We don’t often give a lot of consideration to our incredible network of interstate highways, but their significance cannot possibly be overstated, from both an economic and military defense perspective. The latter in fact, was the driving engine behind the Federal Aid Highway Act which was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on this day in 1956.
The spark that lit the fire within Eisenhower, began in 1919 when the then-28 year old Lt. Colonel participated in the great experiment known as the Transatlantic Motor Convoy which involved a cross-country journey beginning in Washington, D.C. and ending in San Francisco, California via the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first highway connecting the east coast with the west.
The arduous trip was fraught with perils and a multitude of outright inconveniences: collapsing bridges and vehicles trapped in mud, to name just a few.
It took a whopping two months for the convoy to make the transcontinental journey and illustrated clearly the many deficits and faults in the land transportation system of the times.
In contrast, the German autobahn stood out in young Eisenhower’s mind as a model of efficiency and a solid assist to Germany’s defense.
About both systems, he had this to say; “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.”
That mindset stayed with Eisenhower until he was able to formulate a plan and act on it as the President of the United States many years later.
The system cost 25 billion dollars to construct and involved 41,000 miles of roadway completed over the span of a decade.
And since our nation’s defense was a primary concern, most of the Air Force bases were strategically connected to the federal highway system, and a portion of the cost of the highways came from the defense budget. Of course the vast majority of federal funding has been provided for with gas and diesel fuel taxes.
While it’s true that the Federal Highway Act dramatically improved the military’s ability to defend our homeland, it was also a huge boon to interstate commerce and the economy as the transport of goods across long distances became much easier and faster.
And last but not least, to the average middle-class family of four looking to travel in their station wagon from their home on the east coast to see the majesty of all that lay out west, the “broader ribbons across the land” allowed them to do in five short days what once took two months!