Road Warriers

Published May/June 2006

Left: The Interstate 10 bridge in Baton Rouge, La. I-10 travels across southern Louisiana. Louisiana Office of Tourism photo

AAA celebrates the 50th anniversary of America’s interstate highway
system and remembers its role in this history.
By Angelina Sciolla

On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was recuperating from a painful bout of ileitis at Walter Reed Medical Center. There was one task, however, that would get him out of bed that day. He was to sign the Federal Highway Act of 1956, thus launching one of the most ambitious infrastructure endeavors in the nation’s history. Fifty years later, the Interstate Highway System reminds us of how much our country has changed–much for the better, but not without a bit of nostalgia for the less complicated life of days long past.

There is no doubt that the Interstate Highway System changed the trajectory of America from a country of farms, smokestack factories and small towns into a global power boasting the highest GNP in the world–more than $12 trillion in 2005. Moreover, Americans expanded their horizons, literally and figuratively, commuting, migrating and building in every corner of the nation.

“In other parts of the world,” said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, “they are envious of our highway system, not only because it is an economic force but it has become a democratizing force as well.”

It all began with the vision of a young army officer, Dwight Eisenhower, who chose to add adventure to his desk job. Traveling with an Army convoy across the country in 1919, Eisenhower set out to make the case for a national system of highways to connect America. This 62-day trip, the first of its kind attempted by the U.S. Army, covered more than 3,000 miles of dirt roads, wagon trails and rivers with no passage. The chronicle of Eisenhower’s adventure painted the picture that subsequent studies would confirm: America needed a much more complex, efficient system of national highways.

The Federal Highway Act of 1956 launched the construction of super highways with wider lanes–12 feet–designed to accommodate higher speeds. There would be no intersections, traffic signals or rail crossings, enabling motorists to bypass stop signs and red lights as well as clogged two- and four-lane thoroughfares. The legislation also created the funding source to make it possible: the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Taxes on motor fuel and other vehicle fees would be collected, held in trust and returned to the states to build highway projects.

The legislative battle to win support for building the interstate system had its ups and downs over many months. Haggling among politicians, oil companies and the automotive industry over the source of funding, including the perpetual argument of whether to raise the gas tax, overshadowed the larger argument of how such an investment in infrastructure might impact the United States over the long term.

AAA was among the leaders in the transportation community supporting the need for the legislation. The March 1956 AAA News Review offered this call to action: “AAA, as well as most of the nation, believes that an urgent need of the hour is for a balanced program to bring up-to-date our outmoded highway system with as little delay as possible.”

AAA’s “Program for Better Highways” called for a 15-year, three-phase, pay-as-you-go building program financed by moderate, graduated increases in federal automotive taxes. The federal government would pay for 90 percent of interstate highway construction and maintenance, with a 50-50 split between states and the federal government for other highway projects.

AAA clubs urged members to contact their congressmen and senators to support the need to modernize the nation’s obsolete highway system. And much to the delight of AAA and its members, the bill that was sent to President Eisenhower bore a close relationship to the recommendations offered by the nation’s largest association of motorists.

Eisenhower’s vision would become a reality as work on the interstate infrastructure began on August 13, 1956. And AAA’s advocacy on behalf of motorists earned the association a commemorative pen that is proudly displayed in its Washington, D.C., office.

World wonder

In 1994 the Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways was deemed one of the Seven Wonders of the United States by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Interstate system shares this honor with the Panama Canal, Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge.
More than 46,000 miles of highway crisscross the nation. The system includes more than 55,000 bridges, 82 tunnels and some 14,000 interchanges.

In addition to its structural achievement, the interstate system has proven to be a transformative force in America. From the number of vehicles on the road to the way Americans take their vacations, the interstate has sparked our imagination and expanded our reach around the world. It changed the tourism industry as formerly desolate beaches and mountain ranges gave birth to resort towns. While the explosion in travel cannot all be attributed to building the interstate, one cannot imagine such dramatic economic, demographic or cultural shifts without it.

Growing pains

In 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act dedicated $34 billion over a 13-year period for highway construction, including the Interstate Highway System. In 2006, that figure will fund just one year’s worth of highway improvements. As congestion becomes a phenomenon experienced by the majority of Americans in all parts of the country, it’s obvious that our resources are stretched too thin. “The problem,” said Mineta, “is congestion and capacity. Trade is going up rapidly. By 2020, port-to-highway travel will have increased by 20 percent.”

There are other problems that compound the situation.

“For better than eight decades, motor fuel taxes have paid most costs of building and operating major roads in the U.S.,” said Martin Wachs, a transportation policy expert currently at the Rand Corporation. “But the reliability of the fuel tax is eroding with more fuel-efficient cars, an aversion to raising the tax in a climate of high oil prices, the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.”

New methods of financing transportation are now being placed on the table for discussion. Electronic tolling, familiar to many in the form of EZ Pass, is expected to play a larger role as a means of expanding capacity and controlling congestion.

Other recommendations include public-private partnerships, enabling direct private-sector investment in large-scale highway projects. According to Wachs, there has been an increase in city- and county-developed levies and taxes for road construction and maintenance. In these cases, local sales taxes–not gas taxes–have been increased to help defray highway management costs.

Surely, some innovation and new financing measures are in order. The motorist’s voice must be heard in the debates that will be occurring as new and different financing methods are tried around the country. AAA intends to be part of that debate, seeking to ensure that whatever new measures emerge, they protect the interests of those who will be expected to pay the bill.

Over the years, Mineta estimates he’s logged 250,000 to 300,000 miles of interstate driving. He recalled his most memorable journey in 1974 when, as a newly elected congressman from California, he drove his family east to Washington, D.C. They made the trip over the Christmas holiday, stopping at a motel in Albuquerque, N.M. Mineta’s children had one thing on their minds: “If we’re driving on the road across the country,” they asked, “how will Santa Claus find us?”

That night, while his children slept, Mineta purchased a small fold-up Christmas tree, which he placed on the table in the motel room. When the children awoke and saw the tree, they realized that Santa would always be able to find them.

He need only follow the Interstate.

Angelina Sciolla is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and editor who frequently contributes to AAA publications.

Above: U.S. Transportation Secrertary Norman Mineta says other parts of the world are envious of America’s highway system. AAA National photo

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