By Matt Milner
“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.
What’s more, demographers expect the numbers to increase at least 50 percent by 2040.
McNichol, in his best-seller The Roads That Built America, described the interstate system as crucial to the nation’s security, economy and lifestyle. And, he said, if we want to keep it that way, “it will forever need to be the beneficiary of our attention and investment.”
There’s no question the vast network of concrete, asphalt and steel has bound the nation together like no other engineering feat, making it possible to drive from border to border without encountering a single stoplight or intersection. It has led to the growth of cities at the expense of rural communities, and homogenized America into a common culture.
That was not the original purpose. Eisenhower wanted a unified road system to mobilize the military and evacuate civilians in the event of a catastrophe such as an atomic bomb attack. He was appalled that in 1919 it took two months for his Army convoy to get from Washington, D.C., to California. Later, as supreme commander of Allied forces in World War II, he was impressed with the ability to move his troops deep into Germany on that country’s divided, high-speed autobahn.
The U.S. Interstate has proven critical in moving masses of people and supplies during a natural disaster such as last year’s Hurricane Katrina. The everyday effect has changed the habits and the customs of America.
“Without the system of interstate highways we wouldn’t be the country we are today,” said Jennifer Gavin of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The national highway network has allowed Americans to live, work and travel wherever they choose. Truckers use it to move $300 billion in goods annually, including fresh seafood and produce from one region of the country to another within hours.
It gave birth to fast food, fast cars and fast service – staples of today’s economy. McDonald’s, Holiday Inn, Ford Mustang, RVs, SUVs, suburban malls and chain stores all owe success to the system.
Even our movies and music illustrate America’s love of the open road. The Great Race and Cannonball Run became Hollywood blockbusters. The Grateful Dead popularized “Truckin’” and “On The Road Again.” Ray Charles made “Hit The Road, Jack” an American idiom.
But the growth of cities and towns along the system – and the tough luck of those too far away – reflect the greatest influence of the Interstate Highway System on the American way of life.
Families hastened to the suburbs and exurbs. Business and industry followed. More women moved into the work force, creating the two-income family with two cars for the parents and often a third for teenagers to take to school or the mall. Rush hour soon turned into crush hour.
Dr. Mike Hirsch, head of sociology at Huston Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, said it was inevitable because of the country’s new-found mobility.
“Interstate highways transformed urban America and gave rise to urban sprawl as we know it,” he said. “It opened up for development the peripheries of cities . . . facilitated the blending of communities along those corridors.”
The American landscape reshaped so fast that the National Cooperative Highway Research Program likened it to the universe’s big bang. It conducted a study that found U.S. productivity soared because of commerce stimulated by the interstate highways.
Hundreds of thousands of construction jobs resulted from building interstates across the land. The bulk of the road work occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, although the most expensive piece of the longest interstate highway – 3,020 miles of I-90 from Seattle to Boston -- didn’t get completed until this year as part of Boston’s Big Dig.
The Federal Highway Administration estimates it cost about $130 billion to build the interstate system without the Big Dig section, an afterthought plagued by corruption that took a decade and nearly $15 billion to finish.
Originally, Eisenhower proposed financing the system with toll roads. Instead Congress set up a special highway trust fund, fed by federal fuel taxes and other user fees.
Trust-fund money paid for 90 percent of interstate construction. The states picked up the remainder. They were also made responsible for policing and maintaining the highways.
Today there are 62 separate interstate highways, but only nine transcontinental or border-to-border routes. North-south highways were assigned odd numbers, and east-west routes even numbers. Beltways and spurs carry three numbers.
There are also 55,500 bridges, 15,000 on-and-off interchanges, 104 tunnels – and zero red lights.
But not an abundance of billboards. They were restricted by the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, a pet project of Lady Bird Johnson. Billboards already in place were protected. New ones were limited to advertising products for sale on the sign’s property. Some states went so far as to ban them completely.
All of which has made interstate highway driving remarkably safe – 0.8 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles. That compares with the national average of 6.05 deaths before the interstate system.
“They’re the safest roads in the world,” said McNichol.
The interstate system provided a much greater stimulant to metropolitan areas than anyone expected.
Des Moines, at the crossroads of America, is an example of a city that benefited greatly. Interstate 80 and Interstate 35 both pass by and I-235 cuts into the heart of the capital city of Iowa.
“They fuel the growth of our economy,” said City Manager Richard Clark. “They carry a lot of traffic, provide a lot of access.”
That’s not the story of Fayette, Mo., a town of 2,800 people several miles from I-70. Sociologist Hirsch, who served as mayor of Fayette until a few years ago, said the community worries about economic stagnation.
“We were close enough to I-70 to say in our marketing efforts that we weren’t completely isolated,” he said. “But for truck traffic, it was intimidating.”
The same fate holds true for hundreds of small, rural communities that popped up across America in the 19th century when the railroads ran through them but then found themselves far off the interstate path.
For a public addicted to motor travel, the socio-economic consequence has meant urban sprawl, overcrowded highways, road rage, lost productivity and wasted fuel.
Federal Highway Administrator J. Richard Capka has called the Interstate Highway System a victim of its own success, and says it will take all the ingenuity the nation can muster to solve the challenges facing the system in today’s global economy.