When A Big Government Solution Worked

In 1955, America looked ahead to future problems. And paid big money to fix them.

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Imagine the outcry today. The president asks for $100 Trillion (in 2010 dollars) to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure. Congress approves the idea. Of course, the whole project takes more time and money than planned, and yet, a generation later, it is generally considered one of the country’s best investments. Unthinkable today, it happened in 1955, when Dwight Eisenhower asked for a program to build 40,000 miles of interstate highways.

Getting Congressional approval in 1955 wasn’t the political miracle it would be today.  The economy was in better shape than now. Post-war America was generally more confident in its power to solve problems. Also, the project was launched by a popular, Republican president with strong bipartisan support.

Having grown up with the interstate system, it’s hard for a baby-boomer to sense just how extraordinary the idea was. A Post article of 1955, “The Case of the Obsolete Highways,” captures some of the astonishment Americans must have felt at the scope and farsightedness of the project.

During the past several weeks, millions of Americans have been jolted into recognizing the fact that, though we are several years into the Atomic Age, this country has never even caught up with the Automobile Age. The most official jolt, was delivered in the form of a White House message to the 84th Congress on the twenty-seventh of January, in which President Eisenhower asked for legislation energizing a special twenty-five-billion dollar, ten-year, highway-construction program. And, unless the new Congress is completely unrealistic, he’ll probably get it.

Now, everybody loves a highway program. Like the Girl Scouts, better schools and Christmas, the better-roads program is a continuing institution that has no enemies. So, if you are in favor of progress, you will probably favor this 25-billion-dollar investment

But wait a minute—twenty-five billion is $25,000,000,000! This astronomical outlay is almost 10 per cent of our national debt and represents about one third of our annual Federal Government income. In order to invest twenty-five billion in roads, every man, woman and child in the United States would have to contribute $150—in addition, that is, to the present, normal tax levies.

A president making such a proposal today would be asking for impeachment.

1950's Interstate Map
These “trunk-line highways” represent little more than one percent of our total highway mileage—but they carry 20 percent of our out-of-city-traffic.

This same twenty-five billion would pay our national bills for four months. Or, to phrase it for those who like superlatives —this projected twenty-five-billion outlay is the biggest, single-issue expense—aside from World War II—the American people have ever been asked to underwrite. The fact that the costs will be spread over a ten-year period does not detract a cipher from the total; actually, Americans are going to be asked to dig deep to pay for bills that have, in part, been accruing for a quarter of a century.

Is this project a Utopian dream-of-the-future or is the program necessary to America’s continued prosperity and, perhaps, to its very survival?

Does America really face a highway transportation crisis?… The basic reason for our highway traffic troubles can be found in three facts.

(1) In 1954 there were 58,000,000 motor vehicles registered in this country.

(2) Between 1941 and 1953 we added 39,000 miles of public roads to bring the national total to 3,348,000 miles.

(3) During that same period —1941 to 1953 —we almost doubled the vehicle-miles of travel on these roads and highways. Squeeze two cars or trucks onto a road area designed for one—and remember that many of these roads and highways were unsatisfactory even by 1941 standards— and you have a traffic problem that spells out wholesale slaughter on the highways, terrific economic waste, and possible disaster in the event of a national emergency.

It is estimated that in 1965 we will have 80,000,000 registered vehicles on our highways and that they will travel 814,000,000,000 vehicle-miles during that year.  This means that if we continue building highways at our current rate— we will have three vehicles on the same highway area that carried one vehicle during the stop-and-start year of 1941. If this comes to pass, 1965 may well be the year when we all get out and walk.

If this sounds appalling, just think of 1975—for 1955 is the year when we must start planning for our 1975 traffic. Two decades from now there will be an estimated 92,000,000 vehicles on our highways, and during that year you and your children will drive an estimated trillion vehicle-miles — or die trying.

In fact, the traffic estimate was a little low for 1965; 90,000,000 vehicles were using America’s highways. By 1975, the estimate was even farther off: there were 130 thousand vehicles instead of 92 thousand.

What sort of highways will we get if the Federal Government carries through with the ten-year, $25,000,000,000 program of refurbishing this 40,000-mile national network? A preview of these 1965 roads has already been afforded us by the best of the East’s toll turnpikes and the West Coast’s new freeways.

This new interstate road system crisscrossing the nation and weaving the urban centers together will be designed for the traffic pattern to be expected in each section: the roads will be multilane—eight, six, four and occasionally two lanes—limited-access highways with a median strip separating the traffic streams. There will be few lights or traffic signals, no sharp curves, no steep grades and, except in those urban feeder roads which will be made a part of the interstate program, there will be no intersections.

When completed, the interstate system would bring new efficiency to travel and reduce transportation costs for businesses. It would also provide an efficient road system for civil defense. But one of the biggest selling points for the Federal highway program was safety, as was noted in a 1956 Post article, “Coast To Coast Without A Stoplight in 1956.”

The fifteen year campaign to get our traffic moving is under way; with a little luck and lots of co-operation from everyone, we’ll be riding from border to border without a stop light or a traffic snarl by 1972. The Automotive Safety Foundation estimates that, during its first ten years of operation, the improved Interstate System will save 35,000 lives. Will you or your children be among that army of the repreived? If so, you can count the time and the money the new highways will save as just another dividend.

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  1. Thousands of miles, decades of time,
    Billions of dollars, interstate
    U.S. highways became the prime
    Means of making travelling great.
    Multi lanes, gentle curves and grades,
    Service chains to accomodate,
    Signs of informational aids,
    Cruising along from state to state.
    Crisscrossing like a checkerboard,
    The highway system did connect.
    Happy would have been Henry Ford.
    His Model T did cause effect.

    Sometimes I thought I would explode.
    Dad rarely stopped once on the road.

  2. Why is it that the California Regional Transportation seminars I have attended seemed to focus only on auto and/or trucking transportation needs. Everyone complains about the environmental impact of so many cars on the road, but the folks involved in transportation planning seem to think the only solution is to widen roads.

    With the increasing population of elderly people, why don’t transportation planners consider (1) more public transit options (2) safer and wider bike lanes that could accommodate walkers, scooters for the handicapped and non-motorized bikers? How about more bridges over busy freeways accessible to those same people?

    How about creating new “trucking roads and/or railroads” exclusively for commerical use?


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