U.S. Interstate System Turns 50 Years Old

Fri March 31, 2006 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund

Commemorating this year’s 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System, a convoy of vehicles will travel from San Francisco, CA, to Washington, D.C., from June 16 to June 29, over the old Lincoln Highway (now Interstate 80), which the first military transcontinental motor convoy, including a young lieutenant colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower, followed in 1919.

“Ike,” an observer for the Army Tank Corps, never forgot the 3,250-mi. trip, which took 62 days at a bumpy speed of 6 mph, often splashed mud on the 81 cars and trucks where the highway was unpaved, was plagued by breakdowns, and included crossing bridgeless rivers. He later described it as a journey “through the darkest America with truck and tank.”

The purpose of the cross-country expedition was to dramatize the needs for roads, and it worked.

Ike later became a forceful advocate of the Interstate Highway System, which he said would “change the face of America.” Roadbuilding became his primary domestic agenda, and he was a prime mover behind the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created, and funded, the safe, uniform, straight, “pay as you go” nationwide interstate system, which he said the country urgently needed.

When Eisenhower took office in 1953, 47 percent of the nation’s highways were still unpaved. His “Grand Plan” would evacuate city residents much faster if they were attacked by nuclear bombs, and would greatly speed up commercial, military and private travel.

“He was the individual who had the most to do with getting the law passed, and what motivated him was this horrible trip he had endured earlier in his life,” said Jennifer Gavin, a spokesperson of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) in Washington, D.C., which is sponsoring the reenactment. AASHTO, founded in 1914, represents the state transportation departments that built, own, and continue to operate the interstate system.

The President also remembered his experience during World War II, when “Red Ball Express” Army vehicles moved at lightning speed on Germany’s Autobahn highway system.

’Ike’ Spurs Action

Ike signed the bill on June 29, 1956, his last day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center following emergency intestinal surgery on June 7. He issued no statement, but was said to be “highly pleased.”

Thus began a nationwide project that has been called the greatest public works project in U.S. history. Standardizing an often haphazard system of highways connecting states, the Interstate Highway Act also has been praised as “doing more to bring Americans together than any other law of the past century.”

Things really got rolling after Eisenhower signed the bill. On Aug. 2, 1956, Missouri became the first state to award a contract — for work on U.S. Route 66 — with the new interstate construction funding. A few weeks later, Kansas used the new funding to award a contract for concrete paving of a two-lane section of U.S. 40.

As work on the initial system entered its final phases, President George Bush renamed the nationwide network of highways and bridges “The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” in 1990.

The 50th anniversary observance comes as the formal program initiated under the 1956 act, now consisting of the 46,837-mi. interstate system, is ended this year with completion of the I-93 portion of the “Big Dig” in Boston, MA. Including 62 highways, 54,663 bridges, and 104 tunnels, the system used enough concrete to build a wall 9 ft. (2.7 m) thick and 50 ft. (15.2 m) high around the equator.

The interstates, however, continue to be a work in progress, with new corridors being considered and advanced automated technologies being perfected to make them safer and more efficient (see “Being Like Ike,” this page.)

Tough Trip in 1919

Ike’s convoy included cargo and shop trucks, two Cadillac touring cars, six Dodge touring cars, two White (brand) reconnaissance cars, gasoline and water tankers, motorcycles and (Ike’s special interest) a military tank carried on top of a truck. Ike’s job as a trainer in the Tank Corps in Gettysburg, PA, was to observe maneuvers of the tank during the trip.

At least one car on the journey was owned by the Lincoln Highway Association.

The military convoy left the “zero milestone” on the Ellipse just south of the White House on July 7, 1919. Traveling through 11 states, it set a record pace (at that time) of 58 mi. a day at approximately 6 mph.

The vehicles arrived at San Francisco on Sept. 5, 1919.

A Celebration in 2006

This year’s reenactment will retrace, in reverse, the 1919 trip, taking, of course, much less time. It will leave Lincoln Park in San Francisco on Friday, June 16, and arrive at the original zero milestone on Thursday, June 29, the actual anniversary of Eisenhower signing the interstate highway bill. A media event will take place near the milestone.

“Right now we’re shooting for 20 vehicles, including 10 really big ones like trucks, buses and recreational vehicles,” said Gavin. “We will also have perhaps 10, or a few more, smaller vehicles like antique or newer cars. Probably half the vehicles will go all the way from coast to coast. The other half will go shorter distances, ceding their places to people who want to ride along in their states. These might, for instance, represent a state Department of Transportation.”

The convoy will pass through California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland before reaching the capital.

Every state on the route has been invited to join in the convoy, and, along the way, AASHTO anticipates participation from RV clubs, antique automobile associations, state and local officials, plus many others to make the reenactment a people-oriented event. Other national organizations also have been invited to enlist their members to join in.

Bob Lee, chairman of Country Coach Corp. will be prominent in the convoy because he will be driving a luxurious, customized recreational vehicle. Other vehicles may be sponsored by private organizations.

AASHTO’s Communications Department in Washington, D.C., and the association’s public relations steering committee began discussing the original idea for the reenactment approximately a year ago.

“We sat down and thought about how we could remind people of the historical importance of this anniversary, the fun of it, and its big imprint on history,” Gavin said. “We want people to be happy about the interstate system, feel good about it, and also think about its future. This was our answer.”

AASHTO pitched the idea to state departments of transportation, who were all for it.

States along the route are planning their own celebrations as well. The Iowa Department of Transportation, for instance, has released an anniversary CD, “On the Road with Ike,” produced by rock and roll legends, Jerry Martin and The Sounds. This group also will perform in a live concert at the convoy stop at the Living History Farms in Urbandale, IA, this June.

The association is partnering with the Interstate 50 Council and the council’s publisher, Faircount, on a new publication, “Interstate 50: Celebrating 50 years of the Interstate Highway System.” Authored by Tom Kuennen, former editor of Roads and Bridges Magazine, and scheduled for release this June, it will feature interstate projects currently under construction, the history of the system, and technologies, which will expand the capacity and increase the safety of the nation’s most-traveled highways.

More information on the anniversary is available on http://interstate50th.org. The association also has created an e-mail subscription service for news on the anniversary.

To subscribe, visit http://news.transportation.org and enter your e-mail address. Information also is available on FHWA’s Web site at fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/history.htm

ARTBA Sponsors Dinner

The celebration will continue after the convoy arrives.

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s Transportation Development Foundation (ARTBA-TDF) is sponsoring a reception and dinner on June 29 recognizing the 50th anniversary. Gen. Colin L. Powell, USA (ret.), former U.S. secretary of state, will be the featured speaker, with Willard Scott, of NBC-TV’s “Today Show,” as master of ceremonies. The black-tie-optional event will be held at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.

ARTBA said the dinner “will celebrate the Interstate System’s enormous positive impacts on America’s quality of life over the past 50 years,” adding: “It will also honor leading contractors, engineering firms, materials and services companies, traffic safety firms, labor unions and state transportation departments for their role in designing and building the systems.”

Net proceeds from the dinner will be used to support ARTBA-TDF activities, including the Highway Worker Memorial Scholarship, a first-of-its-kind program that provides post-high school financial assistance for further educating the children of highway construction workers killed or permanently disabled on job sites.

More information on the anniversary dinner is available on artbainterstate50.com or by contacting ARTBA’s Karen Evans at kevans@artba.org or 202/289-4434.

The Year of the Interstate

Because of its historical significance, and its importance for launching new initiatives, 2006 has been called “The Year of the Interstate.”

Pointing out that the interstate system put Americans within a few days drive of each other, revved the U.S. economy, stretched the link between homes and jobs, and redefined the relationship between urban and rural America, the AASHTO Web site voices this concern: “And yet, somehow, it has come to be taken for granted. An increasing percentage of Americans cannot remember our nation without an interstate highway system. And many Americans no longer experience it as the “open road” that spurred a generation of novels and films, as population growth has outstripped system expansion, and heavy use has led to congestion.

“Half a century into the quantum mobility leap the interstate system provided, it is time to reflect on what America has gained from it and ask what might need to change in future years to keep it working for us. 2006 will be ’The Year of the Interstate’.” CEG

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