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Interstates: America’s greatest public works project

 

Although America’s Interstate Highway System accounts for only 1.1 percent of our nation’s total public road mileage today, it carries 24 percent of all highway travel.

Prior to the 1960s, road trips across America were made on local, two-lane, U.S. highways -- highways like the now famous 2400-mile-long “Route 66” that connects Chicago and Los Angeles. Since the 1960s, however, America’s Interstate System, considered the greatest public works project in our nation’s history, has reshaped our American “ground” travel, our American landscape, and our American way of life.

Every citizen is touched by it, if not directly as a motorist then indirectly because many of the items we buy are, at some point, transported using America’s Interstate System. Many credit the Interstate System with being largely responsible for shaping the United States into a highly industrialized nation; a world economic superpower.

The concept of an interstate highway system first surfaced in a 1939 report to Congress. However, it was not until 1956, during Eisenhower’s presidency, that the Federal-Aid Highway Act authorized the building of a “National System of Interstate Highways.”

Eisenhower’s diligent leadership in moving the construction of the interstate highway forward on schedule earned him the title “Father of the Interstate System.” Still today, many honor him by identifying this important national project as the “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.”

There is a myth that claims President Eisenhower supported the Interstate System because he wanted it to serve as a way to evacuate cities if the United States were attacked by an atomic bomb. The Federal Highway Administration, however, explains that President Eisenhower understood the military value of an interstate as well as its use in evacuations but that was only part of the reason for his support.

There’s another defense-related myth that “One in five miles of the Interstate System is straight so airplanes can land in emergencies.” According to the Federal Highway Administration that, too, is not factual. Airplanes occasionally land on interstates when no alternative is available in an emergency but America’s interstates are not intended for that purpose.

Following the 1956 Interstate authorization, two states claimed to be the “first” to start America’s interstate construction. Missouri claimed it for a project on U.S. 40 (now I-70) in St. Charles County that began just a few weeks after the act’s passage. Kansas claimed the “First” title for a project, also on U.S. 40, but west of Topeka, that had begun prior to the passage of the act but was awarded its final paving contract under that new 1956 legislation.

Since the building of the nation’s interstates began there has been a mass exodus of the nation’s workforce from the cities to the suburbs and countryside. Today a very high percentage of employees commute daily to their workplaces. Likewise, much of the freight formerly shipped by rail is now moved by trucks using this nationwide Interstate System.

Can you imagine what America’s “ground” travel would be like today if there were no Interstate Highways? The Interstate System, that now includes almost 50,000 miles of highways, has become an important part of our nation’s culture. We Americans are more mobile, we’re less plagued by regional differences, and vastly wealthier than before.

We should be very thankful for those wise predecessors who created America’s Interstate Highway System; they made our lives much easier and much more enjoyable. They made it possible for us to drive long distances -- like the 3,302 miles from Seattle to Miami -- without stopping for a single red light!

Ken and Nan Webster have collected inspiration for many years from many sources, and now inspire readers of “A Matter That Matters.” Contact them at kennanco@gmail.com or visit www.kennancompany.com.

 
 
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