“Little else has given common man access to landscape, mobility, and commerce, as interstates,” observes Tom Lewis is his book Divided Highways, Building Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life. Americans have always prized their freedom, and freedom of mobility is no different. It took forty years to build the interstate highway system, not thirteen years as the Federal-Aid Highway Act originally intended when it was signed by President Eisenhower in 1956. But few national programs have transformed the American way of life so positively as the interstate highway system.
Interstates facilitate Americans’ ability “to live where we want and go where we wish.” At the ribbon cutting of one of the last stretches of interstate to open in Los Angeles in 1993, a minister declared the structure that which “links and binds us together.”
But as the era of interstates took shape, problems with taking and dividing land and communities surfaced, as well as ushering in blight and crime. Opposition ensued. Indeed many of the early battles against interstates parallel the fight many communities are still experiencing today when it comes to eminent domain abuse, ill-conceived highway projects, and even superhighways that are designed more to benefit multi-national corporations’ movement of goods than to serve the common good.
The MacDonald before McDonald’s
The man who put it all to paper was Thomas MacDonald, the first chief of the Bureau of Public Roads who hailed from a small town in Iowa. He’s responsible for sketching out what today has become the interstate highway system. In the 1920s, only about one in four families owned a vehicle. The roads were poor – compacted stone, mud for shoulders, full of hills and dips with plenty of potholes. Even minimal grading would have been an improvement.
MacDonald mapped out routes essential to national defense with General John Pershing. By 1921, MacDonald had built 5,000 miles of highways with another 17,000 underway. MacDonald built a reputation as being sober-minded, proven, and trustworthy and was a guy who knew how to get things done. It was also in 1921 that the Federal Aid Highway Bill gave MacDonald everything he wanted. It was the first bill that gave rise to the idea of a national road system. The Federal Aid bill in 1916 spent $75 million on roads for five years. In contrast, the 1921 bill allocated $75 million per year for national roads. States would set aside seven percent of their roads to connect with highways of other states.
Early road building was quite a reflection of utilitarianism. MacDonald managed to get his hands on $130 million dollars worth of surplus military vehicles for use by state highway departments. With the rise of tractors and bulldozers (the story of Holt-Cat is worth the price of the book), gone were the days of horses and wagons to move earth and rock for highways. The cost of moving earth plummeted from 40 cents per cubic yard in 1922 to just 21 cents in 1938. Technology advanced rapidly as did the spread of automobiles to the middle class.
By 1929, Americans owned one car for every four people, representing a 200% increase from 1920. With the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T, which he declared “a car for the great multitude,” the freedom and convenience of the personal vehicle was here to stay. Americans now viewed a car as a necessity.
The year 1922 was a key turning point for roads in America. More progress was made on roads in 1922 than any other time in history with the construction of 10,000 miles. That’s the equivalent of three transcontinental railroads. Up until the national road system started to take shape, few drove long distances in cars. In 1903, it took 63 days to drive from New York to San Francisco by car versus only 4 days by railroad. But once the successful transcontinental transport of military vehicles across the country took place in 1919 after World War I, with the then Lt. Colonel Dwight Eisenhower in tow, railroads started to feel the threat of the automobile.
Later, as franchises started to pop-up along interstates, McDonald’s and Howard Johnson restaurants became two of the first. The average McDonald’s could only be accessed by road. Businesses discovered early the benefit of the real estate alongside highways, catering to the new mobility and freedom interstates facilitated.
Freeways or tollways?
With battles currently raging over the addition of tolling across the nation’s highways, including on interstates, Lewis captures the history of the ongoing clash over tollways versus freeways illustrating just how much history repeats itself. MacDonald was adamant that highways remain free. Anyone who suggested tolls threatened the very ‘freedom of the road.’
Franklin Roosevelt first proposed a network of turnpikes to solve the growing problem of urban congestion. MacDonald responded with a report Toll Roads and Free Roads in 1938. He cited the Department of Commerce statistic that more than half of those who owned cars earned over $1,500 a year and were unable to pay a toll. He contended the average trip in an auto was less than 30 miles, which was the average interval between toll booths on turnpikes. Turnpikes were geared for transcontinental travel, not inner city travel. So he argued that toll roads were not the solution to urban congestion. Ninety percent of the traffic on roads outside cities was bound for the city. Express roads into and out of the city would need to be built.
Eminent domain for private gain
While most of us today think of the Supreme Court Kelo case as the forerunner for eminent domain for private gain, it was Roosevelt who conceived of the idea of taking more land than needed for road construction in order to lease it back to private companies along toll roads who would operate gas stations and hotels – even factories. MacDonald vehemently opposed the idea writing: “The real question is…whether its sound public policy to collect a private profit from the user of the highway. The answer ought to be a vigorous and authoritative ‘No.’ There is no place on the highway today for a privately-owned toll bridge.” He also strongly felt roads should be built only for public need, not for economic development.
Of course, today, there’s an all-out assault on the road user with special interests still pushing the privatization of our public roads, which results in extracting punitively high toll rates from the traveling public. It’s the most expensive way to fund roads. The NAFTA superhighways, called the Trans-Texas Corridor in Texas, were originally conceived as a land grab precisely to do what Roosevelt first envisioned – take extra land and allow the private companies an exclusive profit-making operation by operating businesses alongside the multi-modal tolled trade corridors.
It wasn’t until the success of the high-speed, limited access, engineering marvel known as the Pennsylvania Turnpike that MacDonald started to doubt his ardent position against tolls. The 160-mile turnpike opened on October 1, 1940. The military and members of Congress had a preview prior to the official opening in August. Officials, including MacDonald, marveled at the high speed, all weather road. Walter Jones hailed it “a super-defense highway” to move troops rapidly.
Few had ever driven as fast as the turnpike’s design allowed. The fifty-car motorcade given early access drove at speeds as high as 100 MPH. Reporters commented that they never thought they would drive 70 MPH in heavy rain around mountain curves and survive to tell about it.
MacDonald’s doubt in his anti-toll policy originated more from the road’s design and engineering than the funding mechanism. The turnpike introduced grade separations, or overpasses, and high-grade pavement of nine inches of concrete reinforced with steel. The increased safety despite the increased speeds was the dawn of the controlled access highway. Truly at the time, turnpikes were safer than other roads.
Hence, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and many toll roads that followed forced MacDonald to re-think many of his assumptions about road building. He was no longer the one authoritative voice on highways. Now with the benefits of standardized road design evident to many toll road travelers, state highway engineers felt roads could pay for themselves. Conveniently, Pennsylvania officials forgot their promise to remove the tolls once the road was paid for. So the while the Pennsylvania Turnpike may have settled matters of safety, speed, and limited access, it certainly didn’t settle the matter of how to pay for roads.
The rise of the suburb
It was under this backdrop that Eisenhower took office and proposed the interstate highway system. The new mobility experienced by Americans through roads and the automobile ushered in the era of the suburbs. No longer tied to inner city life, middle class families could now enjoy the peace and space of country life and still travel into the city for work. With GIs returning from World War II and gaining access to education through the GI Bill as well as access to guaranteed home loans, ten million people could now realize the American dream.
The new mobility imposed stresses on the cities as their tax base left for the suburbs. This laid the groundwork for a host of big government ‘solutions’ in the form of subsidies, down the road, that today are called livable cities initiatives, sustainable development, and other government programs that try to attract and keep people in the inner cities and make them as anti-car as possible, often siphoning off the taxes on road users to accomplish their new goals.
Interstate bill experiences gridlock of its own
When legislation to create the interstate system was being crafted in 1956, Eisenhower had a split within his own staff as to how to fund them – whether through a toll-based system or a tax-based one as well as a fight over whether the federal government would take complete control or proceed with the cooperation of the states. Eisenhower didn’t want to add to the federal debt nor did he want tax hikes. So Eisenhower turned the two factions into study committees. One studied how to fund the system and the other where to build them. He quickly discovered he could sell the interstate system easily to the public once he connected it to national defense. But how to pay for it remained the contentious issue.
The Bureau of Public Roads remained adamantly opposed to a toll network even after Francis Victor DuPont replaced MacDonald as the new chief under Eisenhower. Eisenhower initially pushed bonds as the funding mechanism after his aides showed him how it could be construed as off-budget debt. But Senate Finance Chairman Harry Byrd of Virginia rejected the bond debt as ‘dishonest bookkeeping’ and insisted on a pay-as-you-go system of financing. After a bitter debate in Congress, the final bill included a one-cent federal gas tax, the creation of a Highway Trust Fund, a 13-year timeframe for completion of the system, $25 billion in funding for 12 years, and though the feds would pick-up 90% of the tab, the interstate highway system would be built with federal-state cooperation.
Trouble quickly arose when interstates hit the inner city. In many cases, the proposed roads would put heavy truck noise and pollution within 50-70 feet of a person’s living room, creating health problems, displacements, and blight. In his book Divided Highways, Lewis details the fight against many ill-conceived interstate projects across the country, which closely parallel many communities’ challenges to stop road projects still today.
Busting the Highway Trust Fund
Just as Congress is debating how to shore-up the federal Highway Trust Fund and the best way to continue funding roads now that gas tax revenues are no longer adequate to keep the system solvent, which is a debate raging in most statehouses as well, it was the Nixon administration that was the first ever to push the raid of the Highway Fund for transit and rail. A problem conservatives point to today as the reason the Highway Trust Fund went bankrupt. The interstate system had wrought intense urban congestion and highway planners found that the more expansion they built, the more clogged the roads seemed to get. They concluded highways alone could no longer provide mobility, particularly within cities. It permanently changed the direction of the federal highway program into a broader transportation program.
Lewis’ book masterfully paints the history of interstates through the lives of those who shaped it, the unintended consequences of the interstate system of the largest engineered structure in the world, and the shift away from a road centric approach to mobility that we see today. It’s well worth the journey.
Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.