The Richmond Register

Local News

December 26, 2006

Interstate system shaped the nation

“When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing”’

Author John Steinbeck

“Travels With Charley”

There’s a knoll near Abilene, Kan., where Interstate 70 slices a path through the undulating flint hills and suddenly the world opens up before your windshield.

It is not the kind of prairie vista that impressed Steinbeck when he drove the virgin interstate while crossing the country for his book on what made America tick in the mid-20th century.

For the nation, though, that initial stretch of road not far from the boyhood home of the father of the Interstate Highway System, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, represents the start of the biggest public works project ever.

Now, a half-century later, transportation experts report a significant portion of the 46,876-mile system that crisscrosses the country is in serious disrepair and needs to be rebuilt to withstand greater use and expanded to relieve traffic congestion.

But that will cost billions of dollars beyond just keeping abreast of the normal wear and tear, causing concern over where the extra money might come from and the political stomach to appropriate it.

“The interstate system is underfunded and overused,” reports highway historian and author Dan McNichol. “It was designed for our parents and grandparents. It needs updating.”

McNichol’s observation is borne out by the explosion of people, cars and trucks since 1956, the year Eisenhower signed into law the federal act creating the system.

There were 156 million Americans and 54 million registered vehicles at that time. Today, there are 300 million of us and we drive 237 million vehicles.

Additionally, we roll up 3 trillion miles a year in highway travel, a rubber-meets-the-road figure three times that of 1956.

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