The Interstate Highway System at 50: A Midlife Crisis? - AED in Washington
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The Interstate Highway System at 50: A Midlife Crisis?

Written By Will Wilkins

Article Date: 01-01-2006
Copyright (C) 2006 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.


A half-century ago a critical juncture in history resulted in construction of a system of superhighways that changed the face and fortunes of this country.

Hailed as the most ambitious public works project since the Roman Empire, the Interstate Highway System is the backbone of the American economy and continues to provide Americans with unprecedented levels of mobility and prosperity. An early proponent of the Interstate, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 on June 29 of that year, creating the Highway Trust Fund and initiating the Interstate construction era. The Interstate Highway System, built predominately during the 1960s and 1970s, now stretches more than 46,000 miles from South Florida to the Canadian border in Maine, straddling the Puget Sound region of Washington State and reaching the Mexican border south of San Diego. The Interstate opened up the South and West to migration and tourism, and brought most American communities in close proximity to a major highway.

The construction of the Interstate Highway System caught the imagination of the American public in the mid-20th Century. Fifty years later, there is an urgent need for a similarly compelling vision for 21st Century transportation in the United States, a vision that will result in a road and bridge expansion program to meet this century’s growing transportation needs.

As a young Lt. Colonel in 1919, Eisenhower helped lead a convoy across the country that both showcased the Army’s new vehicles used in the recent war and lent support to a growing national “good roads” movement. Eisenhower and his men discovered that dirt roads and old wooden bridges made motor travel nearly impossible in some areas, especially in the West. The convoy took 62 days to complete its journey from Washington, D.C to Oakland, Calif., and lost several vehicles along the way.

President Eisenhower, remembering the struggles of the 1919 convoy and his subsequent experience in Europe during World War II as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, where he saw how quickly troops moved on Germany’s Autobahn system, pushed for construction of an integrated system of multi-lane highways in the United States. He envisioned a system that would serve the dual roles of facilitating national defense and accelerating economic growth.

These restricted access high-speed highways transformed post-World War II America. During the Interstate construction era, road and bridge-building companies provided jobs for hundreds of thousands of people; the road building boom in turn created employment for millions of others, as opportunities for commerce expanded because of the creation of the Interstate.

The Interstate also triggered a logistics revolution in shipping. The new highways accelerated freight movement and reduced the cost of shipping – innovations that gave American companies immense advantages over their international competitors, helping American businesses succeed globally.

Economists have estimated that from the initial phase of Interstate construction to 1970, the rate of return for every dollar of public investment in highway construction was 54 cents, which meant the investments recovered their costs in two years. Today, the Interstate system is the most critical link in the nation’s transportation system. In addition to its importance to national defense, it continues to provide economic growth, improved traffic safety and timely access.

“The construction of the Interstate Highway System was a tremendous accomplishment that changed America for the better,” said Walter Berry, 2005 chairman of AED (Associated Equipment Distributors). “As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the system, AED members should be very proud of the role they played in building this legacy.

“However, it’s also crucial that we look to the future and begin working towards meeting the transportation challenges of the 21st Century.”

The Interstate highway system has been so successful there is some concern that it has been taken for granted. The Interstate’s 50th Anniversary celebration presents highway advocates with a great opportunity to educate the public about the benefits of the Interstate and the need to make further improvements to the nation’s roadways.

The Interstate at 50 coalition, an informal organization of more than 30 national associations representing the highway construction and business communities, highway users and motorists, and federal, state and local governments, is working to organize a year-long celebration commemorating the Interstate system. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) kicked the year off with a major news conference at the Detroit Auto Show.

“AASHTO and the state departments of transportation are coordinating anniversary celebration events across the country to engage the public so that they think about the importance of the Interstate, and transportation, in their lives,” said AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley. “We are also conducting research and planning policy conferences with our industry colleagues to begin to consider what needs to be done in the next 50 years to keep this important system at the heart of our economic growth.”

AASHTO is also organizing a re-enactment of Eisenhower’s 1919 cross-country convoy and working with PBS on a documentary on the Interstate and its future.

The American Road & Transporta-tion Builders Association (ARTBA), is sponsoring a spring book tour by Dan McNichol, author of bestselling books on the Interstate Highway System and the “Big Dig” project in Boston. ARTBA is also planning a gala dinner for hundreds of VIPs in Washington on June 29 with Colin Powell scheduled to be the keynote speaker and Willard Scott serving as master of ceremonies.

TRIP will release a national Interstate report and 15 to 20 customized state Interstate “future needs” reports to highlight the vital role the Interstate Highway System played in America’s economic success in the 20th Century. These reports will also point out the need to make further improvements in the nation’s highways to meet transportation needs of the 21st Century.

The Interstate reports, to be released throughout 2006, should generate significant local media coverage and provide highway advocates another forum to deliver key messages about our nation’s transportation needs.

While it is important that we celebrate the history of the Interstate, TRIP has designed its state Interstate reports so they also focus public attention on our nation’s future mobility needs and challenges.

As Stephen Sandherr, CEO of The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) said, “The 50th Anniversary of the Interstate system is an opportunity to highlight the economic and other national benefits its development has had and to create a vision for the transportation future of the country. AGC will be working at the national level and through our chapters to use the Anniversary as an opportunity to get the American people to recognize this system, which is typically taken for granted, as a national treasure.”

Events planned for the year-long celebration of the Interstate will compliment debates concerning policies at the federal and state levels that will fulfill the vision of a 21st Century highway system in the United States.

“Over the past four decades, the Interstate has handled traffic volumes and vehicle weights that have dramatically exceeded the usage projections of those who developed and designed the plan in the 1940s and 1950s,” said ARTBA CEO Pete Ruane. “It’s time for policymakers at all levels of government to renew their commitment to the American infrastructure and develop a new transportation vision – in partnership with the private sector – to meet the challenges of the future.”

Americans have clearly benefited from the construction of the Interstate, and the benefits continue today. Many Americans do not remember a time when these superhighways did not span the country from coast to coast. This year’s Interstate Anniversary celebrations and media events can help spur a discussion about the future of highway transportation in the United States as it affects our economic competitiveness, safety and quality of life.

The 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System may be a turning point in the history of American transportation. A half-century ago another critical juncture in our history resulted in the construction of a system of superhighways that changed the face and fortunes of a nation. Fifty years later, we are faced with the same question: Will we build a highway transportation system that keeps us moving for generations to come? Construction Equipment Distribution, January 2006.


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