A Brief History of the Interstate Highway System

April 21, 2016 at 7:38 AMJerry Spelic

Did you know that the interstate highway system our trucking industry depends on began its life as the “Interstate and Defense Highway System?” We’ll explain the “defense” aspect soon, but first, a bit of history.

In the 1920s, automobiles became more affordable, more families were traveling and moving, and motor truck traffic was increasing as the economy grew and the country expanded. Before the federal government passed “The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1925,” many of the country’s 250 or so highways carried names such as “The Lincoln Highway” or “The Dixie Highway.” The new system would use the now-familiar shield and uniform numbers for interstate highways.

But more drivers needed more roads. Who would pay for them? Other transportation systems (streetcars, subways, elevated trains) were usually built and operated by private companies that made infrastructural investments in exchange for long-term profits. Transportation interests, such as car manufacturers, tire makers, gasoline refiners and service station owners, suburban developers, and trucking companies, began to convince state and local governments that roads were an important public concern.

Now, back to the “defense” part of the highway system. The man who would become president in 1953, former Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was stationed in Germany during World War II and had been impressed by its network of high-speed roads known as the Reichsautobahnen. After he became president, Eisenhower made it a priority to build a highway system that would help connect the nation and provide key ground transport routes for military supplies and troop deployments in case of an emergency or foreign invasion. When the highway system was introduced, it was simply known as "the National Defense Highway System."

The “Federal-Aid Highway Act” passed in June 1956 authorized the construction of a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways and allocated $26 billion to pay for them. The federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost of construction with the states picking up the remaining 10 percent.

A promotional piece from 1961 claims the new highway system will: “Build up depressed areas. Strengthen our National Defense. Bring in industry. Provide jobs. Improve land values.”

So next time you’re on I-10 on the west coast, I-95 on the east coast, or traveling through the heartland on I-80, remember that the Interstate Highway System we depend on for commerce and travel was created with national defense in mind.

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