America’s Interstate Highways

Summertime in America means vacation from school and the opportunities for families across the country to vacation together. Many families load up their car and take it on the road for those vacations – in 2009, American tourism spending on gasoline was over $48 billion* – and odds are good that those road trips will take a family over the 45,000+ miles of roads that make up the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

The seeds for the Interstate Highway System were sown in the throes of World War I – in 1919, as part of an Army convoy, a young Dwight D. Eisenhower crossed the country on the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway. It took the convoy nearly two months to travel from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. Eisenhower’s crossing the country on the less-than-dependable roadway was a formative experience, one from which he would draw decades later.

The Lincoln Highway was the brainchild of wealthy industrialists, and came into being after long fundraising drives and intense lobbying at the federal, state, and local levels of government. In 1916, Congress passed the first Federal-Aid Road Act, offering dollar for dollar matching funds from the federal government to incentive states to construct “rural post roads,” intended to help connect rural areas to larger population centers. The onset of World War I prevented much of what the Act hoped to accomplish from getting off the ground.

Following the war’s close, Congress tried again with the passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which brought the project even closer to the shape it would eventually take. This Act specifically addressed both “primary highways” (interstate) and “secondary highways”+ (intercounty). The Bureau of Public Roads, the Geological Survey, and the Army collaborated to produce a report on the study of roads vital to the national defense, and the result was the Pershing Map, so called because the findings were presented to Congress by General John “Black Jack” Pershing. The Pershing Map is effectively the foundation upon which the Federal Highway System would be constructed.

It was near the conclusion of World War II that the interstate highway system got a definition, in the text of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, which mandated the post-war construction of both highways and bridges. Section 7 of the Act reads:

“There shall be designated within the continental United States a National System of Interstate Highways not exceeding forty thousand miles in total extent 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. The routes of the National System of Interstate Highways shall be selected by joint action of the State highway departments of each State and the adjoining States, as provided by the Federal Highway Act of November 9, 1921, for the selection of the Federal-aid system.”=

Dwight Eisenhower’s election to the presidency in 1952 put in office the right man at the right time for the highway system. In addition to his experience on the Lincoln Highway, Eisenhower had become fascinated with the Autobahn highway in Germany during his time in Europe during World War II. Eisenhower was an advocate for the interstate highway concept as a component of national defense, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which officially authorized the construction of an American interstate highway system, has come to be known popularly as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, which reads, in part:

“It is hereby declared to be essential to the national interest to provide for the early completion of the ‘National System of Interstate Highways,’ as authorized and designated in accordance with section 7 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 (58 Stat. 838). It is the intent of the Congress that the Interstate System be completed as nearly as practicable over a thirteen-year period and that the entire System in all the states be brought to simultaneous completion. Because of its primary importance to the national defense, the name of such system is hereby changed to the ‘National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.’”`

Officially completed in 1992, the interstate was named after President Eisenhower, in honor of his support.

Much of the cost of both construction and ongoing maintenance of the highways have been paid by fuel taxes that go into the Highway Trust Fund. The Trust Fund has been a matter of concern to Congress for years, but particularly since the economic downturn in 2008, and funding for the Trust Fund looks like it may decline even further in the near future. With the passage of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act on July 6, 2012, the federal gas/diesel taxes are slated to decrease to 4.3 cents/gallon after September 30, 2016 (they’re currently at 18.3 cents/gallon on gas and 24.3 cents/gallon on diesel). There’s a 0.1 cent/gallon tax on top of that for what’s called the “Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund” (LUST) that will also expire on that date._

A mandated uptick in fuel efficiency, as well as growth in use of hybrid/electric vehicles are expected to reduce gas tax revenue all the further. Proposals for increasing revenue into the Trust Fund include raising the gas tax, transitioning to a sales tax that works off the retail price of the fuel purchased rather than the number of gallons, developing a method that charges drivers based on the number of miles they travel (distance charges, or VMT). Tolls and public-private partnerships are discussed. Some suggest eliminating the Trust Fund entirely (as it was initially meant to expire after initial construction of the system concluded), as it might increase flexibility of funding for projects, more creativity in infrastructure spending, and encourage closer inspection of the costs/benefits of transit programs.^

Figuring out a plan for funding highway maintenance is essential, though, and should be done as soon as possible. As of 2012, 11% of public road bridges were identified as “structurally deficient” and another 14% “functionally obsolete” (there are just over 600k in the U.S.). Interstate highways run over about 10% of bridges and 25% on top of that “serve arterial highways” – this 35% carry nearly 80% of daily traffic. It’s estimated that an increase in spending to about $20 billion per year on bridge expenditures (compared to the $12.8 billion spent in 2008) over the next 15 years will almost completely fix “all existing bridge deficiencies” by 2028.#

And unfortunately, no, the highway system was not designed to serve as a series of emergency landing strips for airplanes – the Federal Highway Administration says so.

Citation key:

* 2012 Statistical Abstract of the United States – Table 1262. Real Tourism Output: 2000 to 2009

+ Federal Highway Act of 1921, accessed via Proquest Congressional

= Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, accessed via Proquest Congressional

` Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, accessed via Proquest Congressional

_ summarized from CRS Report: “The Federal Excise Tax on Motor Fuels and the Highway Trust Fund Current Law and Legislative History,” accessed via Proquest Congressional

^ summarized from CRS Report: “Funding and Financing Highways and Public Transportation,” accessed via Proquest Congressional

# summarized from CRS Report: “Highway Bridge Conditions: Issues for Congress,” accessed via Proquest Congressional

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