The long and winding interstate

By Bill Hudgins, columnist

When I was a kid in 1950s Virginia, Dad and I would pile into his un-airconditioned DeSoto for a father-son trip to some major tourist draw like Washington, D.C., (dull), Williamsburg (boring) or Luray Caverns (cold). The trips were always slow, as we rolled over state roads through uncounted towns.

Little did I know that around my fifth birthday in 1954, President Eisenhower would signal the end of those long, dull rides by proposing a massive highway construction plan.

Actually, the idea of an interstate system was already at least 10 years old. It was put forth in the Federal Highway Act of 1944, while America was still slogging through World War II.

FDR had wanted a system of national roads since before the war began, and the 1944 Act gave it to him. It called for building about 40,000 miles of roads, establishing construction standards, and splitting the cost equally between the feds and the states.

But Congress never approved funding, so the plan sat by the side of the road. In any event, paying for those roads was, of course, a major issue whose possible solutions still sound familiar today: tolls or taxes.

As postwar America boomed, people and politicians recognized the need to do something about our highway infrastructure. But the Korean War, the Cold War and other problems stalled progress until Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953.

Ike announced that highways would be a major priority of his administration. On July 12, 1954, he unveiled his “Grand Plan” for a nationwide improvement of U.S. roads. It was bigger and more ambitious than FDR’s plan because it would affect not just highways, but nearly every piece of pavement.

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s official history, Ike’s Grand Plan “was that each level of government – federal, state, county, and municipal – would contribute to an upgrading of the Nation’s entire road network over a 10-year period. The goal of this Grand Plan was ‘a properly articulated system that solves the problems of speedy, safe, transcontinental travel, intercity communication, access highways and farm-to-market movement’” that would minimize or eliminate “metropolitan area congestion, bottlenecks and parking” problems.

Besides the day-to-day benefits for commerce and commuters, Ike’s Grand Plan would eliminate “the appalling inadequacies to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come.” That was a polite way of saying it would help panicked citizens get the hell out of Dodge.

Eisenhower wanted the system to pay for itself, either through tolls or an “assured increase in gas tax revenue.” The feds and the states would cooperate and divide responsibility for construction, maintenance and so on.

There was another reason behind the Grand Plan, according to historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s biography of the 34th President: The idea represented “the largest public-works program in history” which would create millions of government jobs that no one could criticize as make-work.

Eisenhower also believed (erroneously, as it turned out) he could manipulate construction schedules to smooth out troublesome dips and peaks, Ambrose wrote.

Vice President Richard Nixon presented the plan at the annual Governor’s Conference meeting at Lake George, N.Y., on July 12, 1954, not long after my birthday. I don’t remember, but most likely I was in Dad’s stuffy car being admonished not to stick my arm out the window lest a passing vehicle cut it off.

It took two more years, a ton of studies and considerable wrangling over funding before Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 on June 26, 1956. Ike signed it on June 29.

Reams have been written about what the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways has done to our way of life, good and bad.

But I gloried in it when I was old enough to take off in my first car to places like Washington, D.C. (wow!), Williamsburg (fascinating) and Luray Caverns (cold). I did hold onto two childhood traditions though. Air conditioning was an option that I couldn’t afford, so I stuck my arm out the window. At least the breeze was faster than on Route 1.

Until next time, be safe, make money and get home often. LL