Tennessee Landscape Changed With Interstate Freeway System | Opinion

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Most of us, I guess, don’t think much about what life would have been like without the interstate highway system. But if it weren’t for the freeways, most of us wouldn’t be living where we live and vacationing like we do.

The US government began funding the interstate highway system in 1956. The idea was to make it easier to travel from one part of the country to another in the event of a national military emergency. Designed for speed and with limited access, America’s highways were modeled after a German highway called the Autobahn.

The way the interstate system was paid is a bit complicated and has changed over the years. Suffice it to say that its main funding mechanism was and remains the gas tax.

The interstate system plan closely followed a US government publication known as the “Yellow Book” (which you can still see on the Internet). would be built in every American city.

It took a long time for the highways to be built. Bridges had to be built and roads cleared through mountainous areas such as the Cumberland Plateau. The first sections of freeway through Tennessee were opened in 1958, with most of the 40 and 65 highways across the state completed during the 1960s.

The highways weren’t opened all at once, but one section at a time; For many years, a driver had to get an updated road map to find out which stretches of the shiny new highway were open.

Today there are over 1,100 miles of interstate freeways in Tennessee. These highways have dramatically reduced the time it takes to travel from one part of the state to another. Before the creation of Interstate 40, for example, it took maybe 10 hours to drive from Nashville to Knoxville, passing through cities like Lebanon, Sparta, Crossville, Rockwood and Kingston. Now it only takes three.

Today, freeways make it possible to live in one county and work in another, and have transformed once small towns like Franklin, Farragut, and Bartlett into residential suburbs. The freeways also allowed for day trips across the state.

Before the advent of interstate highways, it’s hard to imagine 100,000 people traveling to Knoxville just for an event on Saturday afternoon. Now, that happens about half a dozen times each fall.

Highways also made traveling by car much safer than before, as they were wider and better designed.

Most people see highways as a positive change. But commercial activity in cities like Cookeville, Manchester and Jackson has shifted completely from the city center to the nearest freeway exit. If you drive to these city squares today, you can see clear signs that there was a lot more going on than today.

Interstate construction has also proven to be very controversial in Tennessee cities. To this day, some members of the African-American community in Nashville say that the route chosen by Interstate 40, just west of the city, has split black Nashville in two. In Memphis, Overton Park fans organized against the construction of Interstate 40 through this park in the 1960s. Eventually, this case went to the United States Supreme Court, which in the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, ruled in favor of the group fighting Interstate 40. This is why the freeway bypasses Memphis rather than crossing it.

Bill Carey is a former Tennessean, Nashville Scene, WPLN, and NashvillePost.com reporter who now works as the executive director of a nonprofit organization known as Tennessee History for Kids. He also writes a monthly history column for Tennessee Magazine.


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