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  Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate System
downProposal for an Interregional Highway System
downDesign and Standards
downPresident Dwight D. Eisenhower 
downThe Clay Committee
downThe Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

  Proposal for an Interregional Highway System
  By the late 1930s, the pressure for construction of transcontinental superhighways was building. It even reached the White House, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt repeatedly expressed interest in construction of a network of toll superhighways as a way of providing more jobs for people out of work. Congress, too, decided to explore the concept. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 directed the chief of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to study the feasibility of a six route toll network. The resultant two-part report, Toll Roads and Free Roads, was based on the statewide highway planning surveys and analysis.
  An average of 196,425 vehicles per day roll over this section of the Capital Beltway, shown in the mid-1960s. (This statistic is from traffic counts in 1994.)

On April 27, 1939, Roosevelt transmitted the report to Congress. He recommended that Congress consider action on:

[A] special system of direct interregional highways, with all necessary connections through and around cities, designed to meet the requirements of the national defense and the needs of a growing peacetime traffic of longer range.

The president's political opponents considered the "master plan" to be "another ascent into the stratosphere of New Deal jitterbug economics," as one critic put it. Overall, however, reaction was favorable within the highway community.

  Illustration of peak traffic volumes based on statewide planning surveys of the 1930s
  With America on the verge of joining the war under way in Europe, the time for a massive highway program had not arrived. However, the president was already thinking about the post-war period. He feared resumption of the Depression if American soldiers returned from the war and were unable to find jobs. A major highway program could be part of the answer. On April 14, 1941, the president appointed a National Interregional Highway Committee to investigate the need for a limited system of national highways. Interregional Highways, released on Jan. 14, 1943, refined the concepts introduced in Part II of Toll Roads and Free Roads. The new report recommended an interregional highway system of 63,000 km, designed to accommodate traffic 20 years from the date of construction.
  Early freeway in Newton, Mass., circa 1935, showing access control.
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  Design and Standards

As consideration of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 began, the highway community was divided. Rival apportionment formulas divided the States. Urban interests battled rural interests for priority. And States sought increased authority from the Federal government. The result of these disagreements was an inability to agree on the major changes needed in the post-war era to address accumulated highway needs. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 primarily maintained the status quo. Its biggest departure was in Section 7, which authorized designation of a 65,000-km "National System of Interstate Highways," to be selected by joint action of the State highway departments:

... so located as to connect by routes, as direct as practicable, the principal metropolitan areas, cities, and industrial centers, to serve the national defense, and to connect at suitable border points with routes of continental importance in the Dominion of Canada and the Republic of Mexico.

Although Section 7 authorized the interstate system, it included no special provisions to give the interstate highways a priority based on their national importance. Section 7 did not authorize special funding, increase the Federal share, or make a Federal commitment to construct the system.

The Public Roads Administration (PRA), as the BPR was now called, moved quickly to implement Section 7. It called on the States to submit recommendations on which routes should be included in the interstate system. PRA also began working with State and local officials to develop interstate plans for the larger cities. In addition, PRA worked with the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) to develop design standards for the interstate system.


Artist's conception of an interstate highway with at-grade crossings on a four-lane highway designed in conformity with the standards approved in 1945. These standards, approved Aug. 1, 1945, did not call for a uniform design for the entire system, but rather for uniformity where conditions such as traffic, population density, topography, and other factors were similar.

On Aug. 2, 1947, PRA announced designation of the first 60,640 km of interstate highways, including 4,638 km of urban thoroughfares. PRA reserved 3,732 km for additional urban circumferential and distributing routes that would be designated later.

Construction of the interstate system moved slowly. Many States did not wish to divert Federal-aid funds from local needs. Others complained that the standards were too high. Some of the heavily populated States, finding that Federal-aid funding was so small in comparison with need, decided to authorize construction of toll roads in the interstate corridors. Also, by July 1950, the United States was again at war, this time in Korea, and the focus of the highway program shifted from civilian to military needs.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 authorized $25 million for the interstate system on a 50-50 matching basis. These were the first funds authorized specifically for interstate construction. However, it was a token amount, reflecting the continuing disagreements within the highway community rather than the national importance of the system.

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  President Dwight D. Eisenhower

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in January 1953, the States had completed 10,327 km of system improvements at a cost of $955 million - half of which came from the Federal government. According to BPR, as it was again called, only 24 percent of interstate roadway was adequate for present traffic; that is, very little of the distance had been reconstructed to meet traffic expected 20 years hence

Lt Col Dwight D. Eisenhower (left) and Maj Sereno Brett, in Wyoming, on the U.S. Army's first transcontinental motor convoy in 1919

Long before taking office, Eisenhower recognized the importance of highways. His first realization of the value of good highways occurred in 1919, when he participated in the U.S. Army's first transcontinental motor convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.

On the way west, the convoy experienced all the woes known to motorists and then some - an endless series of mechanical difficulties; vehicles stuck in mud or sand; trucks and other equipment crashing through wooden bridges; roads as slippery as ice or dusty or the consistency of "gumbo"; [and] extremes of weather from desert heat to Rocky Mountain freezing.

During World War II, Gen. Eisenhower saw the advantages Germany enjoyed because of the autobahn network. He also noted the enhanced mobility of the Allies when they fought their way into Germany.

In 1953, the first year of the Eisenhower administration, the president had little time for highways. He was preoccupied with bringing an end to the war in Korea and helping the country get through the economic disruption of the post-war period.

However, 1954 was a year in which a new Federal-aid highway act would be needed, and from the start, during the State of the Union Address on Jan. 7, Eisenhower made clear that he was ready to turn his attention to the nation's highway problems. He considered it important to "protect the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system."

Having held extensive hearings in 1953, Congress was able to act quickly on the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954. Again, however, Congress avoided radical departures that would alter the balance among competing interests. All the programs, including the interstate system, were funded at higher levels, so each of the interests was satisfied. The main controversy involved the apportionment of the funds. Heavily populated States and urban areas wanted population to be the main factor, while other States preferred land area and distance as factors. The 1954 bill authorized $175 million for the interstate system, to be used on a 60-40 matching ratio. The formula represented a compromise: one-half based on population and one-half based on the Federal-aid primary formula (one-third on roadway distance, one-third on land area, and one-third on population).

During the signing ceremony at the White House on May 6, 1954, the president said, "This legislation is one effective forward step in meeting the accumulated needs." But he knew it was not a big enough step, and he decided to do something about it.

What was needed, the president believed, was a grand plan for a properly articulated system of highways. The president wanted a self-liquidating method of financing that would avoid debt. He wanted a cooperative alliance between State and Federal officials to accomplish the Federal part of the grand plan. And he wanted the Federal government to cooperate with the States to develop a modern State highway system.

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  The Clay Committee

Within the administration, the president placed primary responsibility for developing a financing mechanism for the grand plan on retired Gen. Lucius D. Clay, an engineer and a long-time associate and advisor to the president.

Gen. Clay and his committee members quickly found themselves confronted with the usual range of alternatives - from inside and outside the administration - that had bedeviled debates on the National System of Interstate Highways from the start. By the end of the year, however, the Clay Committee and the governors found themselves in general agreement on the outline of the needed program. The governors had concluded that, as a practical matter, they could not get the federal government out of the gas tax business. Instead, they submitted proposals that, among other things, would keep State matching requirements at about current levels.

The Clay Committee presents its report with recommendations concerning the financing of a national interstate highway network to President Eisenhower on Jan. 11, 1955. Standing behind the president are (from left) Gen. Lucius Clay, Frank Turner, Steve Betchel, Sloan Colt, William Roberts, and Dave Beck. Eisenhower forwarded the Clay Committee's report to Congress on Feb. 22, 1955. In his transmittal letter, he acknowledged the "varieties of proposals which must be resolved into a national highway pattern," and he wrote that the Clay Committee's proposal would "provide a solid foundation for a sound program."

Even before the President transmitted the report to Congress, Sen. Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee, chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads in the Committee on Public Works, introduced his own bill.

An average of 196,425 vehicles per day roll over this section of the Capital Beltway, shown in the mid-1960s. (This statistic is from traffic counts in 1994.) On May 25, 1955, the Senate defeated the Clay Committee's plan by a vote of 60 to 31. The Senate then approved the Gore bill by a voice vote that reflected overwhelming support, despite objections to the absence of a financing plan.

Rep. George H. Fallon of Baltimore, Md., chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads in the House Committee on Public Works, knew that even if the House approved the Clay Committee plan, it would stand little chance of surviving a House-Senate conference. He, therefore, drafted a new bill with the help of data supplied by Frank Turner.

By a vote of 221 to 193, the House defeated the Clay Committee's plan on July 27, 1955. That was not a surprise. What was a surprise was that Fallon's bill, as modified in committee, was defeated also. It lost by an even more lopsided vote of 292 to 123. Most observers blamed the defeat of the Fallon bill on an intense lobbying campaign by trucking, petroleum, and tire interests.

On Jan. 5, 1956, in his State of the Union Address, the president renewed his call for a "modern, interstate highway system." At first glance, prospects for bipartisan agreement on the highway program seemed slim in 1956, a presidential election year. But changes had been occurring that would turn the situation around in 1956.

Because the Senate had approved the Gore bill in 1955, the action remained in the House. Fallon introduced a revised bill, the Federal Highway Act of 1956, on Jan. 26, 1956. It provided for a 65,000-km national system of interstate and defense highways to be built over 13 years. The Federal share would be 90 percent or $24.8 billion. Increased funding would be provided for the other Federal-aid highway systems as well.

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  The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

On March 19, the House Ways and Means Committee reported out a bill, developed by Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana, that contained the financing mechanism. The Highway Revenue Act of 1956 proposed to increase the gas tax from two to three cents per gallon and to impose a series of other highway user tax changes. Acting on a suggestion by Secretary of Treasury George Humphrey, Rep. Boggs included a provision that credited a revenue from highway user taxes to a Highway Trust Fund to be used for the highway program.

Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana The Committee on Public Works combined the Fallon and Boggs bills as Title I and Title II, respectively, of a single bill that was introduced on April 21. On April 27, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 passed the House by a vote of 388 to 19.

On May 28 and 29, the Senate debated the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 before approving it by a voice vote. The House and Senate versions now went to a House-Senate conference to resolve the differences. The conference was difficult as participants attempted to preserve as much of their own bill as possible. On June 25, the conferees completed their work.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that emerged from the House-Senate conference committee included features of the Gore and Fallon bills, as well as compromises on other provisions from both.

The interstate system was expanded, but only by 1,600 km to 66,000 km. To construct the network, $25 billion was authorized for FYs 1957 through 1969. During the first three years, the funds would be apportioned as provided for in the Gore bill (mileage, land area, and population). In succeeding years, apportionments would be made on the cost-to-complete basis provided for in the Fallon bill. The added 1,600 km were excluded from the estimate. The Federal share of project costs would be 90 percent.

The 1956 act called for uniform interstate design standards to accommodate traffic forecast for 1975 (modified in later legislation to traffic forecast in 20 years). Two lane segments, as well as at-grade intersections, were permitted on lightly traveled segments. (However, legislation passed in 1966 required all parts of the interstate highway system to be at least four lanes with no at-grade intersections regardless of traffic volume.)

Access would be limited to interchanges approved as part of the original design or subsequently approved by the secretary of commerce. Service stations and other commercial establishments were prohibited from the interstate right-of-way, in contrast to the franchise system used on toll roads.

Toll roads, bridges, and tunnels could be included in the system if they met system standards and their inclusion promoted development of an integrated system.

On June 26, 1956, the Senate approved the bill by a vote of 89 to 1. (The one "no" vote was cast by Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana who opposed the gas tax increase.) That same day, the House approved the bill by a voice vote.

President  Eisenhower Earlier that month, Eisenhower had entered Walter Reed Army Medical Center after an attack of ileitis, an intestinal ailment. He was still in the hospital on June 29, when a stack of bills was brought in for signature. One of them was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the landmark bill for which he had fought so hard. He signed it without ceremony or fanfare.

Biographer Stephen E. Ambrose stated, "Of all his domestic programs, Eisenhower's favorite by far was the Interstate System." Eisenhower's 1963 memoir, Mandate for Change 1953-1956, explained why:

More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America. ... Its impact on the American economy - the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up - was beyond calculation.

The next 50 years would be filled with unexpected engineering challenges, unanticipated controversies, and unforeseen funding difficulties. Nevertheless, the president's view would prove correct. The interstate system, and the Federal-State partnership that built it, changed the face of America.



  Adapted from Weingroff, Richard F., Summer 1996, Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, Creating the Interstate System: Public Roads, v. 60, no. 1,
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