||Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate
for an Interregional Highway System
Dwight D. Eisenhower
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.
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.
||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.
||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
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
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.
||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
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.
||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.
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.
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.
||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.
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.
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
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, http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/summer96/p96su10.htm.