Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System
The President's News Conference, February 10, 1954
Upon taking office on January 20, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower confronted many problems, including the war in Korea. The Federal-aid-highway program was not one of the problems. President Harry S. Truman had signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 on June 25, 1952, authorizing Federal-aid highway funds through FY 1954, including a token $25 million a year for the "National System of Interstate Highways," as it was called. The next reauthorization, to cover FYs 1955 and 1956, would not be needed until 1954.
When the time came for the next Federal-aid reauthorization, President Eisenhower discussed highways in his State of the Union Address on January 7, 1954, noting the "vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system." He was concerned that under current law, the 2-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline was scheduled to be reduced by a half-cent on April 1, 1954. Although the revenue went to the general Treasury, he thought more of it should be linked to highways. The President told Congress he would recommend canceling the tax decrease "so that an expanded highway program can be undertaken."
At his news conference on February 10, 1954, the President announced his intentions regarding the gas tax, prompting several questions from reporters. The excerpts provided here include the President's opening remarks and the questions-and-answers regarding the gas tax. The exchanges reflect confusion about the dollar amounts the President had in mind. Basically, the Administration proposed to increase the Federal-aid highway program from the current level of $575 million to $800 million-the difference being the $225 million the President cited.
The Excise Tax Reduction Act of 1954, approved March 31, extended the half-cent gas tax for a year.
Remarks to the White House Conference on Highway Safety, February 17, 1954
Throughout his two terms in office, President Eisenhower was committed to reducing the number of fatalities on the Nation’s highways (33,890 in 1954). In December 1953, he called for a White House Conference on Highway Safety, which was held on February 17, 1954, in Washington, D.C. For more information on President Eisenhower’s highway safety crusade, see President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Federal Role in Highway Safety, an online monograph at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/safetypr.htm.
The following excerpt from the President’s remarks relates to the role of roads in our society. The President refers to “Mr. Curtice,” who was Harlow H. Curtice, president of General Motors Corporation and chairman of the group representing business during the conference. Curtice would go on to chair the President’s Committee for Traffic Safety. The entire speech is also presented here.
The President's News Conference, July 14, 1954
President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954 on May 6, 1954, surrounded by the congressional leaders who had drafted the legislation. It authorized funds for the regular Federal-aid highway program through FY 1956, plus $175 million a year for the Interstate System. Reflecting the importance of the Interstate System, Congress increased the Federal share of Interstate project costs from the usual 50 percent to 60 percent. In signing the legislation, the President said, "Our highways badly need modernization and expansion to accommodate today's vastly increased motor traffic." When he added, "This legislation is one effective forward step in meeting these accumulated needs," no one knew of the additional aggressive steps he would take to meet those needs.
He planned to unveil his highway proposition on July 12, 1954, in a speech to the Governors' Conference at Bolton Landing on Lake George in New York. However, because of a death in the family, President Eisenhower was unable to attend. Instead, Vice President Richard M. Nixon addressed the Governors with the President's notes in hand. Nixon informed the Governors of the President's call for "a grand plan for a properly articulated system that solves the problems of speedy, safe, transcontinental traffic--intercity communication--access highways--and farm-to-market movement--metropolitan area congestion--bottlenecks--and parking." By "properly articulated," the President was calling for each level of government to improve the roads under its jurisdiction. The Vice President read the President's conclusion exactly as it was presented in the notes, saying:
Two days later, the President held a news conference in which two reporters asked about his Grand Plan for the Nation's highways. In responding to a reporter who asked how to finance the new program, the President referred to one of his principles, "self-liquidation." This term meant the funds for the program would be repaid (or pay for themselves), and not contribute to a Federal deficit. (The President's preference was to issue bonds that would be repaid by tolls.) A second reporter asked about the longstanding preference of the Governors' Conference for the Federal Government to get out of the gas tax field, so the States could pick up the difference, but the President's answer related to retention of the ½-cent gas tax that Congress had agreed not to eliminate earlier in the year.
This excerpt contains the reporters' questions and the President's replies.
Remarks in Cadillac Square, Detroit, Michigan October 29, 1954
In 1954, the Republican Party controlled the House and Senate. Although the off-year, non-presidential elections scheduled for November could tilt both Houses to Democratic control, President Eisenhower did not think that campaigning for Republican candidates was appropriate; he believed he should be seen as the President of all the people, not one party. However, when polls showed the Democratic Party gaining strength, he agreed to fight for Republican control of Congress.
He traveled more than 10,000 miles and delivered nearly 40 speeches in an attempt to salvage Republican control of Congress. As he traveled the country, he often referred to the need for "a vast new highway program," as he called it on October 8 at a Republican Precinct Rally in Denver. On October 29, in remarks at New Castle County Airport in Wilmington, Delaware, he cited the "worlds of useful work that this Nation has to do," including "great highway programs to build." That same day, in Detroit, he commented on the growth of the auto industry before discussing the road program in this excerpt.
The President's efforts were in vain. The Republican Party lost 17 seats in the House and 2 in the Senate, giving the Democrats control of both chambers. This meant the Democrats would control the public works and tax committees that would consider the President's plans for highway improvement. Commentators were not optimistic about the future for the President's proposals.
Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union January 6, 1955
After unveiling his Grand Plan for highway improvement and his challenge to the Governors in July 1954, President Eisenhower appointed a friend and advisor, General Lucius D. Clay (U.S. Army, Retired), to head the President's Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program. The Clay Committee, which worked with the Nation's Governors on a plan to implement the President's vision, unveiled the proposal in December 1954. Under the plan, a commission would be established to issue bonds to pay for the Interstate System up front so it could be completed in 10 years, with the existing gas tax and tax on lubricating oil dedicated to retiring the bonds. The Federal share would be increased to 90 percent for Interstate projects so the State share would remain the same as for the $175 million a year authorized under the 1954 Act. In the excerpt presented here, the President used his State of the Union Address on January 6, 1955, to highlight the plan that he would transmit to Congress on February 22, 1955.
The President's News Conference of May 4, 1955
The President's plan ran into problems even before he transmitted it to Congress on February 22. The idea of a large share of the gas tax revenue going to pay interest to wealthy investors, not build roads, was unacceptable to many Members of Congress. Even the President's staunchest Republican backers gave only token support to his proposal, leaving freshman Senator Prescott Bush (R-Ct), President George H. W. Bush's father and President George W. Bush's grandfather, to take a lead role in promoting the Administration plan.
In May, the Governors' Conference reported that the Governors overwhelmingly favored the President's plan over a bill introduced by Senator Al Gore, Sr. (D-Tn.), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads. On February 11, he had introduced S. 1048, which proposed to continue the existing Federal-aid highway program, but with an additional $500 million a year for the Interstate System through FY 1960. Because the Constitution requires the House to introduce tax legislation, Senator Gore did not address how the additional revenue would be raised.
At a news conference on May 4, the President was asked about the issue in the context of the Governors' Conference report. The excerpt from the news conference contains the question and his response.
The President's News Conference of June 29, 1955
Senator Gore's bill passed the Senate without the financing package. With the President's proposal dead in the House, Representative George H. Fallon (D-Md.), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads, introduced a bill on June 28, 1955, that proposed graduated tax increases, including a penny hike in the 2-cent Federal gas tax (and another half-cent in 1970), as well as graduated tax increases on automobiles, trucks, and tires. With the increased revenue from these and other tax changes, Chairman Fallon predicted that the Interstate System could be built in 12 years even while the usual Federal-aid highway program was expanded. The following day, President Eisenhower was asked about this proposal during his news conference in the excerpt presented here.
Although the Interstate System was virtually unopposed, none of the highway interests that were to be taxed to build it wanted to pay for it. As a result, the House of Representatives defeated the Administration's bill and a Fallon bill in late July, and adjourned for the year a few days later with the matter unresolved.
The President's News Conference of April 25, 1956
In 1956, President Eisenhower renewed his efforts to secure passage of highway legislation in a presidential election year that seemed to give Democrats, who controlled both Houses of Congress, little reason to give him such a major victory. By then, however, the highway interests that had blocked passage in 1955 had agreed to compromises on what they would pay for the Interstate System. Chairman Fallon introduced a revised bill on April 19, 1956, that included authorizations in Title I and a financing mechanism as Title II. Representative Hale Boggs (D-La.) of the Ways and Means Committee had developed Title II, which would increase the gas tax to 3 cents and impose other highway user taxes. The revenue would be credited to a new Highway Trust Fund (suggested by Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey on the model of the Social Security Trust Fund) that would be used to pay the Federal share of the Federal-aid highway program (50-50), including the Interstate System (90 percent).
During the President's news conference on April 25, he was asked about the Fallon bill. As reflected in this excerpt, he replied in a neutral fashion, but he realized that the Administration's financing concept was dead. Years later, in his memoir Mandate for Change 1953-1956, he would recall , "Though I originally preferred a system of self-financing toll highways, and though I endorsed General Clay's recommendations, I grew restless with the quibbling over the methods of financing. I wanted the job done."
The Fallon-Boggs bill passed the House by a vote of 388 to 19 and was sent to a Conference Committee to be reconciled with the Gore Bill that had passed the Senate in 1955. The reconciled Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 passed both Houses easily on June 26 and was approved by the President on June 29. The President signed the legislation, without ceremony or statement, in his room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on his last day in the hospital following June 7 surgery.
Remarks at a Republican Rally at the Kanawha County Airport, Charleston, West Virginia, October 27, 1958
After the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 launched construction of the Interstate System, President Eisenhower's interest in the program remained strong. As he campaigned for Republican candidates during the 1958 off-year elections, he often cited the Interstate System as one of his party's achievements.
During a stop in Charleston, West Virginia, the President addressed an enthusiastic crowd of supporters about "the need for good, sound, and progressive government." When he turned to the economy, he acknowledged "there are spots of weakness still to be dealt with" from a recession that had begun in August 1957 and ended in August 1958. He said he wanted to discuss two things the Administration was doing to combat the lingering effects of the recession. The first was the Interstate program, as discussed in this excerpt. (The second was encouraging small businesses.)
In the excerpt, the President referred to Senator William Chapman Revercomb, a Republican who served in the United States Senate from 1943-1949 and 1956-1959, losing his reelection bid in 1958 to Robert C. Byrd, who continues to serve in the Senate. The President also mentioned John Dempsey Hoblitzell, Jr., a Republican who had been appointed to the Senate earlier that year following the death of Democratic Senator Matthew M. Neely. In referring to Hoblitzell as the "chairman," the President was referring to the new Senator's former role as chairman of the State's Republican Party. Senator Hoblitzell was defeated in the 1958 election by Jennings Randolph, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1933-1947) and official of the American Road Builders Association who would serve until he decided not to seek reelection in 1984. From 1965 through his retirement, he was Chairman of the Committee on Public Works (renamed Committee on Environment and Public Works in 1977) and was instrumental in maintaining support for the Interstate System.
NOTE: The audio of President Eisenhower's statement comes from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library. Text excerpts are from the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, published by the Government Printing Office.