After several years of development, on June 29, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. This act profoundly changed America by mandating the construction of a new 41,000-mile highway system. According to Eisenhower, this new system eliminated the existing patchwork of poor roads that “got in the way of speedy, safe transcontinental travel.” At the same time, he argued an additional point: “In the case of atomic attack on our key cities, the system would permit quick evacuation of target areas.” For all of these reasons, he stated the proposed expressway system was “Essential to the national interest.”
Cars Need Roads
In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T to the world. The Model T was a dependable, affordable car and just about every American wanted one. By 1927, the year that Ford stopped making the Model T, the company had sold nearly 15 million of them. By then “Automobiling” wasn’t just a curiosity, it had become a part of ordinary life.
At the same time, most of the roads in the country were pretty crude. Constructed by packing down dirt, they were bumpy and after rain, turned to deep mud. Because of this, driving a motorcar from one place to another could be a long, risky affair. Remember, outside cities and towns there were almost no gas stations, street signs, garages and rest stops -they were unheard of. There was no question that a growing nation needed good roads and infrastructure for easy traveling, but who would pay for it?
Not Needed in the Cities
First of all, most cities and larger towns didn’t need roads. They had mass transit, things like elevated trains, subways and streetcars. Most were built and operated by private companies that made enormous infrastructural investments in exchange for long-term profits. This was a business model that clearly worked but exactly roads would be funded wasn’t clear. Unless the road was a toll road, funding was hard to fund.
The Government Gets Involved
General Dwight D. Eisenhower saw it differently. During WWII, he had seen combat in Germany where the Germans had built a network of high-speed roads known as the Autobahnen. After he became president in 1953, Eisenhower was determined to build the same. It took several years of wrangling, but the Federal-Aid Highway Act passed in June 1956. The Act authorized the construction of a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways that would span the nation and it allocated $26 billion to pay for it. Under the terms of the law, the federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost of expressway construction. The money came from an increased gasoline tax.
The Highway Revolt
According to Chuck Patterson of Chico, a local Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer in Chico, CA, when the Interstate Highway Act was first passed, most Americans supported it. Soon, however, the unpleasant consequences of all that construction began to show. Road construction was making a mess of settled areas in their path. They displaced people from their homes, sliced communities in half and led to abandonment and decay.
Soon, people began to fight back. The first victory for the anti-road forces took place in 1959 where the San Francisco Board of Supervisors stopped the construction of the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway along the waterfront. During the 1960s, activists in New York, Baltimore and Washington DC also managed to prevent roadbuilders from eviscerating their neighborhoods.
But It Got Built
Despite some areas that objected to the disruption, the highways were built as planned. It took almost a decade but America now had a wonderful national highway system that allowed the country to grow and prosper.