
Given the importance of highway transportation to the national economy, the report pointed out that the expenditures called for, which may have seemed high, were necessary:
The increasing use of our highways contributes materially to the growth of our national product, since industry and employment directly related to the highway transportation system and its byproducts account for about one-seventh of its total value.
Moreover, the improvement of our highway systems as recommended herein would reduce transportation costs to the public through reductions in vehicle operating costs competently estimated to average as much as a penny a mile. Based on present rates of travel, this saving alone would support the total cost of the accelerated program.
Deterioration of the highways was another factor in support of the expanded program. Vehicle registrations and travel mileage were not the only increases. Vehicle weights, average speeds, and axle loads were up, causing a serious deterioration of inadequately designed highways. The 4-year moratorium on construction during World War II had taken its toll, but so had inflation:
While dollar expenditures for road construction increased in approximately the same ratio that their purchasing power has declined, the actual level of construction is not much higher than it was in 1940.
Safety, the report stated, must also be considered. The annual death toll on the Nation's roads was, as the President had pointed out, "comparable to the casualties of a bloody war." Replacing obsolete and dangerous highways with roads of modern design would substantially reduce the toll:
The death rate on high-type, heavily traveled arteries with modern design, including control of access, is only a fourth to a half as high as it is on less adequate highways.
For the Interstate System, civil defense issues were "of utmost importance." The report explained:
Large-scale evacuation of cities would be needed in the event of A-bomb or H-bomb attack. The Federal Civil Defense Administrator has said the withdrawal task is the biggest problem ever faced in the world. It has been determined as a matter of Federal policy that at least 70 million people would have to be evacuated from target areas in case of threatened or actual enemy attack... The rapid improvement of the complete 40,000-mile interstate system, including the necessary urban connections thereto, is therefore vital as a civil-defense measure.
Referring to the difference between overall 10-year needs ($101 billion) and present program funding ($47 billion), the report stated that closing the gap of $54 billion is the goal if highway transportation "is to perform its vital job in an expanding economy":
The sums needed to accelerate the program may seem high; they are not high in terms of what we have done in the past in relationship to our much larger and still growing gross national product.
The role of highways in the national economy was clear:
The increasing use of our highways contributes materially to the growth of our national product, since industry and employment directly related to the highway transportation system and its byproducts account for our one-seventh of its total value.
Moreover, the improvement of our highway systems as recommended herein would reduce transportation costs to the public through reductions in vehicle operating costs competently estimated to average as much as a penny a mile. Based on present rates of travel, this saving alone would support the total cost of the accelerated program; it is further evidence of the desirability of undertaking improvement as a capital investment.
As for cost, the Clay Committee relied on the draft BPR report, which estimated that the Interstate mileage designated in August 1947 would cost approximately $23 billion. The urban mileage consisted of single routes carrying rural Interstates through the cities they connected. To be fully effective, the Interstate System "must be tied in much more closely with existing roads in congested areas." This could be accomplished by "the major feeder and distribution routes which at present are not included within any of the Federal-aid systems." In the absence of BPR data on these routes, the committee estimated that "a desirable improvement program" of the most important connecting roads for the interstate network would cost $4 billion.
The urban cost assumptions by the Clay Committee resulted in an estimate of $27 billion for the Interstate System. That was the figure Congress would have to fund to create the 10-year program President Eisenhower had proposed.
The report concluded:
We are indeed a nation on wheels and we cannot permit these wheels to slow down... We have been able to disperse our factories, our stores, our people; in short, to create a revolution in living habits. Our cities have spread into suburbs, dependent on the automobile for their existence. The automobile has restored a way of life in which the individual may live in a friendly neighborhood, it has brought city and country closer together, it has made us one country and a united people.
But, America continues to grow. Our highway plant must similarly grow if we are to maintain and increase our standard of living... In fact, we face a challenge today and America has ever evidenced its readiness to meet a challenge head on with practical bold measures...
Thus, we will accomplish the objective sought by the President for a "a grand plan for a properly articulated highway system that solves the problems of speedy, safe, transcontinental travel - intercity transportation - access highways - and farm-to-market movement - ... paying off in economic growth - ... and making "a good start on the highways the country will need for a population of 200 million people."
Beginning February 21, 1955, Senator Al Gore, Sr., Chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads of the Committee on Public Works, began hearings on the National Highway Program. On February 28, Mayor Ben West of Nashville, Tennessee, testified on behalf of the American Municipal Association (AMA), which represented 12,000 municipalities in 44 States. Mayor West's testimony offers a glimpse of what cities expected from the Interstate System.
Mayor West began by reading a resolution the AMA had adopted at its annual meeting after General Clay had outlined his committee's plans during a December 1 speech. The association endorsed construction of the Interstate System as essential to the "continued prosperity of this Nation." The urban portion would, the resolution noted, "serve to strengthen the economy of all centers of employment and production." Further, "cities alone or together in partnership with State highway programs can no longer cope with expanding traffic demands." In view of these considerations, the AMA fully endorsed the Federal highway program outlined by General Clay and pledged its full cooperation in securing its passage.
In addition, Mayor West quoted an AMA policy statement adopted during the same meeting. The statement noted that an examination of needs showed "the most serious deficiencies to be in and around municipalities." It continued:
The most pressing problems and the areas of greatest neglect are on the Interstate Highway System with expressways and important major arterial streets to that system. This is particularly true in the urban areas. We therefore recommend strong concentration on improving the Interstate System including the urban links thereon.
The statement cited the importance of the Interstate System to evacuation of cities in time of national emergency. Noting that any evacuation that depends on the current road network "will fall far short of the goal and result in millions of additional casualties," the statement determined that "the construction of adequate evacuation routes consisting of expressways and important arterial streets and roads thereto is as much a Federal responsibility as it is a local one."
The remainder of the Mayor's opening remarks, as well as the AMA policy statement, concerned procedural issues, such as Federal share and financing mechanisms. Most of the questioning from members of the committee concerned these issues as well. However, in response to a question from Senator Prescott Bush (the current President's grandfather), Mayor West stated that at least 90 percent of the members of the AMA agreed with the resolution. He said, "We felt that the main difficulty was in and around the areas where population is concentrated - that is, traffic jams, and tie-ups - and that the Interstate System under the Clay plan would take that into consideration, going through or around municipalities."
Senator Strom Thurmond asked Mayor West if he thought "it would be better to just start from scratch and build it out from the city and not try to follow the old road system, from the standpoint of economy and efficiency and completion of the system." This question gave the Mayor an opportunity to site Nashville as illustrative of other cities:
Around our own city we have 10 State highways coming into the city. The Bureau of Public Roads engineers have... got it down to where there are five major highways. They join the existing highways farther out, and are bringing traffic in on one brand new proposed highway from each direction. They are taking those highways under their tentative plan through new territory, and we have retained some engineers in New York to plan for us a beltline which will connect these new Federal highways to get the people around our city.
We have a central city problem as all the cities do. In our central city we have a river on the east and a railroad gulch on the west and 3 bridges over the river and 3 viaducts over the railroad, and all the traffic has to come through the center of the city.
Most of the cities in the past have had bad planning. All the traffic pushes through the center of the city, and we want to circle the central business district with Federal highways with limited-access roads, because these new highways, as the engineers explained to me, will be limited-access beginning way out from the city, and then we want to get on and off at the junction of these beltlines with these Federal highways.
Several other Mayors testified along with Mayor West on behalf of the AMA. Mayor William E. Kemp of Kansas City, Missouri, for example, responded to a question about the necessity of the new roads for evacuation:
I want to say that that is not all of it. We need it every day. We need far more traffic ways and highways in our city because the concentration of vehicular traffic in our cities is so great that the present means of traveling through these congested areas without these trafficways is a terribly burdensome thing upon our people and upon the economy.
Mayor Albert E. Cobo of Detroit, Michigan, testified mainly on financing issues. He favored upfront financing for the entire 10-year program instead of a pay-as-you-go approach:
[It] is evident that the present Interstate Highway System could not be met in less than 30 years, and it appears to be 34, 35, or 36 years. I feel sure that the people do not want to wait 30 years and are willing to pay the extra interest costs [from an upfront bond issuance] so that they may have the use of these highways in the immediate future.
Shortly after enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, Bernard F. Hillenbrand, Assistant Director of the AMA, published an article called "The Road Program - Opportunity and Challenge From the City Viewpoint" (American Highways, October 1956). The article reflected the optimism, even enthusiasm, of city officials. Hillenbrand stated:
A modern highway gives a tremendous economic boost to the surrounding areas... Obviously city officials are anxious to attract as much of this economic activity within the city as possible... Undeveloped land previously set aside for future residential development may now be more valuable to the community as a whole if it is opened to industrial and commercial uses.
Smaller communities near the larger cities were likely to "experience rapid new growth" so planners should think on a metropolitan basis. Planners would be busy:
In planning highway alignments, city officials for obvious reasons will want the proposed routes to pass through the city's slum and blighted section in preference to the city's finer residential and business areas... Highways are made possible and at the same time new life is brought to tired neighborhoods.
The program was so new, Hillenbrand explained, that municipal officials would have to change their perspective. "There has been so little road construction in cities of the scope and magnitude contemplated in this new program that there is little or no experience to guide officials." He added:
Municipal officials have all but ceased to talk of the dream highways and expressways which were outside the realm of possibility for generations. There is now a new burst of life.
This view was widespread, virtually unquestioned, among State highway officials, city officials, and urban planners - until construction got underway. What most strikes a 21st century observer is that none of the Mayors discussed the concerns that would overwhelm debate about the urban Interstates within months after construction began in the cities - disruption and displacement of residences and businesses; decline of central business districts; loss of tax base; suburbanization (now called sprawl); destruction of minority communities and historic buildings and districts; air quality, noise impacts, or adverse environmental impacts; and impacts on transit.
In 1955, no one questioned the need for the Interstate System, as outlined by General Clay and the President. The one controversial issue was how to pay for it. Congress could not agree on a method in 1955. Congress rejected the plan developed by General Clay. In fact, the financial plan had little support in Congress, even from the President's strongest supporters. Alternative financing schemes based on tax increases also failed, largely because of lobbying by the highway interests that wanted the Interstate System but didn't want to pay for it.
The Senate passed Senator Gore's bill in 1955, but it lacked a financing mechanism - under the Constitution, tax provisions must originate in the House of Representatives. In July 1955, however, the House rejected all versions of the legislation, including bills with the Clay Committee financing plan and another with increased highway user taxes.
After Congress adjourned on August 2, 1955, the highway interests worked with key Members of Congress over the winter to develop an acceptable tax package that was embodied in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. This basic financial structure - revenue from highway user taxes, including a gas tax increase, credited to the Highway Trust Fund - would serve the Nation throughout the Interstate era.
The Interstate System would achieve much of its original intent. It would be the safest road network in the United States and one of the safest, if not the safest, in the world. Its design concepts would be used on non-Interstate roads to make them safer as well. It would sustain the economy and support international competitiveness even as the economy evolved from an industrial era to an information age in a worldwide marketplace. In addition, the Interstate System has proven invaluable to the national defense through countless military endeavors. The record on evacuations, particularly with oncoming hurricanes, is mixed but improving with experience.
It would prove, however, to be an ungainly lever for controlling the economy as President Eisenhower had envisioned. Because of the multi-year nature of highway construction and the pay-as-you-go basis of its financing mechanism, job-creating expenditures could not easily be increased or decreased to match economic needs. The President had an opportunity to use the Interstate lever in operation during a sharp recession that began in August 1957. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958, which President Eisenhower approved on August 8, 1958, attempted to stimulate the economy by increasing authorizations for Interstate construction, but without an equal increase in tax revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. The short-lived recession had ended in April 1958, before increased construction could have any impact on it, but under the 1958 Act, the Highway Trust Fund expended more funding than it took in, creating the first financial crisis of the Interstate Era.
Perhaps the greatest failure, however, was that the Interstate System did not relieve congestion. In some respects, the comments about congestion, circa the mid-1950's, could be used about congestion in the 21st century, with changes only in the data (population, number of vehicles, miles traveled, and cost of congestion). Many factors contributed to this failure, including population growth, demographic changes, increased number of vehicles per household, expansion of urban areas, social changes, and the inability to expand the highway network commensurate with demand (leaving aside the question of desirability).
The city officials who testified before Congress in the mid-1950's were primarily interested in congestion relief. If traffic could flow freely to the central business district, the outward flow of residences and businesses would be slowed, the city tax base would be maintained and even increased, blighted neighborhoods would be replaced, and the central business districts would regain their former preeminence. The failure to relieve congestion was one reason why the urban Interstates were unable to stem what was already a decline in city viability. Moreover, much to the surprise of the AMA, the BPR, and others who supported the Interstate System in the 1950's, the urban Interstates would quickly be depicted as a primary villain in the decline of the Nation's cities, a charge that has been repeated many times by urban advocates and social critics in the years since 1956.
President Eisenhower's 1963 memoir, Mandate for Change 1953-1956, contained a prediction based on the original intent:
More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America... Its impact on the American economy - the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up - was beyond calculation.
The next 40 years would be filled with unexpected engineering challenges, unanticipated controversies, and unforeseen funding difficulties. Nevertheless, the President's view would prove correct. The Interstate System, and the Federal-State partnership that built it, changed the face of America - and its cities.
This article reflects the original intent of those who helped launch the Interstate Era in 1956. Their views were shared by those responsible for the conception of the Interstate System in reports to Congress in 1939 (Toll Roads and Free Roads) and 1944 (Interregional Highways), but the key BPR officials behind those reports, Chief Thomas H. MacDonald and Herbert Fairbank, included a different element in their original intent, namely revitalization of the Nation's declining cities. The two reports describe a visionary plan to use expressway construction as the centerpiece of the revitalization. "The Genie in the Bottle" in the September/October 2000 issue of Public Roads magazine (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/rw00c.htm) describes these plans. Additional information can be found in the online article, "Designating the Urban Interstates" (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/fairbank.htm).
Office of Infrastructure and Transportation Performance