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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 69 · No. 4 > The Year of the Interstate

Jan/Feb 2006
Vol. 69 · No. 4

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-2006-002

The Year of the Interstate

by Richard F. Weingroff

In 2006, the 50th anniversary of "the greatest public works project in history" calls for a celebration--and an appeal for a searching look at the future of transportation.

The photo shows the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston, MA Photo: Massachussetts Turnpike Authority
The above photo shows the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston, MA. Photo: Massachussetts Turnpike Authority

One mark of the overwhelming success of the Eisenhower Interstate System is that the American people take it for granted, as if has always been there, like the Mississippi River or the Rocky Mountains. The Interstates are so much a part of the daily life of Americans that most people do not realize that the system they use to get to work, to school, to the mall, and to their vacation destination could be considered one of the "wonders of the world."

In 2006, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), State departments of transportation (DOTs), and transportation partners in the private sector will have the opportunity to remind the American people that the Interstate System is not a natural phenomenon, but rather the result of dedicated men and women working for five decades to enhance the mobility that has always been part of the American dream. Those years of challenge and controversy were also a period of technological evolution, environmental stewardship, and, most of all, commitment to the goal of building the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

In the National Interest

The origins of the Interstate System go back to studies in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Section 7 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 authorized designation of a 65,000-kilometer (40,000-mile) "National System of Interstate Highways." Within that original mileage limitation, the routes were designated in 1947 and 1955, but in the absence of a national program and a Federal commitment to build the roadways, little was accomplished.

A photo of H-3 bridge in Hawaii. A photo of H-3 bridge in Hawaii
Today, Interstate engineering marvels span the country, from the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge (previous photo) in Boston, MA, to H-3 (both photos) in Hawaii. Photos: David Sailors, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, Inc., courtesy Hawaii DOT.

In 1956 the pieces finally fell into place. Although the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 contained many provisions affecting the Interstate System, the key legislative phrase in section 108 is breathtakingly simple and direct: "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."

Shown here is one of the country's main Interstate highways of an earlier era: U.S. 40 (Atlantic City, NJ, to San Francisco, CA) in 1953 at its intersection with Ingleside Avenue west of Baltimore, MD.
Shown here is one of the country's main Interstate highways of an earlier era: U.S. 40 (Atlantic City, NJ, to San Francisco, CA) in 1953 at its intersection with Ingleside Avenue west of Baltimore, MD.

That simple phrase--"the national interest"--is all the justification the legislators who created the bill thought was needed, perhaps because they believed the interest was obvious, widely understood, and shared. They added only that one component of the national interest was "national defense," so section 108 also changed the name of the new network to the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways." (In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed legislation changing the name of the Interstate System to honor President Eisenhower.)

The standard road sign for the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, designed by FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, was unveiled in a ceremony on Capitol Hill on July 29, 1993. Left to right: Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-WV) of the House Surface Transportation Subcommittee, John Eisenhower  (President Eisenhower's son), Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater, and Chairman Norman Y. Mineta (D-CA) of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation.
The standard road sign for the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, designed by FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, was unveiled in a ceremony on Capitol Hill on July 29, 1993. Left to right: Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-WV) of the House Surface Transportation Subcommittee, John Eisenhower (President Eisenhower's son), Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater, and Chairman Norman Y. Mineta (D-CA) of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation.

Of all the bills that President Eisenhower signed during his 8 years in office, he probably put as much of himself into the one that created the Interstate System as any other, and more than most. Unfortunately, he did not have an opportunity to celebrate the occasion with a formal ceremony. The bill was among a stack that he signed on June 29, 1956, his last day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center following surgery on June 7. He made no recorded comment, issued no statement, had no celebratory photo taken. He was said to be "highly pleased."

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 'Father of the Interstate System,' was convinced the highway network would 'change the face of America.'
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the "Father of the Interstate System," was convinced the highway network would "change the face of America."

One might wonder what his thoughts were as he signed the new law. Perhaps he was just relieved that the job was done, or worried that the job was just beginning. History does not say whether he worried that the men and women who would have the job of carrying out his vision in "the national interest" might falter, but it does reveal, 50 years later, that they did carry out the vision and did so triumphantly.

Adapting to a Different World

If Eisenhower was the visionary promoter behind the Interstate System, Francis C. "Frank" Turner was its spirit. He joined the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) in 1929, and by the 1950s was in position to serve as executive secretary of the committee the President formed, under retired General Lucius D. Clay, to develop a plan for a National Highway Program. He also was the liaison between the BPR and the House and Senate committees as they developed the 1956 Act. Once it went into effect, Turner worked with State highway officials on many of the location and design decisions prior to construction of Interstate highways around the country. He would serve as Federal Highway Administrator (1969-1972), the only career employee to head the agency.

Frank Turner speaks at the dedication of the Francis C. Turner Building at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, VA, on May 5, 1983. Turner was honored as 'a man who thrived on change, believed in innovation based on facts  gathered through research, and played a significant role in implementing research results in the United States and the world.'

Frank Turner speaks at the dedication of the Francis C. Turner Building at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, VA, on May 5, 1983. Turner was honored as "a man who thrived on change, believed in innovation based on facts gathered through research, and played a significant role in implementing research results in the United States and the world."

Turner was a transitional figure, helping the agency adapt to changing demands on the Interstate System as it developed in the context of the eras it passed through. The early Interstates were the best roads built to that date, the product of an evolutionary design process that can be traced through Germany's autobahn (1930s), the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles (both 1940), and the turnpike boom of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Opponents said the early Interstates were produced from a "cookie-cutter" design.

The Way It Was in 1956

How much the Nation has changed since that June day in 1956! Television was black and white, every kid in America could sing the theme to "Davy Crockett," and everyone loved Lucy and all the other TV characters who were the era's role models. Cars had fins, an Oldsmobile 88 deluxe sedan cost $2,688, and traffic was increasing every year, but passenger rail was still the preferred choice for long distance travel.

Elvis Presley topped the charts with "Don't Be Cruel," and other performers in the Top 10 included the Platters, Gogi Grant, Doris Day, and Nelson Riddle. Playwright Arthur Miller married actress Marilyn Monroe on the same day that President Eisenhower signed the Interstate bill. "Around the World in 80 Days" won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series, and President Eisenhower defeated Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson in a landslide.

Over the decade, the number of children ages 5-14 grew from 24.6 million in 1949 to 40.0 million in 1960, while U.S. homeowners increased from 23.6 million to 32.8 million. Americans were moving to the suburbs in increasing numbers. The Nation's schools were adjusting to the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and society began to adapt to a revolution in civil rights.

Still years off were the copy and fax machines, cable television, microwave ovens, personal computers on every desk, e-mail and e-commerce, a man on the moon, recycling, the Beatles, Spider-Man, the assassination of a President, "The Sixties," iPods® and BlackBerriesTM, compact discs and DVDs, the Vietnam War, dependence on foreign oil, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and 9/11 and the war on terrorism. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had not yet initiated movements that would change America.

However, the design was never static. The public and private partners who created the Interstate System adapted the highways to operational and safety experience, criticism from the environmental community and safety advocates, and advances in bridge, pavement, and tunnel technologies. Each generation of Interstate engineers topped its predecessors, so that today, engineering marvels span the country, from the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston, MA, to H-3 in Hawaii.

Shortly after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 on June 29, Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks apportioned FY 1957 Interstate Construction funds. Two days later, on August 1, cameras snapped as Secretary Weeks (center) signed the FY 1958 apportionment, with Commissioner of Public Roads Charles D. 'Cap' Curtiss (left) and Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation Lewis Rothschild looking on.
Shortly after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 on June 29, Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks apportioned FY 1957 Interstate Construction funds. Two days later, on August 1, cameras snapped as Secretary Weeks (center) signed the FY 1958 apportionment, with Commissioner of Public Roads Charles D. "Cap" Curtiss (left) and Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation Lewis Rothschild looking on.

An example of that evolution was the Papago Freeway in Phoenix--the final segment of transcontinental I-10 (Jacksonville, FL, to Santa Monica, CA). When the Interstate first appeared on the drawing boards, it was to be an elevated highway that would soar 10 stories above Phoenix's Central Avenue. "Helicoil" interchange ramps provided "safe, easy" access to the structure, according to a promotional brochure. Twenty years of controversy later, on August 10, 1990, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) opened the "missing link" in I-10--below ground through a tunnel topped by a long grassy strip called the Margaret T. Hance Park, which links the communities on either side of the highway.

William Ordway, director of ADOT from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, during the peak of the Papago struggles, probably put it best: "Painful and costly as were the delays, there's no question that we got a better freeway, friendlier toward the city, with high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and built-in beautification. The combined expertise of all of America's freeway building was available for the Papago."

In the original 1960s design for an elevated I-10 Papago Freeway, the Arizona Highway Department proposed a new interchange design called a 'helicoil' that would require traffic to take a 280-degree loop to the ground. The elevated freeway and helicoil interchanges were abandoned in favor of construction below ground with a deck carrying the Margaret T. Hance Park linking the communities on either side of the highway.
In the original 1960s design for an elevated I-10 Papago Freeway, the Arizona Highway Department proposed a new interchange design called a "helicoil" that would require traffic to take a 280-degree loop to the ground. The elevated freeway and helicoil interchanges were abandoned in favor of construction below ground with a deck carrying the Margaret T. Hance Park linking the communities on either side of the highway.

A photo of Pennsylvania Turnpike which opened in 1940
Design of the Interstate System evolved from earlier freeways, such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike (above) and the Arroyo Seco Parkway (below, now the Pasadena Freeway) in Los Angeles, both of which opened in 1940.
A photo of the Arroyo Seco Parkway which opened in 1940 or now called the Pasadena Freeway in Los Angeles

He could have been describing the evolution of countless Interstate System highways.

The opening of the Leif Erickson Tunnel in Duluth, MN, on October 28, 1992, completed I-35 (Duluth to Laredo, TX). The Duluth segment began as a conventional freeway that would have cut off access to the shoreline and eliminated historic properties. With the help of a Citizens Advisory Committee, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) redesigned I-35 to include cut and cover tunnels, architectural design treatments, and extensive landscaping. Mn/DOT spokesman John Bray said, 'The great thing is that this . . . was Duluthians deciding what was best for Duluth and then all working together to make it happen.'
The opening of the Leif Erickson Tunnel in Duluth, MN, on October 28, 1992, completed I-35 (Duluth to Laredo, TX). The Duluth segment began as a conventional freeway that would have cut off access to the shoreline and eliminated historic properties. With the help of a Citizens Advisory Committee, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) redesigned I-35 to include cut and cover tunnels, architectural design treatments, and extensive landscaping. Mn/DOT spokesman John Bray said, "The great thing is that this . . . was Duluthians deciding what was best for Duluth and then all working together to make it happen." Photo: Mn/DOT.
Years of controversy delayed construction of I-90 through Wallace, ID, the final segment of the route (Boston, MA, to Seattle, WA). On September 12, 1991, the $40 million I-90 viaduct bypass opened, putting an end to the widely publicized 'last stoplight on I-90.' Two days later the town held a 'Last Stop Celebration' to bury the stoplight. With tongue in cheek, City Councilman Mike Aldredge told a crowd of more than 1,000, 'Cruel progress has eliminated the need for the services of our old friend.'
Years of controversy delayed construction of I-90 through Wallace, ID, the final segment of the route (Boston, MA, to Seattle, WA). On September 12, 1991, the $40 million I-90 viaduct bypass opened, putting an end to the widely publicized "last stoplight on I-90." Two days later the town held a "Last Stop Celebration" to bury the stoplight. With tongue in cheek, City Councilman Mike Aldredge told a crowd of more than 1,000, "Cruel progress has eliminated the need for the services of our old friend."

Changing the Cookie-Cutter

One of the most important features of the Interstate System is uniformity in design and signage to eliminate surprises that could result in safety and operational problems. These standards would be necessary as the Interstate expanded across the Nation and made cross-country commerce and travel possible.

The close partnership between Federal and State agencies played an important role in establishing standards in design, operations, and safety. Design guidelines issued by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) are adopted by FHWA as national standards, and likewise, FHWA is responsible for standards such as those in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Standards are updated when necessary as innovations and new solutions to problems are developed.

During the 40th anniversary of the Interstate System, the Federal Highway Administration developed a 'Men of Vision' display featuring the Interstate System founding fathers: (left to right) Representative Hale Boggs (D-LA), former Federal Highway Administrator Francis C. 'Frank' Turner, Representative George H. Fallon (D-MD), President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Senator Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN).
During the 40th anniversary of the Interstate System, the Federal Highway Administration developed a "Men of Vision" display featuring the Interstate System founding fathers: (left to right) Representative Hale Boggs (D-LA), former Federal Highway Administrator Francis C. "Frank" Turner, Representative George H. Fallon (D-MD), President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Senator Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN).

From the early years, highway engineers across the country built Interstates to match geographic and other challenges. Through creativity, sensitivity, and engineering expertise, each State built highways that, while uniform in some respects, were unique to their settings. Even in the late 1950s, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads was referring to "the broad sweep, the varied facets of accomplishments" that were part of the Interstate story. Given the diversity of the United States, this part of the history should not be surprising. But it is a part of the story that has been lost, in part because the Interstate System has had its share of opponents.

Author and social scientist Lewis Mumford was a harsh observer of the Interstate System from the start, particularly its impacts on U.S. cities. He said that in passing the 1956 Act, Congress "hadn't the faintest notion of what they were doing." Looking back, perhaps he was right. Maybe no one fully understood that the legislation would not simply create better highways, but would "change the face of America," as President Eisenhower put it in his 1963 memoir Mandate for Change.

The Interstates have never been able to shake the cookie-cutter image, the idea that traveling the Interstates involves the "mind-numbing monotony" of traveling on "brain-deadening" roads in an "effortless, rolling trance." (These quotes are real, by the way, from various travel writers of the 1990s.) The Interstates have been blamed for many perceived ills of the American society, from sprawl to air pollution to a lack of sense of place, from racial tensions to alienation to dependence on foreign oil. And those involved in building an Interstate highway over the past 50 years have learned about the determined individuals and organizations who fought Interstates from start to finish.

The challengers have been persistent, but perhaps the men and women who built the Interstate System should be thankful that their feet have been held to the fire all these years; the Interstates and other roads are the better for it. It is likely that the transportation community would not have made as much progress in the conception and design of the Interstates and other highways. Similarly, much less effort would have been devoted to historic preservation and development of context-sensitive designs such as noise barriers, aesthetic treatments, and other environmentally sensitive solutions to help fit roadways into the surrounding environment. As illustrated by the transformation of the I-10 Papago Freeway, I-66 inside the Capital Beltway, I-70 through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, the I-476/Blue Route in Philadelphia, the I-105 Glenn Anderson Freeway/Transitway in Los Angeles, and countless other Interstates, the transportation community was challenged to create highways that better fit the environment and communities that surround them. Instead of trying to overcome the environment, as in the early years, highway engineers learned to team up with experts from other disciplines, particularly planners and environmental specialists, historic preservationists, and with citizens to accomplish their objectives in ways that are consistent with their responsibilities for environmental stewardship.

The struggles are part of the history of the Interstate System. So are the engineering marvels stretched across the country like gems scattered by a giant's hand. As are the Federal, State, and industry leaders, as well as the thousands of anonymous men and women who helped to build the Interstate System. And another part of history is the laws that extended and transformed the program over the years, from the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 that provided a framework for resolving the controversies to the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, which authorized the final funding for the Interstate construction program and launched the post-Interstate era. Observers may debate whether the Interstates' impacts are more positive or negative, but not, as President Eisenhower predicted, whether they have transformed the Nation.

The Year of the Interstate

With the 50th anniversary of the Interstates falling on June 29, 2006, FHWA will join its partners in the State DOTs and the private sector to tell the story of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. This is not an "inside-the-Beltway" story (a phrase that did not exist before construction of I-495 encircling Washington, DC). It is a story that has a unique variation in each State and in the District of Columbia. It is a story that affects U.S. economic competitiveness in a world marketplace, national defense from the Cold War to the war on terrorism, and the daily life of every American. It is a story about agreeing on a national goal and achieving it through a Federal-State transportation partnership forged over the years, starting with the creation of the Federal-Aid Highway Program in 1916.

Administrator Slater at the start of the tour in San Francisco, CA.
Administrator Slater at the start of the tour in San Francisco, CA.
Stan Smith (right), commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation, introduced Administrator Slater at a happy 40th birthday ceremony in Indianapolis.
Stan Smith (right), commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation, introduced Administrator Slater at a happy 40th birthday ceremony in Indianapolis.
A photo of a 40th anniversary cake shaped like the United States of America.

1996 Cross-Country Interstate Anniversary Road Tour

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Interstate System, Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater embarked on a cross-country tour paralleling the U.S. Army's 1919 transcontinental convoy (from the Zero Milestone in Washington, DC, to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA) that gave future President Dwight D. Eisenhower an understanding of the need for better roads. The tour proceeded in reverse, California to Washington, from June 17 to June 26, 1996.

The cross-country tour ended where the 1919 convoy began- at the site of the Zero Milestone on the Ellipse south of the White House.
The cross-country tour ended where the 1919 convoy began-at the site of the Zero Milestone on the Ellipse south of the White House.

The 50th anniversary is an opportunity for the transportation community to tell a big story about the past. But it is also an opportunity to focus public attention on the future. The Interstates will remain a vital part of the transportation network for as far into the future as anyone might dare predict. Although the formal program initiated under the 1956 Act is at an end, more Interstates are on the drawing boards or under construction, while older routes are being upgraded to meet future needs, reflecting the vitality of the concept 50 years after it was put into law. How will the Interstates evolve? How will the Nation find the resources so these highways can continue to provide the vital service they have from the start? Could anything replace them, that is, carry the people and goods represented by 703 billion vehicle miles of Interstate travel annually?

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Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration.

This celebration of the past is an opportunity to explore a future where the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways will continue to serve the American people in "the national interest," and continue to be instrumental in keeping the Nation's economy moving.


Richard F. Weingroff is the information liaison specialist in FHWA's Office of Infrastructure. He wrote about the origins of the Interstate System in the Summer 1996 issue of PUBLIC ROADS and took a comprehensive look at President Eisenhower's role in that history in the March/April and May/June 2003 issues of PUBLIC ROADS ("The Man Who Changed America, Part I" and "The Man Who Changed America, Part II"). He also wrote a prequel, "The Man Who Loved Roads," about President Harry S. Truman's contribution, in the May/June 2002 issue of the magazine.

For further information, contact Richard F. Weingroff at richard.weingroff@fhwa.dot.gov or 202-366-4856. Or see the FHWA "Highway History" Web page at www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/history.htm.

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