Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956

Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, popularly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act (Public Law 84-627), was enacted on June 29, 1956, when Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill into law. With an original authorization of 25 billion dollars for the construction of 41,000 miles (66,000 km) of the Interstate Highway System supposedly over a 20-year period, it was the largest public works project in American history through that time.[1]

The money for the Interstate Highway and Defense Highways was handled in a Highway Trust Fund that paid for 90 percent of highway construction costs with the states required to pay the remaining 10 percent. It was expected that the money would be generated through new taxes on fuel, automobiles, trucks, and tires. As a matter of practice, the Federal portion of the cost of the Interstate Highway System has been paid for by taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel.


Historical Background of the Interstate Highway System

Eisenhower's support of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 can be directly attributed to his experiences in 1919 as a participant in the U.S. Army's first Transcontinental Motor Convoy across the United States on the historic Lincoln Highway, which was the first road across America. The highly publicized 1919 convoy was intended, in part, to dramatize the need for better main highways and continued federal aid. The convoy left the Ellipse south of the White House in Washington D.C. on July 7, 1919, and headed for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. From there, it followed the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco. Bridges cracked and were rebuilt, vehicles became stuck in mud, and equipment broke, but the convoy was greeted warmly by communities across the country. The convoy reached San Francisco on September 6, 1919.

The convoy was memorable enough for a young Army officer, Lt. Col. Dwight David Eisenhower, to include a chapter about the trip, titled "Through Darkest America With Truck and Tank," in his book At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends (Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1967). "The trip had been difficult, tiring, and fun," he said. That experience on the Lincoln Highway, plus his observations of the German autobahn network during World War II, convinced him to support construction of the Interstate System when he became President. "The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land." His "Grand Plan" for highways, announced in 1954, led to the 1956 legislative breakthrough that created the Highway Trust Fund to accelerate construction of the Interstate System.

Eisenhower argued for the highways for the purpose of national defense. In the event of a ground invasion by a foreign power, the U.S. Army would need good highways to be able to transport troops across the country efficiently. Following completion of the highways the cross-country journey that took the convoy two months in 1919 was cut down to two weeks.

Urban and Interstate Expansion

A significant side effect of the Interstate Highway Act was the direct subsidization of the suburban highway system, making commutes between urban centers to suburbs much quicker, furthering the flight of citizens and businesses and divestment from inner cities, and compounding vehicle pollution and excessive petroleum use problems. Growth of the suburbs has also led to a continual cycle of widening these highways, digging them up to be completely rebuilt, and then widening them again - a continual "money pit" for tax funds, with the widenings and re-buildings costing far more than the original highways did.

The bypass or loop routes of the Interstate Highway System have become unintended, but nearly universal, conduits for both residential and business growth in the suburbs. Besides many widenings and rebuildings, for some cities, there have been requirements for very costly new bypasses and loops outside of the original ones. This fact of urban growth around the bypasses has been particularly salient in these metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, Minneapolis - St. Paul, Nashville, Portland, Richmond, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, and Washington, D.C..

Several cities have needed new bypasses or loops where none had been planned before, including Charlotte, North Carolina, Greenville, South Carolina, Orlando, Phoenix, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Tampa.

Above and beyond the original 41,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System, several complete Interstate Highways have been added to the original system, including Interstate 22, Interstate 39, Interstate 49, Interstate 68, Interstate 77, both Interstate 88s, and Interstate 97.

Several Interstate Highways have had significant extensions added onto one of their ends, including Interstate 26, Interstate 40, Interstate 44, Interstate 64, and Interstate 75. As part of this process, there have been Interstate Highways that now reach seaports that they had not before: Interstate 40 was extended east to Wilmington, North Carolina, and Interstate 75 was extended southeast to the immediate areas of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Also, with the addition of two spur highways to Interstate 10, there are now Interstate Highway connections to the seaports of San Pedro and Long Beach, California.

Numerous spur highways have also been added to the System to connect it with major metropolitan airports, such as the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.


Many limited-access toll highways that had been built prior to the Interstate Highway Act were incorporated into the Interstate system (for example, the Ohio Turnpike carries portions of Interstates 76, 80, and 90). For major turnpikes in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and West Virginia, tolls continue to be collected, even though the turnpikes have long since been paid for. The money collected is used for highway maintenance, turnpike improvement projects, and states' general funds. In addition, there are quite a few major toll bridges and toll tunnels included in the Interstate Highways, including ones linking Delaware with New Jersey, New Jersey with New York, and New Jersey with Pennsylvania. Tolls collected on Interstate Highways remain on Interstate 95, Interstate 94, Interstate 90, Interstate 88, Interstate 87, Interstate 80, Interstate 77, Interstate 76, Interstate 64, Interstate 44, Interstate 294, and several others.

In contrast, toll turnpikes in the following states have been declared paid off, and those highways have become standard freeways: Connecticut (Interstate 95), Kentucky (part of Interstate 65), Maryland (part of Interstate 95), Texas (part of Interstate 30), Virginia (the part of Interstate 95 between Richmond and Petersburg), and Florida (part of Interstate 75).


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