Top Ten Public Works Projects of the Century

Editor's Note: APWA developed the Top Ten Public Works Projects of the Century Program to honor the ten most outstanding public works projects of the 20th Century that significantly affected and improved the quality of life in the United States or Canada. Our goal was to generate awareness of the positive contributions public works has made as well as to build appreciation for public works and its contributions to North America.

The APWA Reporter will highlight each of the outstanding projects through the October 2001 issue. This issue features the Interstate Highway System.

Interstate Highway System

Managing Agency: Federal Highway Administration Nominated by: Kansas City Metro Chapter of APWA

Long before his presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the importance of highways and became convinced that our nation needed a good system for defense and commerce in 1919 when he accompanied an army convoy from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. The trip took 62 days and was a considerable challenge, experiencing all the woes known to motorists and then an endless series of mechanical difficulties.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt also recognized the need for the construction of a network of toll superhighways as a way of providing jobs for people out of work. Congress also decided to explore the concept. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1938 directed the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to study the feasibility of a six-route toll network. Part I of the report asserted that the amount of transcontinental traffic was insufficient to support a network of toll superhighways. Part II of the report recommended a 43,000-km non-toll interregional highway network. The interregional highways would follow existing roads wherever possible (thereby preserving the investment in earlier stages of improvement).

In 1941, the president appointed a National Interregional Highway Committee to investigate the need for a limited system of national highways.

In 1954, President Eisenhower made it clear that he was ready to turn his attention to the nation's highway problems. He considered it important to "protect the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system." What was needed, he believed, was a grand plan for a properly articulated system of highways. The president wanted a self-liquidating method of financing that would avoid debt. He wanted a cooperative alliance between state and federal officials to accomplish the federal part of the grand plan. And he wanted the federal government to cooperate with the states to develop a modern state highway system.

The objective of the interstate system proposed by Congress was to provide four-lane, controlled-access highways that connected the principal cities, state capitals, and national defense installations in our nation. In 1956, the total mileage proposed was 41,000 miles. The system that we now enjoy has met and exceeded those original objectives.

The construction of 41,000 miles of highway was a monumental challenge. Construction of the interstate system moved slowly. Many states did not wish to divert federal-aid funds from local needs. Others complained that the standards were too high. Some of the heavily populated states, finding that federal-aid funding was so small in comparison with need, decided to authorize construction of toll roads in the interstate corridors. Also, by July 1950, the United States was again at war, this time in Korea, and the focus of the highway program shifted from civilian to military needs. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 authorized $25 million for the interstate system on a 50-50 matching basis. These were the first funds authorized specifically for interstate construction. However, it was a token amount, reflecting the continuing disagreements within the highway community rather than the national importance of the system.

The next 40 years would be filled with unexpected engineering challenges, unanticipated controversies, and unforeseen funding difficulties. Nevertheless, the president's view would prove correct. The interstate system, and the federal-state partnership that built it, changed the face of America.