June 29, 1956: Ike signs the Interstate Highway Act
1956: Urged to reduce congestion on American roads and inspired by Germany’s use of highways for the movement of troops during World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.
The new law spent $ 33 billion (roughly $ 265 billion in modern purchasing power) on redesigning the country’s roads. Then Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks called it “the greatest public works program in the history of the world.” America would never be the same again.
The odd two-digit Interstate freeway numbers run north to south. Numbers ending in 5 are major and long distance routes, often stretching from border to border, or from border to the Gulf. The numbers increase from west to east, so I-5 goes north of Seattle to south of San Diego, and I-95 goes from Maine to Florida.
Even two-digit interstate highway numbers run east and west. The numbers ending in 0 are the main routes from coast to coast. Numbers increase from south to north, so I-10 connects Jacksonville, Florida, to Santa Monica, California, and I-90 from Boston to Seattle.
Three-digit Interstate freeway numbers are spurs (if the first digit is odd) or circumferential belt routes (if the number is even). The last two digits refer to the highway to which the spur or belt connects. Three-digit numbers often repeat in a different state, but are not reused for different highways in the same state.
This ideal numbering system has been the subject of a few local compromises over the course of half a century.
Before the law, American highways were narrow, winding, discontinuous roads, crossing large towns and small towns. Link roads sprouted haphazardly, and bazaar-like markets lined the shoulders. They’ve united the nation in an organic, mom-and-pop way.
After the act, interstate travel was defined by the massive, multi-lane, high-speed funnels we know today. It was General Motors’ 1939 Futurama exhibit come true: coast to coast without a red light.
“When we have these thruways across the country, as we will and must,” wrote John Steinbeck in his 1962 Travel with Charley, “It will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing anything.”
Small towns bypassed by highways withered and died. New towns sprang up around the exits. Fast food and motel franchises have replaced small businesses. Trucks have supplanted trains for transporting goods across the country.
Americans fled downtown areas – now marked in many places by highways built on what had once been neighborhoods – to suburbs in ever-increasing numbers. Malls and shopping centers have met their needs, and America’s suburbanization has become complete. This was not intended by the designers of the interstate system, and old forms of traffic congestion have given way to new ones.
Not everyone agreed with Steinbeck’s nostalgia. “I’m saying we see a lot more on and near the highways: America as it is and as it is becoming; the real thing, like it or not, ”wrote Mike Bryan in Uneasy Rider: the interstate path of knowledge.
Meanwhile, thanks to a man who warned of the growth of a military-industrial complex, the road-industrial complex came into being. The Federal Highway Administration’s budget now spends $ 40 billion a year overseeing 160,000 miles of the national highway system, and highway spending is a way of creating jobs for the government.
“More than any government action since the end of the war, this one was going to change the face of America,” Eisenhower said in 1963.
Image: Matthew Rutledge / Flickr
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