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Interstate Highways


On this day in 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a message to Congress regarding the inadequacy of the nation’s highways. At the end of his speech, he turned over two studies that demonstrated the urgency and outlined a plan for building a modern, safe Interstate Highway network over the next ten years.

Building an Interstate Highway system was not Eisenhower’s idea. A collective vision among planners and engineers had been developing since before World War II. Some existing highways were indicative of that vision—notably the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Route 66 (the “Mother Road”), and the German Autobahns.

What Eisenhower brought to the table was the know how of a five-star General who had been administering things for thirty years, including the Normandy invasion in World War II. He knew how to accomplish big things, and he was convinced this special network of super-highways was going to require the Federal government to assume principal responsibility. He knew that 48 state highway departments building highways with federal aide was not going to get the job done…at least not in his lifetime.

In his message, the President first talked about the big picture—that a good communication system for moving information, and a good transportation system for moving goods and people, are uniting forces that help make the nation what it strives to be—a United States of America. He then outlined four reasons why the current highway network was “inadequate for the nation’s growing needs.”

The first issue he mentioned was safety. He noted that 36,000 people were killed, and more than a million were injured every year in highway accidents. Those were numbers a military leader could grasp, and would be very concerned about.

Secondly, he discussed the economic inefficiency of the current network. He said the physical condition of present roads increases the cost of vehicle operation by an estimated one cent per mile driven, which would translate into $5 billion dollars per year in efficiencies with the new system. Again, his experience moving troops and materials must have helped him understand the highway situation.

Thirdly, he felt the roads were inadequate (quote) “in case of atomic attack on our key cities.” Bigger and better roads were needed for quicker evacuation and for mobilization of defense forces. This was a classic Cold War argument.

And lastly, he cited projected growth in the Gross National Product and population. By 1955 the post-war baby boom was well underway, and Ike thought the traffic problems of the ‘50s “only faintly foreshadow those of ten years hence.”

Eisenhower then reminded Congress they had authorized in 1944 “the selection of a special network, not to exceed 40,000 miles in length, which would connect…the principle metropolitan areas.” And he outlined his vision for funding the interstate system, as well as continued Federal assistance for other types of roads. He felt the new network “should stand on its own feet,” meaning an increase in fuel taxes and limited use of tolls would support it.

A little more than a year later, on June 29, 1956, (50 years ago this summer) Eisenhower would sign The Federal Aid Highway Act, which authorized the interstate highway system we now take for granted. Later, it was renamed the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways. It has been called “the greatest public works project in history.”

North Dakota has about 570 miles of the system in I-29 and I-94. That is 1.3% of the whole.