Early Cold War: 1945–1962

Interstate Highway Act

Purposes and Scope of the Interstate Highway Act

The Interstate Highway Act created a federally funded superhighway system connecting America's cities and coasts.

The purposes and arguments for the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (called the Interstate Highway Act) that funded large-scale construction of national highways were to

  • safely connect major metropolitan areas (traffic fatalities and injuries were increasing)
  • decrease congestion around major cities and revitalize them (traffic congestion had risen sharply)
  • improve the economy (bad roads and traffic congestion diminished effective transportation of manufactured goods)
  • provide a system for defense (the ability to transport military units and supplies and evacuate cities was necessary in case of a national emergency)

The Interstate Highway Act was finally passed in 1956 after the idea had been presented in President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugural speech in January 1954. Disagreement over how to fund the program delayed its passage, but President Eisenhower continued to advocate for the interstate highway system. The overall purpose was to connect cities and towns throughout the country using a superhighway system.

Of the four purposes outlined by the program's proponents, aiding the nation's defense was the most important. During the Cold War in the 1950s, the nation was very concerned about a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Air raid drills in schools and public facilities were used to prepare for such an attack. The potential economic benefits provided by a superhighway system were also significant. The highways would link the country's economic centers. Also, by relieving congestion around cities, the highways would revitalize America's cities that had declined with the growth of suburbs. In addition, the system would improve safety. Road fatalities and injuries had increased after World War II as people relied more on automobiles for transportation. The nation's roads, however, were inadequate and often dangerous.

The scope of the interstate highway program was enormous and was the largest public works program the nation had ever undertaken. The program called for 41,000 miles of high-speed, limited-access highways. The Interstate Highway Act established a Highway Trust Fund, with the federal government paying 90 percent of the costs and each state paying 10 percent. The act allocated $25 billion for the program. The first interstate project under the act was in Missouri. Today the interstate system built under the act stretches over 46,000 miles long. States, however, now have the option to use other federal-aid funds for the construction of highways. In 1990 President George H.W. Bush renamed the interstate highway system the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

The Pershing Map, 1922

Eisenhower based his interstate highway system on a 1922 road map created by General John Pershing to identify which routes would best support military needs in case of war. While Pershing made coasts and borders his highest priority, Eisenhower prioritized connecting major cities.

Share of U.S. Economy Spent on Federal Grants for Transportation Infrastructure, 1947-2016

After passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, federal spending on transportation infrastructure quadrupled, rising to nearly 0.6 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product-the dollar value of all U.S. goods and services produced during a given time period.

Effects of the Interstate Highway Act

The Interstate Highway Act had negative consequences, including an increase in smog and congestion and a decrease in the population of major cities.

The Interstate Highway Act brought tremendous changes to the country, but these changes did not always meet the program's goals. One of the goals was to revitalize cities by creating easy access to cities and reducing congestion. But the effect of the superhighways built around and through cities was much different. The superhighways often chopped up cities and neighborhoods, minority neighborhoods in particular.

The highways also sparked a shift away from cities to even more suburbs because they made it easier to commute by car. This increased smog and congestion and created a dependence on automobiles. This shift to suburbia caused city populations to drop. For example, I-10, which stretched from Florida to California, turned some of the nation's fastest-growing cities into car-dependent, sprawling metropolitan areas with a waning city center.

In some urban areas, residents opposed to the superhighways rallied together to prevent the construction of superhighways in their cities. The fight over preserving the French Quarter in New Orleans is one example. A plan to build a six-lane elevated riverfront expressway that would affect the French Quarter was first discussed in the 1940s. With the passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, the funding of such a project seemed possible. By the 1960s, however, a national battle emerged between those who viewed highway construction in cities as economic progress and those who believed such construction would have a negative impact on the fabric of urban neighborhoods.

The Battle of the Riverfront Expressway in New Orleans

Date Event Result
1964 Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs proposes an elevated riverfront expressway be added to federal interstate highway projects. To preserve the French Quarter, opposition strengthens against the riverfront expressway.
1965 Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall makes the French Quarter a National Historic Landmark. The federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation now needs to advise on the effects any project will have on the historic landmark.
1967 The Federal Highway Administration reverses its support for an elevated highway but proposes a grade-level roadway. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation now needs to advise on the possible negative effects of a grade-level roadway.
March 1969 Advisory Council on Historic Preservation finds the grade-level roadway would adversely affect the quality of the historic district. The opposition has a major victory. According to the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, the government is prohibited from using publicly owned land unless no other workable option exists.
July 1969 The federal government withdraws its support of the riverfront expressway project. For the first time, citizens stop an interstate highway from being built based on social and environmental concerns.