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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
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2006 marked the 50th anniversary of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, which prior to being given it's current name in 1990 by then president George H.W. Bush, was originally entitled in 1956 as the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways" (Capka 2007). The system is variously characterized as a "complex organism that grows beyond the bounds of its creators," being "recognized as the largest public works project ever undertaken (italics added) (Moon 1994, vii), "one of the greatest public works projects in history (Capka 2007), and more specifically to it's geographical context, "the largest public works program undertaken in U.S. history" (Hammerschlag, Barber & Everett, 1976).
On June 26, The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed, and it was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 29th at Walter Reed Medical Center, where he was recovering from surgery. The act authorized a plan for 41,000 miles of interstate highway (Hammerschlag, Barber and Everett 1976, Rose 1990, Moon 1994, Capka 2007). The act regulates various design criteria for the highways, from the nebulous edict that it be "a credit to the nation" and that it foster "relaxed travel along pleasing roadways," to specifics such as a requirement of a minimum of four lanes, arranged as two separate one-way roads; vehicle weight and load limitations; a minimum lane width of 12 feet; medians were set at an ideal minimum of 16 feet with a practical minimum of 4 feet; for urban sections of highway shoulders were set at a ten foot minimum, bridge clearances at fourteen feet, and urban traffic speeds were to be at least 50 miles per hour (Moon 1994).
All of these careful plans that were the result of the work of various groups over the previous forty years would have been somewhat superfluous had not the Highway Revenue Act of 1956 also been passed. The funding for the construction of the highways was to come from federal excise taxes on gasoline and other motor vehicle user taxes such as taxes on tires over 40 lbs. and a tax on trucks weighing over 55,000 lbs. This tax base created the Highway Trust Fund, from which the federal government provides 90% of interstate highway funding, with the other 10% matched by local states (Rose 1990, Moon 1994, Capka 2007). The federal gasoline tax began at 3 cents per gallon (US House of Reps 2007), was 9.1 cents per gallon in 1990 (Moon 1994), and is currently at 18.4 cents a gallon (US House of Reps 2007). Gasoline taxes began at a state level, first in Oregon in 1919, and were observed to very well accepted and even popular with the public (Rose 1990, Moon 1994). Auto production and popularity of use, as well as trucking and oil production and distribution emerge as the economic drivers that enabled the construction of the United States interstate highways.
The half century that preceded the passing of the Federal Highway Aid and Highway Revenue Acts of 1956 was marked by a series of steps leading up to them, several earlier attempts at a comprehensive interstate highway system, and ever mounting pressure from increased motor vehicle use. In 1905 there were 78,000 motor vehicles registered in the United States. By 1910 there were 458,500, and in 1940 there were 27,400,000 automobile registrations and 4,800,000 truck registrations.
The current mileage of the Interstate Highway System is around 47,000 miles. In 2001 dollars, $420,000,000,000 has been spent on Interstates, $370,000,000 of that coming from federal fuel taxes (US House of Reps 2007). Oil and motor vehicles are the creators and users of Interstate Highway System.
"We would like to welcome members and the witnesses to today’s hearing, which is entitled Celebrating 50 Years: The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. Since this is a celebration, we are going to celebrate with cake immediately following today’s hearing. That is cake, not pork pie. That is good cake. (italics added) I invite you all to stay and enjoy some in honor of the interstate’s 50th anniversary."
From Celebrating 50 years : the Eisenhower interstate highway system : hearing before the Subcommittee on Highways, Transit, and Pipelines of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, House of Representatives, One Hundred Ninth Congress, second session, June 27, 2006 Published Washington : U.S. G.P.O. : For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O., 2007