The history of America’s highway system began with the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. The passing of this bill introduced by the United States government spearheaded an effort to develop and construct a nationwide network of roadways and highways. It allotted a total of $75 million for matching state funds for improvement and construction of roads over a 5-year period of time. However, the country’s financial needs associated with WWI prevented any progress on this plan, and it expired in 1921.
Despite the protests the construction met with in some cities, most areas welcomed the development of better and more expansive roads and highways. Thirty-five years after the Act was signed and development began, the original network of roadways was officially completed. In later years the project was extended, and as of 2013 a total of 47,856 miles of roadway had been created thanks to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Today approximately one-third of all roadway miles traveled utilize the Interstate system. As of 2015 the total cost of the project was estimated to be approximately $511 billion.
When the 1916 Act expired, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, also called the Phipps Act, was passed. This legislation once again allocated federal funds to match state road construction and improvement in the amount of $75,000 annually. Unlike the previous legislation, however, this plan was to oversee the construction a grid of what was called primary highways, all to be interconnected. This plan never came to fruition because an exact plan for this complex of roadways could not be agreed upon.
A Plan That Finally Made It All Happen
The plan that finally saw the country’s need for expansive roadways come to fruition was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The bill was signed on June 29, 1956 by President Dwight Eisenhower. It set into motion plans for the development of a 41,000-mile nationwide system of defense and interstate highways. This system was designed to do away with unsafe roads, routes that were less than efficient, eliminate traffic jams, and replace them with an efficient means of transcontinental travel. A declaration was made that the construction of a sophisticated expressway system was instrumental to the interest of the nation.
Eisenhower developed the idea for a nationwide highway system following his tenure as a General serving in WWII in Germany, where he saw the country’s high-speed highway system called the “Reichsautobahnen”. When he became President in 1953 he vowed to see the highway system created that had been discussed by lawmakers for several years. One example of this was the authorization of a nationwide system of interstate highways known as the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944. This plan gave the go-ahead for the construction of 40,000 miles of highway connecting and going through cities all over the country. The Act ultimately fell through because while plans were laid out for the development of the roadways, a means of funding the project was not.
Once the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was developed and approved, a budget of $26 billion was allotted for it. The terms broke down the funding plan to state that the federal government was to pay 90 percent of the total cost. This money came from an increased tax on gasoline, raising the current tax from 2 cents to 3 cents per gallon. This gasoline tax money went directly into the specially-created Highway Trust Fund. When the new highway system was constructed, it featured overpasses and underpasses rather than conventional intersections. These were designed specifically for high-speed driving and were built at least 4 lanes wide. This was done with the intention of preventing traffic jams, to make coast-to-coast travel more efficient, to replace unsightly former roadways with more attractive and more easily-traveled concrete roads and, given the climate of the times, to make escape from big cities orderly and fast in the event of an atomic attack.
Most Americans initially supported the Interstate Highway Act, but once the actual construction of the roadways began, public support waned. In order to build these new roads people had to be displaced from their homes and buildings and landmarks destroyed in order to create pathways through towns and cities. Some communities ended up being completely relocated or altogether abandoned. The public began to resist the changes being brought about by the Act. In 1959 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors intervened and halted the construction of a waterfront freeway. The Embarcadero Freeway was intended to be a double-decker roadway whose construction would have meant the destruction of an entire neighborhood. Throughout the 1960s several more cities, including New Orleans, Baltimore, New York City, and Washington DC also stepped forward and prevented construction of new roadways from wreaking havoc on neighborhoods. Because of this there were a number of urban roadways that came to a sudden end. Activists of the time labeled these unfinished interstates “roads to nowhere”.
Today, highways and roads are maintained by both state and federal funds and road crews. They are used as a primary means of travel by everyday travelers, military personnel, and everyone in between.