Spring 2007 Forward to a Friend

The Interstate Highway System
by Scott Heidbrink


Imagine a road trip from Los Angeles to Seattle. Now picture driving it on two-lane roads most of the way. Sound like an adventure? For an 8-year-old, yes it was. That trip took place in 1962, with the Seattle World’s Fair being the final destination. The trip took weeks of planning, countless maps, and endless coordination. In the end, my father just drove until he got tired. Then we found a motel, and our family stopped for the night.

  • The National Highway System is composed of approximately 160,000 miles of roadway.
  • 98 percent of the NHS has been completed (as initially planned).
  • About 90 percent of the U.S. population lives within four miles of an NHS road.
  • There are national highways in Puerto Rico as well as all 50 states.
  • Interstates running east and west have even numbers – while north and south ones use odd numbers.
  • The last stoplight along an interstate route was removed from I-90 in Wallace, Idaho, in 1991.
  • In 1956, there were 156 million Americans and 54 million registered vehicles (approximately one vehicle for every three people); today, there are 300 million people and 237 million vehicles.
  • Americans drive three trillion miles a year on the highways – three times that of 1956.
  • Truckers use the interstates to move $300 billion in goods annually, including fresh seafood and produce.

It was an amazing journey, with excitement around every turn, breathtaking scenery, and countless “tourist traps” (have you ever driven through a Giant Sequoia?). Still, for four days on the road, my sister and I whined, “Are we there yet?”

Travel today is different. Mapping the route? Thirty seconds on the Internet. Today’s driving directions from L.A. to Seattle couldn’t be easier: Get on the 405 freeway (I-405), proceed to the I-5, then drive north for 1,112 miles. No stop signs. No interchanges. Just one long, straight shot.

What made the difference? The National Highway System (NHS), which came into being in 1956, but was far from complete in 1962. Even though virtually every driver in America uses it, very few people actually know about the NHS and how it evolved.

... one of the most ambitious infrastructure endeavors in the nation’s history.

On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which launched one of the most ambitious infrastructure endeavors in the nation’s history.

But the Highway Act is not the beginning. The seeds for this project were sown on July 17, 1919, when 81 U.S. Army vehicles left Washington, D.C., and headed west for San Francisco. The trip was completed at a record-setting pace of 62 days. That trip made a tremendous impact on one soldier – Lt. Col. Eisenhower. He dealt with the challenges of intercontinental travel – deep mud, sand, broken bridges, horrible roads, and the breakdowns they caused.

Two and a half decades later, Gen. Eisenhower got a firsthand look at Germany’s autobahn expressway and how effortlessly troops could be moved throughout the country. So while other politicians talked about a national highway system, Eisenhower made it a top priority when he became president in 1953. He realized that it made sense for national security and that the project would create an immense number of jobs.

The states were quick to respond after the act was signed into law. Missouri was the first state to start interstate construction, with groundbreaking for I-70 in St. Charles County on August 2, 1956. Less than two months later, on September 26, eight miles of U.S. 40 near Topeka, Kansas, became the first interstate highway project completed.

The bulk of the road building occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, although the most expensive piece of the longest interstate highway – 3,020 miles of I-90 from Seattle to Boston – wasn’t completed until 2006 as part of Boston’s Big Dig. The Federal Highway Administration estimates a total cost of about $145 billion to build the interstate system (of which, the Big Dig was a whopping $15 billion).

Today there are 62 separate interstate highways, nine transcontinental or border-to-border routes, 55,500 bridges, 15,000 on-and-off interchanges, 104 tunnels – and zero red lights!


Eisenhower wanted a unified road system to be able to mobilize the military and evacuate civilians in the event of a catastrophe, such as an atomic bomb attack. The U.S. Interstate system has proven effective in moving masses of people and supplies during natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Also, the system has changed everyday habits and customs across America.

Today, while U.S. Interstates comprise only 4 percent of the total road mileage in America, they carry more than 40 percent of all highway traffic, 75 percent of heavy-truck traffic, and 90 percent of tourist traffic.1


In 2006, various celebrations marked the golden anniversary of the interstate. Since its advent, America has changed from a country of family-owned farms, old factories, and small towns into a global power boasting the highest gross national product in the world – more than $12 trillion in 2005.2


“Just-in-time” production techniques, championed by companies like Subaru, flourish because of the interstate system. Rather than storing a warehouse full of parts, manufacturers take delivery of the parts just slightly before they are required because interstate highways make shipping times faster and more predictable.

Another interstate-related phenomenon is suburban sprawl, which is the move of a population from the city to its outskirts. In 1960, approximately 55 million Americans lived in suburbs (about one-third of the population). By 2000, 140 million were in suburbs (nearly half the population). There, neighbors commonly don’t know each other, let alone interact. In addition, the move to the suburbs can drain the economic and social vitality of urban centers.

  • One out of every five miles of interstate had to be straight so planes could land in an emergency.
    Good idea, but this myth is false.
  • Astronauts can see the highway system from outer space.
    The roads are wide, but not that big. This myth is also false.
  • President Lyndon Johnson’s wife hated billboards so much that she had them banned.
    This one is true, for the most part. The Highway Beautification Act of 1965, a pet project of Lady Bird Johnson, protected existing billboards, but new ones were limited to advertising products for sale on the sign’s property.

Dr. Mike Hirsch, head of sociology at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, said that sprawl was inevitable because of the country’s newfound mobility. “Interstate highways transformed urban America and gave rise to urban sprawl as we know it,” he said. “It opened up for development the peripheries of cities ... facilitated the blending of communities along those corridors.”


The interstate system has a huge impact on small businesses. For example, a little café used to stand next to the Shell station along U.S. Highway 25 in Corbin, Kentucky. Traffic used to back up in the little town, which was good for the café because tourists and businessmen stopped to eat. Business was good.

Then the state laid out the plans for I-75, which bypassed Corbin completely.

Faced with certain failure, the restaurant owner, Harland Sanders, decided he wasn’t going to let the interstate cost him his livelihood. He had a darn good chicken recipe, so he tried something daring – franchising. As one door closed on his lone chicken café, Col. Sanders became one of the first entrepreneurs to use the expansion of the interstates to his benefit. Kentucky Fried Chicken stores sprang up from coast to coast, typically just a stone’s throw from the bustling interstate.

Stop and think about the impact – where would the fast food industry be without the interstates? Before the interstates, we had drive-in restaurants, and meals were slower paced and more social. With the advent of the interstates, drive-ins became drive-throughs, and we became a mobile nation eating on the run.

Monument Valley
So every once in a while, dare to be different – get off the interstate and see what the side roads have to offer. It’s worth the trip.

Building the interstates was one challenge. Now, the current test is maintaining and expanding the roadways as they age. This is an issue that will generate ongoing debate as few politicians want to tackle the problem (mainly because no one knows where the money will come from). But the reality is that the interstates have helped make our country what it is today. For better or for worse, they are what they are – an evolution that started a revolution.

Driving from L.A. to Seattle isn’t what it once was. For all the efficiency, we have lost some of the mystery – some of the lure of the road. So every once in a while, dare to be different – get off the interstate and see what the side roads have to offer. It’s worth the trip.

1 http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/spring96/p96sp2.htm.
2 AAA World magazine, July/August 2006.