The US Interstate Highway System and President Dwight Eisenhower
President Dwight Eisenhower was the thirty-fourth President of the United States. On October 14, 1890, Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas as the third son of David Jacob Eisenhower and Ida Elizabeth Eisenhower. He grew up in Abilene, Kansas where he attended Abilene High School. Although he graduated from high school in 1909 he did not receive an appointment to West Point Academy until 1911, which he graduated from in 1915. Following his graduation he met and married Mamie Geneva Doud while stationed in Texas. Despite not being sent overseas during World War I, Eisenhower continued to rise in rank, and was promoted to Major in 1920. He attended graduate school at the Command and General Staff School at Ft. Leavenworth, graduating in 1926. He served under General Douglas MacArthur from 1935 to 1939. During World War II, he was promoted to commander-in-chief of the Allied Forces, and headed the invasion of North Africa known as Operation Torch in 1942. He served as Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord, which was the name of the invasion of France on D-Day. Upon returning back to the U.S. he became President of Columbia University from 1947 to 1950. In 1951 he was appointed first Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. With the encouragement of the Republican party, he retired from the military in 1952 in order to pursue the Presidency.
When Eisenhower was a Lt. Colonel he participated in the U.S. Army’s transcontinental motor convoy in 1919. The convoy was set up by the Lincoln Highway Association, which had managed to convince the War Department to conduct the convoy. The convoy would travel along a marked route from the East Coast all the way to San Francisco. Although the original purpose of the convoy was to be a PR campaign illustrating that traveling long distances by motor vehicles was possible, it was more of a training exercise for the military. For the Army it was meant to test the ability of a convoy to travel by way of vehicles carrying supplies across the country as it would need to during wartime. The journey was a difficult one, with trucks having difficulty moving across sandy terrain, weak bridges, pits, and holes. This experience stuck with Eisenhower who recognized that there was need for a better highway system. This was solidified when he fought in Germany during World War II. He took note of the Germans’ ability to be mobile as a result of their autobahn. He recognized that this mobility was an advantage for them. He also appreciated how the Allies were also able to use the autobahn for their own travel purposes. Both his participation in the transcontinental convoy and his time in Germany would later affect his decision to support a US Interstate Highway System, as he believed this would strengthen the military’s ability to defend the nation if needed.
Interest in expanding America’s highway system goes back to the late 1930s. When Eisenhower became President, he turned his attention toward improving the U.S. highways, feeling that doing so would better protect the country in the event of an invasion. Although there were several attempts to get a bill passed through Congress, they were unsuccessful primarily due to funding. He signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, also called the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act, into law on June 29, 1956. The bill allotted $25 billion toward construction, which was to add 41,000 miles to the US Interstate Highway System over a 13 year period. Because the new highway system stretched across state lines, the Federal government was responsible for most of its funding. This meant that the Federal government funded all but $2 billion of the cost, the remainder being funded by the individual states. The problem of finding the revenue was solved in part by 30-year government bonds, which were themselves paid for by a tax on gasoline: in theory, a gasoline tax would provide an automatic increase in revenue if more cars began using the highway system. The Highway Act went through many changes while it was still a bill, but it was eventually passed by Congress. On June 29, 1956, while being treated for an intestinal ailment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill into law.
The Highway Act created the office of Federal Highway Administrator, which was first held by John A. Volpe. With the help of the American Association of State Highway Officials, or AASHO, a numbering system was established which gave the new Federal highways their identity. The Bureau of Public Roads and the AASHO worked together to create standards for highway design as well as highway access control. The Highway Act also called for standards that enabled highways to accommodate traffic growth for the next nearly 20 years, until 1975. As a result of the act, the nation’s interstate highway system was created.
The Interstate Highway System, now called the Eisenhower Highway System, has been labeled the Greatest Public Works Project in History, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. Its presence created an ease of travel that encouraged the growth of the auto industry. Today, most Americans own one or more vehicles, making it a crucial part of everyday life. With the number of drivers increasing, the highway system is heavily traveled and in some areas it is often burdened with high traffic during periods of heavy commute. The Eisenhower Highway System also helps to support the economy by allowing people to travel to and from work. In addition, it allows people to travel from one city to another for retail shopping, leisure travel, vacations, or holidays. The more vehicles on the road, courtesy of the highway system, also supports the gasoline industry.
For further information about President Eisenhower and the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, see the following links.
- Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
- US Department of Transportation: Eisenhower Interstate Highway System
- Road and Rail Pictures: Links, Acknowledgements, and Other Information
- American President: Dwight David Eisenhower
- History Learning Site: Dwight Eisenhower
- Kansas Historical Society: Dwight D. Eisenhower
- History Central: Dwight D Eisenhower
- Roads to the Future: Highway and Transportation History Website
- Kansas Department of Transportation: Dwight D. Eisenhower
- History of the US Highway System
- University of New Mexico: Interstate Highway History
- US Department of Transportation: Highway History
- US Army Transportation Museum: The Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System
- Maine DOT: 50th Anniversary of the Interstate Highway System
- AASHTO: Interstate 50th Anniversary
- Wisconsin Department of Transportation: Facts About the Wisconsin Interstate System
- MileSurfer: Interstate Highway Trivia Page
- Oregon State Government: The Interstate in Oregon
- NH Department of Transportation – Highway Design
- U.S. News: The People’s Vote – 100 Documents that Shaped America – National Interstate and Defense Act (1956)
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Check out articles written by Jeanne Longhorne.