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

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

Highway History


Where It Came From - Interstate 50th Anniversary

You ask, “Did we have roads before the Interstate System?”

Don’t start with us! It’s annoying!

Of course, we had roads. Cars and trucks, too. But before the Interstate System, the main roads from city-to-city were only two lanes wide, one in each direction, and the lanes sometimes weren’t as wide as they should have been. Even though these were the best roads we had, they were not as good as this country needed.

Safety was a big problem. For one thing, any business along the road could have a driveway from the road into the parking lot. That meant cars had to slow to turn into the driveway, or other cars had to slow when someone pulled out of the driveway onto the road. This created what is known as a “conflict” that not only slowed traffic but also created a safety hazard. Also, the roadside was dangerous because trees, utility poles, telephone poles, and other objects were right alongside the pavement. If a motorist lost control of his or her car, it would hit one of these objects and the results were often deadly.

Passing slower traffic was another problem. To pass, a motorist had to shift into the next lane and pass the car before getting hit by any cars coming in the opposite direction. (To solve this problem, highway engineers began building three-lane roads, with a lane in the middle for passing. Sound like a good idea? Turned out, not. Cars passing in opposite directions had a bad habit of crashing into each other. It was as if the third lane was the “chicken” lane. This “solution” didn’t last long.)

But mainly, if this country was going to build a strong economy and a powerful military, it was going to need better roads.

In the 1930s, before the United States was involved in World War II (1941 to 1945), other countries were building modern roads. Germany was a leader. Its “autobahn” highways were a good example of what the United States needed. They had four lanes—two in each direction. The roadside was clear of driveways, so motorists entered or left only at carefully designed spots where the highway was connected to local roads by ramps. The roadside also was clear of all those dangerous obstacles.

Every engineer in the country who could afford it went to Germany to see these superhighways and came home thinking, “We can do better!” The government began studying how to get highways like that, only better, for the United States.

For inspiration, highway engineers could take a look at the first section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It opened in October 1940, a year before the United States entered World War II. The turnpike, with its four lanes and no speed limits, was an eye opener. It was called a “dream highway” and a “magic carpet ride” because it was so wonderful compared with the regular roads motorists had to drive on before getting to the turnpike.

In December 1940, California opened the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles, another freeway marvel that gave drivers an idea of the type of road this country needed. (For any Los Angelinos wondering where it is: The Arroyo Seco Parkway was renamed the Pasadena Freeway in 1954.)

In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law that told the government’s road agency to select a “National System of Interstate Highways.” (Hey, that’s us! We were called the Public Roads Administration back then, but now we’re the Federal Highway Administration.) We asked the State highway agencies to help us decide which roads should be included in this new highway system. Also, we checked with the Department of Defense because we knew these roads would be a big help whenever the military has to move around the country. We announced the first routes in 1947.

The idea was that the State highway agencies would build the Interstates and the Federal Government would help by paying 50 percent. The Federal money would come from the Federal-aid highway program. Under this program, we had been providing “Federal-aid funds” to the State highway agencies since 1916 to pay half the cost of highway and bridge construction projects.

It was a pretty good idea in theory. Congress thought these new roads were so important, the States would use the Federal-aid money on them. There was just one problem: without special Interstate money, many States weren’t all that eager to build their Interstate highways. Some States asked, “why should we build roads that will help drivers from other States?” Others thought they had more important projects to pay for. For example, one State said the Interstates would have to wait because it had lots of dirt roads to pave first.

As a result, not much progress was made on the Interstate System.

In January 1953, a President took office who understood that the country needed better highways, and couldn’t wait much longer for them. The President was Dwight D. Eisenhower and we’ll tell you why he understood about roads in another article. For now, trust us. He understood.

He asked the Governors of the States to help him and called on the U.S. Congress to pass a law that would get the Interstate System built. He asked for a law that would do two key things:

  • Build the Interstate System in ten years.
  • Not blow the Federal budget.

Everyone liked the idea of building the Interstate System in ten years. The problem was not blowing the budget part. It was going to cost $27 billion, and that kind of money doesn’t grow on trees. Congress had to figure out how to raise $27 billion without wrecking the budget so that the government was spending more money than was coming in from taxes.

(We interrupt this article to point out that the Interstate System ended up costing more than $27 billion, but, of course, no one knew it at the time. To understand how much $27 billion would be today, we will start by thinking about buying a car. Let’s say that a car cost $2,500 in 1956, while a similar car would cost $20,000 in 2006. Since you’re buying basically the same thing, that means $2,500 in 1956 is the same as $20,000 today. Using that same idea, we can say that if the Interstate System was expected to cost $27 billion in 1956, that’s the same as if it were expected to cost $196 billion today. That will give you some idea of why Congress was having such a hard time finding the dough. If you understood this interruption, you may want to consider a career as an economist.)

In 1955, Congress tried to find the money, but failed. Trucking organizations, gas companies, tire makers, auto builders, and tourist associations wanted the Interstate System but no one wanted to pay for it. They convinced Congress not to increase taxes on them to pay for the Interstate System, and that killed the deal.

When Congress gave up and went home in July 1955 without passing the President’s Interstate program, these groups were really happy. Over the winter, then they realized what they had done. They had killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. (In case you never heard of this saying from one of Aesop’s fables, we’ll print a version we found on the Internet at the end of this article.) To save pennies, the auto people were costing themselves millions of dollars.

That winter, they worked with the roads subcommittees of Congress to find a way to pay for the Interstate System. They agreed that Congress would increase some of the taxes on the products motorists use, such as gasoline (the new tax was 3 cents a gallon), tires, and trucks.

When Congress went back to work in 1956, President Eisenhower stressed the importance of getting these Interstate roads built. He told Congress:

Legislation to provide a modern, interstate highway system is even more urgent this year than last, for 12 months have now passed in which we have fallen further behind in road construction needed for the personal safety, the general prosperity, the national security of the American people.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Congress was ready to go. With everyone in agreement on how to pay for the Interstate System, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 in June. Here are a few of the things it did:

  • It said building the Interstate System was “in the national interest.” This was a very important commitment.
  • It changed the name of the network to the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” because it was important to our military goals.
  • Instead of paying 50 percent, the Federal Government agreed to pay 90 percent of the cost of building the Interstate System. This change showed how important the Interstate System is to the country.
  • It authorized all the Federal money that would be needed to complete the Interstate System in 13 years.
  • It set up a system for distributing the money so each State could build its Interstate highways while the other States were building their sections.
  • It increased some taxes on highway products, such as gasoline, to pay for the Interstate System. All the taxes would counted toward a “Highway Trust Fund” in the treasury that would be dedicated to building the Interstate System and paying for other Federal-aid road and bridge projects.

Since President Eisenhower had worked so hard to get this legislation through Congress, you probably think he had a big ceremony when he signed it and it became a law. You probably figure he had lots of important Members of Congress surrounding him as he said how important this law is and had a big smile on his face when he signed it and handed out pens to the members.

No such luck.

President Eisenhower was in the hospital after having emergency surgery for a stomach ailment that had bothered him for years. He was probably wearing his pajamas at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when his staff plopped a bunch of bills in front of him on June 29, 1956. He signed them without ceremony, without a photo being taken, without a statement. One of them was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and he signed it on his last day in the hospital.

He left the hospital the next day with his wife Mamie. They got into his limousine and were driven on the old two-lane highways to their farm near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, so he could continue to recover from his surgery.

It wasn’t the glorious start that maybe President Eisenhower had pictured when he called on the Governors and the Congress to help him get the Interstate program started. But it would have to do.

Since then, the length of the Interstate System has been increased, as have the cost and time needed to complete it. However, the clock started ticking on the Interstate Highway Program on June 29, 1956.



That ends “Where It Came From,” but as promised, here’s the Aesop’s fable mentioned in this article. We found it at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/goldfowl.html#aesop

The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs


A man and his wife had the good fortune to possess a goose which laid a golden egg every day. Lucky though they were, they soon began to think they were not getting rich fast enough, and, imagining the bird must be made of gold inside, they decided to kill it in order to secure the whole store of precious metal at once. But when they cut it open they found it was just like any other goose. Thus, they neither got rich all at once, as they had hoped, nor enjoyed any longer the daily addition to their wealth.
Much wants more and loses all.


Source: Æsop's Fables, a new translation by V. S. Vernon Jones (London: W. Heinemann, 1912), p. 2.
Updated: 06/27/2017
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000