Interstate 50 Anniversary: Special Edition

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System, the Public Works Historical Society (PWHS) is devoting an entire issue of the Public Works History newsletter to the subject. To expand on the column which has appeared in the last few issues of the APWA Reporter, we are including an excerpt of the special edition in this issue. Thanks to PWHS for sharing with our readership. To obtain a full copy of the PWHS member newsletter, join PWHS by following the links on www.pwhs.net to membership information. While you're there, take a few moments to explore the wealth of historical information the Society has compiled.

The Public Works Historical Society is pleased to devote this special issue of our member newsletter to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System. The Society is particularly pleased and most appreciative that the American Public Works Association (APWA) has generously agreed to include this issue in the September 2006 issue of the APWA Reporter.

The Interstate was not only the largest single public works project in American history. Its vast impact has yet to be fully analyzed. Where and how we live and work has been in many ways affected by the existence of the Interstate system. Understanding what the Interstate is, how it came about, how it was designed and built, and how it has had and continues to have an impact on transportation and society is a challenge for public works historians today and for generations to come.

The Public Works Historical Society is proud to make a small contribution to this understanding. Through our unique combination of professional public works practitioners and historians, we helped to conduct the most significant effort to document the history of the Interstate. Working under a contract with the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the Society conducted 100 oral history interviews, carried out numerous surveys, and analyzed publications and reports. The findings of this study were published by AASHTO in 1991 as Interstate: The States and the Interstates. Research on the Planning, Design and Construction of the Interstate and Defense Highway System.

The reflections included here are from persons who have played a significant role in the Interstate or who have made valuable contributions to our understanding of its historical importance. In addition to noted public works and transportation professionals, Herbert A. Goetsch, Alan E. Pisarski and David Schulz, our contributors include Bruce E. Seely and Jonathan L. Gifford, who were important members of the team that produced the AASHTO report. Other members of that team included Ellis Armstrong, John T. Greenwood, David Jones, and Mark Rose. The Society is dedicated to promoting the understanding and appreciation of public works in history. Membership is voluntary. We encourage all APWA members to join the PWHS. For membership information check our website at: /About/SIG/PWHS/member.asp. - Howard Rosen, Ph.D., Program Director, University of Wisconsin-Madison; President, Public Works Historical Society

Celebrating 50 Years: The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System

Jonathan L. Gifford, Ph.D.
Professor of Transportation and Planning
George Mason University
Arlington, Virginia

The planning, design, construction, and ongoing renewal of the Interstate System are together an extraordinary accomplishment in the history of our nation. The system is the envy of the world, and is being emulated today across the world from China to India to the expanded European Union.

I would like to focus on the three main historical legacies the Interstate has bestowed, as well as on some of the key lessons it has taught us.

First, the safety impacts of the Interstate System are perhaps its most important legacy. The system in its early years exhibited a fatality rate just less than 3 per 100 million vehicle miles, roughly half the rate on non-Interstate roadways at the time. Since the opening of the Interstate, that rate has declined to under 1 death per 100 million vehicle miles.

Moreover, the Interstate demonstrated the benefits of its distinctive design features, such as medians between opposing traffic lanes, grade-separated interchanges, and high design speeds. That demonstration effect led to the wider adoption of such features on non-Interstate roads, leading to lives saved off the system as well. Together, these on- and off-system effects have saved tens of thousands of lives in the last half-century.

The second main historical legacy is the Interstate's effect on American lifestyle. The Interstate's development occurred during a time when the nation was engaged in a massive shift of housing, retail, and employment to the suburbs. Demand for suburbanization arose from many sources besides the Interstate. The GI Bill, VA housing loans, mortgage interest deductibility—all of these contributed to America's suburbanization. But the Interstate was a powerful additional force shaping how, how fast, and how much suburbanization occurred.

Today, the majority of Americans reside in suburbs, and the Interstate system is an integral part of their everyday life. Almost every American household and business has a range of choices of where to work, live, play, shop, study, and worship that would not be possible without the Interstate system.

The third legacy is our freight and distribution system. The Interstate has facilitated a fundamental transformation of this system. Truck utilization has soared at a rate of increase of almost 12 percent per year since 1956. Today, virtually every item in our workplaces and households has reached us via the Interstate System.

This shift to truck-based distribution allows the American economy to have the world's most efficient supply chain management system. Efficiency arises in part from faster and cheaper transportation. But faster transportation also allows shippers to spend less on warehouses, and less on inventory in those warehouses. And products are less likely to spoil or become obsolete or go out of fashion while in a warehouse or in transit. Overall, our "total logistics costs," as this bundle of services is called, have declined from 16 percent of GNP in 1980 to 10 percent in 2001 at the same time that freight volumes have exploded.

The Interstate has also taught us some important lessons. First, large-scale social and technological systems are complex and unpredictable. Many of the consequences of the Interstate System—positive and negative—were not anticipated. In 1937, the Bureau of Public Roads predicted that trucks would never carry a significant amount of freight because they would be inexorably squeezed between rail for bulk commodities and air for high-value freight. Mayors clamored for urban interstates to help revitalize their downtowns. Transit owners believed their primary concern was being exempted from motor vehicle taxes. Reality turned out to be dramatically different.

Moving forward we must be humble about our ability to predict consequences, and support careful monitoring and measurement of the impact of our programs in order to continue to benefit our economy.

The second lesson we learned from fifty years of Interstate building is how much we value community preservation, social justice, and environmental stewardship. In the early years, the Interstate had serious adverse impacts on many older cities and especially on poor and disadvantaged communities. Our urban renewal policy of using Interstate highway investments to remove "blighted" areas displaced tens of thousands of poor African-American citizens. We also sought to build Interstates through parks and environmentally sensitive open spaces.

Congress soon intervened and passed landmark environmental legislation such as the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970, and the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969. These laws continue to guide highway and non-highway development today.

Finally, and most importantly, the Interstate shows that the development of a carefully engineered and planned system can bring extraordinary benefits. This achievement arose from strong federal leadership for planning and financing that is almost unprecedented in our 230-year history. The nation has spent $420 billion on the construction of the Interstate, $370 billion from federal sources. System development has adhered generally to the 42,000-mile network that was defined between 1944 and 1956. For almost four decades between 1956 and 1990, Congress was satisfied to focus on building the Interstate, and special projects were a rarity. No other system in our history—with the possible exception of the air traffic control system—has commanded such long-lasting federal leadership and support.

These legacies and these lessons make a strong case for resolute and continued attention to the stewardship and renewal of the Interstate system we have built, as well as careful consideration of options for expanding and adapting it to the challenges and realities of the 21st century.

Jonathan L. Gifford is Professor of Transportation and Planning and Director of the Master's Program in Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University in Arlington, VA. His research and teaching have focused on the linkages between large-scale civil infrastructure systems and the social, economic, political, and environmental impacts. His most recent book is Flexible Urban Transportation. Gifford currently serves as the Secretary of the Historical Committee of the Transportation Research Board. He can be reached at (703) 993-2275 or jgifford@gmu.edu.

The Interstate System: A Golden Anniversary

Bruce E. Seely, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Michigan Technological University
Houghton, Michigan

The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, which APWA listed as one of the "Top Ten Public Works Projects of the 20th Century," marks its 50th anniversary this year. Such an anniversary is a good occasion to reflect about the real significance of the Interstate network.

It is important to note that the golden anniversary does not mark the origin of the system itself, but rather the legislation that funded large-scale construction of this limited system of high-standard roads. The concept and the planning to implement it have a much longer history. Congress considered several plans for toll roads as work relief measures during the Depression, but a report issued in 1939 by the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR)—"Toll Roads and Free Roads"—laid out the first vision of a network of roads to meet higher traffic demands. Franklin Roosevelt appointed a National Interregional Highway Committee in 1941 to develop recommendations for implementation, and the committee's report helped shape the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 and its authorization of a new system of interregional highways.

The post-war explosion of motor vehicle traffic added urgency to efforts to get such a road system under construction. Federal and state highway engineers approved the basic map of an Interstate system in 1947, but members of Congress wrangled for nine years about how to fund this very expensive system. Some states started work on their own, most often adopting toll financing because of limited resources. Finally, in 1956, Congress agreed to allocate $25 billion to the construction of the Interstate system. In short, the Interstate program did not spring into existence full-blown in 1956.

The consequences of this road network also became visible over a long period of time. A few outcomes were expected, such as the way that these roads would serve the needs of urban drivers, and the fact that Interstate highways would carry twenty percent or more of all traffic on only one percent of the nation's roads. Moreover, the main lines of commercial and personal traffic were predicted rather well by the planners in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

But many of the most significant impacts of these roads were unanticipated. Most urban supporters of the 1956 legislation, for example, assumed that Interstate routes would reinforce the economic primacy of central business districts. In fact, these roads hastened the decline of downtowns and encouraged the pre-existing movement of people to the suburbs. Lewis Mumford's was a lonely voice decrying the consequences of urban Interstates and a policy of over-reliance on personal automobiles. Nor had planners realized how the roads would be routed disproportionately through the neighborhoods of the poor and disadvantaged, especially road construction linked to urban renewal. Indeed, few observers anticipated how radically American cities and the surrounding geography would be reshaped by the emergence of Interstate corridors and circumferential bypasses. Suburban malls, land-use problems and sprawl, and trucks as primary carriers of freight are among the many outcomes of these developments.

Not everyone approved these developments, however, and another unanticipated outcome of the Interstate program was the political response of highway opponents. The so-called freeway revolt that took shape in the early 1960s was the first large-scale opposition to roads in the 20th century, and it led to the diminishment of the role of engineers in the determination of American highway policy. The full impact of the politicization of highway decision making is apparent in the more than 6,000 earmarks found in the last highway bill. Another political consequence of the backlash against highways was the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), which altered substantially the place and voice of the public in highway routing decisions. While older engineers found the range of factors they now had to consider in locating roads (wetlands, endangered species and numerous environmental concerns as well as neighborhoods and noise), a younger generation believes the results are better highway designs.

In the end, the Interstate system must be recognized for meeting most of the goals of its designers and supporters—even if the impact on urban environment and the landscape has been high. Yet few of us can imagine this nation without such a road system and the movement of freight and people it allows. Indeed, the flexibility of the network is apparent in the emergence of business strategies such as just-in-time delivery for mass-production assembly plants, the overnight delivery promises of UPS and FedEx, and the near-instant gratification promised by Internet retailers such as Amazon. Without the Interstate system, none of these would be possible. Indeed, emulation may be the most important indication of the significance of the Interstate highways, for Europe already has, and China is just starting, to plan their own versions of an Interstate road network.

Bruce E. Seely is Professor of History and Chair of Social Sciences at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. He is a nationally respected authority on the history of technology and public works. His book, Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers, received the Abel Wolman Award from the Public Works Historical Society. Seely is a Past President of the PWHS and is currently a member of the Historical Committee of the Transportation Research Board. He can be reached at (906) 487-2113 or bseely@mtu.edu.


Official name: Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways

Total miles: 46,837 (as of 2004)

Number of interchanges: 14,750 (approximate)

Number of bridges: 55,512 (as of December 2004)

Number of tunnels: 82

Highest elevation: Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, Clear Creek/Summit Counties in Colorado (11,012 feet east and 11,158 feet west)

Longest routes: I-90 from Seattle, WA to Boston, MA (3,020 miles); I-80 from San Francisco, CA to Teaneck, NJ (2,899 miles); I-40 from Barstow, CA to Wilmington, NC (2,555 miles); I-10 from Los Angeles, CA to Jacksonville, FL (2,460 miles)

Shortest two-digit route: I-73 from Emery to Greensboro, NC (12.27 miles)

Shortest three-digit route: I-878 New York (0.70 miles)

States with the most Interstate miles: Texas - 3,233 miles; California - 2,455 miles; Illinois - 2,169 miles; Pennsylvania - 1,759 miles; Ohio - 1,572 miles

Interstate route going through the most states: I-95 goes through 16 states

State capitals not on an Interstate: All but five state capitals are on an Interstate. Those that are not include: Juneau, Alaska; Dover, Delaware; Jefferson City, Missouri; Carson City, Nevada; and Pierre, South Dakota.

Related sessions at the 2006 APWA Congress:

"PWHS Town Hall Meeting & Special Presentation: The History and Consequences of the Interstate Highway System," Featured Speaker Bruce E. Seely, Michigan Technological University (Sunday, September 10, 2:00-3:50 p.m.). In June 1956, Congress passed the support that provided the funding for a National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, thereby launching the largest public works construction project. But the ideas behind this road network have a much longer history, reaching back into the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, Congress created the system in 1944, and a map of the basic system was approved in 1947. This presentation will examine the long political process involved in getting the Interstate road network created and then built. It will conclude with a quick examination of some of the consequences of this massive infrastructure system, including some of the lessons we've learned about big public works projects from this showpiece highway network.

"Chapter Historian's Meeting," Featured Speaker David Boutros, Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City (Monday, September 11, 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.). Last November, APWA hosted a chapter conference call discussion regarding archival of chapter historical information. The call was such a success that we've invited one of the speakers, David Boutros from the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, to join us for continued discussion on this topic.

"Repeated Lessons Learned in History of Natural Disasters" - Panel Discussion (Monday, September 11, 3:00-4:30 p.m.). This panel discussion will feature observations, opinions and highlights of lessons learned and common errors made throughout history in responding to natural disasters. A panel discussion will look at local, state and federal responsibilities and responses while addressing what can be done on the local level to prepare for, respond and recover from natural disasters. The session will include time for interaction with attendees.