Before the Interstate

Howard Rosen, Ph.D.
Program Director
University of Wisconsin-Madison
President, Public Works Historical Society

Until the 1890s, road building in the United States was almost exclusively a local government responsibility. States only began to create highway departments, beginning with New Jersey, in 1892. By 1914 enough states had created highway departments to form the American Association of State Highway Organizations (AASHO). The basic premise of highway building at this time was that the state agencies, headed by engineers approved by the federal Bureau of Public Roads, would receive federal funds to plan, build and maintain roads (which the Bureau would inspect). Under the leadership of Thomas H. McDonald, Chief of the Bureau, AASHO became the key mechanism for maintaining the partnership between the federal and state road builders.

Oklahoma: I-35 in the Arbuckle Mountains both today and during initial construction in 1969 (inset). Photo by Oklahoma Department of Transportation. Used with permission from American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

For the most part, state highway departments focused on rural roads in the first half of the 20th century. "Getting out of the mud," building farm-to-market roads, was their primary focus. Not only were rural-dominated state legislatures unwilling to fund urban road building, states were prohibited by law from using federal-aid funds in cities. Yet as early as 1937, analyses of traffic on state highways showed that most "rural" traffic was in fact intercity traffic moving between large metropolitan areas. Urban congestion was a big problem before World War II and during the war the highways were allowed to deteriorate.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, incorporating recommendations of the Interregional Highway Committee, approved the creation of an Interstate System, and gave for the first time urban arterials a permanent status in the federal-aid program. While the 1944 Act gave a legal basis to the Interstate, it did not provide the financial means for states to divert their resources to urban right-of-way acquisition and construction. With the economic expansion following World War II came increases in car and truck traffic that virtually choked the existing highway system. By 1950, cities in New England reported that 40 percent of trip time was being wasted in traffic jams. So while there were some examples of states getting involved in urban freeway construction (New York Thruway, Los Angeles Freeway and Detroit Expressway), it remained for the ingenious compromise of 1956 to mark the real beginning of the Interstate.

Howard Rosen can be reached at (608) 262-4341 or rosen@engr.wisc.edu.