The U.S. Interstate System Turns Fifty

July 4, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: What has 47,000 miles of asphalt and concrete, 55,000 bridges, 100 tunnels, nearly 15,000 interchanges, and no stoplights? The U.S. interstate highway system, connecting every corner of the country, bringing, among many other things, faster and safer travel to visit the grandparents, burgers that taste the same from one end of America to another, the possibilities of suburban living, and the agonies of hours-long commutes.

The project began in 1956, fulfilling the dream of Dwight Eisenhower, who spoke of it to Congress a year earlier.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, President of the United States: A modern highway system is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security.

JEFFREY BROWN: The seed had been planted in 1919, when young Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower joined an Army convoy traveling from Washington to San Francisco assigned to identify a quick route for moving war supplies. The trip took 62 days on roads so rough that nine trucks were abandoned along the way.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the system, a commemorative convoy recently reversed the path of the 1919 journey. Along for the ride was Merrill Eisenhower Atwater, who said his great-grandfather would have been mightily impressed.

MERRILL EISENHOWER ATWATER, Great-Grandson Of President Dwight D. Eisenhower: How can you imagine something like this? I know that he had ideas for it, but he didn’t — I am sure he didn’t realize the commerce and the economic impact that it’s had on this — this country. It’s — it’s phenomenal. We do everything from getting a cup of coffee at Starbucks to driving all the way around, you know, the country in a convoy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday, overlooking the interstate just outside of Washington, I spoke with another member of the convoy, highway historian Dan McNichol, author of “The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System.”

Dan McNichol, welcome.

DAN MCNICHOL, Author, “The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System”: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write that the interstate system is a — quote — “prime example of greatness taken for granted.” What do you mean by that?

DAN MCNICHOL: Well, in this country, we seem to have forgotten about our greatness, about building great, great civil structures, like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building.

The interstate system is — is unrivaled. It’s bigger than the Great Wall of China, the pyramids, any of the canals, the Suez and Panama. And we seem to just think it’s like running water. It’s just going to be there for us.

Eisenhower's new highway idea

JEFFREY BROWN: Take us back to the beginning. What was the big idea that Eisenhower had?

DAN MCNICHOL: Well, Eisenhower wanted to take us from kind of a backwater rural highway system to an autobahn-like system he had seen in Germany. So, this idea of limited access to him meant faster movement of commerce, safer roads. There was a lot of carnage on the roads in the '50s.

And probably most importantly, most on his mind, was an atomic war. And he knew that we wouldn't be able to get out ahead of a nuclear missile, but the -- the retrieval and the rescue would take place over the interstate system.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was interesting to read that this went back -- for him, back to a 1919 trip, right, where -- where it was really tough to travel across the country.


And, in 1919, he was the first group to go across country in a military convoy, motorized military convoy, didn't even know that it could be done. They destroyed 88 bridges. They traveled at six miles an hour. And when they finally got to San Francisco, two months later, after leaving Washington, Eisenhower wasn't even sure there was a -- a future for roads.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was interested to read how quickly so much of the system got built after the bill was signed.

DAN MCNICHOL: Right, in about 10 years. It was like spontaneous combustion, spontaneous construction all over the United States.

And it started right outside of Saint Louis. But, in 1956, they -- they started great guns on building. And, then, by 1966, just 10 years later, they had built half the system.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you know, at the 50th anniversary, there's all these assessments of what it all means. Certainly, without any question, it changed a lot about the way we live, about the economy. Tell us about that.

DAN MCNICHOL: Well, the interstate system changed everything. And -- and the economy was probably the principal single largest change of all.

The -- the -- the entire country modernized itself along the interstate system. If you think about the -- the franchises and the companies and the businesses, all of them wanted to be near it. All of them gravitated towards it, leaving the old U.S. routes, re -- repositioning themselves along the interchanges along the interstate system.

There are 14,000 interchanges across America. And the founders of McDonald's and Holiday Inn took to the air in their private aircraft, flying all over the country during those years of construction, looking for the ideal locations.

And, then, following them were gas stations and hotels, a whole tourism industry, shipping, trucking. You name it. Everybody grew up along the interstate system along with the interstate system.

The rise of suburban America

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about where we live, the whole growth, the whole rise of suburban America.

DAN MCNICHOL: Oh, after World War II, people were dying to get out of the cities. They had money. They bought cars. They filled them up with gas. And they wanted to go out. They wanted to go to the suburbs.

And the American dream really became realized along the interstate system. People started moving out further and further. And now -- I think, only now, we're starting to see where people have gone maybe -- maybe too far, maybe to the outer limit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, of course, there have been negatives. There were things lost along with things gained. There were whole towns that were bypassed, right?


Since the beginning of time, roads have dictated where life would take place, where commerce would take place. And the interstate system is no different. It's just a greater example of it. But, sometimes, even hotels would pick up their -- their entire structures and spin themselves around from where they used to face the old U.S. route, and they would turn themselves to face the interstate system. But it was life and death for a lot of -- a lot of small towns.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about in cities, too? There were a lot of poor neighborhoods that were targeted and destroyed to allow the interstates to run through the cities.


In my research, I found that the federal government even -- even boasted about the interstate system highway construction being a great opportunity for clearing out slums. And it was seen as -- as urban renewal, which got a bad name, along with the interstate system.

The easy miles were built first. Those were the big ones, between the cities. But when the -- when the interstate system went into the downtowns, everything slowed down. Costs went up, and a lot of pain and suffering from the people who had to relocate and lost their neighborhoods.

The homogenization of America

JEFFREY BROWN: There's a great literature, of course, of the American road. And one of the questions that's always there is, can you see America from the interstate? Or do you have to get off it and go on to those smaller roads?

DAN MCNICHOL: Well, it's -- it's a bit of both, because all of that commerce, all that activity takes place along the interstate system. The interstate system is only 1 percent of our total highway system, our total road net. But it carries 25 percent of all the traffic. It's about $9 trillion a year.

But I think the best combination is to drive along, because you're -- you're twice as likely to live wherever you're going if you stay on the interstate system, and, then, when you get near a wonderful spot, take a blue highway. Get off on to the back roads.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were talking earlier about the chains, the hotels, the restaurants that grew up around all the exits. One thing that people worry about a little bit is the sort of homogenization of America. Has that happened from the interstates? Have we lost our sense of diversity and regional difference?

DAN MCNICHOL: Oh, regionality has been -- been part of the loss here with the interstate system.

We -- I think we are -- we are habits -- we're -- we are creatures of habit in the United States. We -- we want a good cup of coffee. We want a good hamburger and a comfortable bed when we're traveling. So, we seek out those -- those comforts. And when we recognize a location or an institution, we -- we go to it.

Now we're more connected than we have ever been, which is a great thing. But New Orleans is not as unique as it once was, because it's easier to get to. And -- and it's become more -- more typical. You see more of the franchises that you see in New York or in Seattle.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, we -- we can all get around a lot easier, but, when we get there, we might not see what we once would have seen.


Today we live in our automobiles

JEFFREY BROWN: So, where are we now? I mean, for a lot of people, if you just ask something about the highway, the interstate, they think, well, this is the place where I spend many hours in my car in congestion and traffic.

DAN MCNICHOL: Oh, we -- we live in our automobiles now.

It used to be romantic. I mean, the cars of the '50s personified what Americans thought of themselves: big, bold. And now we are -- we are -- we're pretty much utilities. We are -- we're just on the highways to get to and from work.

And I think we're starting to see a reverse of the trend. People want to live closer to work. They want to get that time back. But Americans are spending more and more time in their cars. And -- and just -- just travel distance alone since 1956 has gone up 400 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, where are we today? What's the state of the American interstate system?

DAN MCNICHOL: Well, the 50th anniversary is also the completion of the interstate system.

And -- and, right now, we are -- we're -- we're the owners of an antique. It's a magnificent system, but it's outdated. It's congested. And the same issues that plagued Dwight Eisenhower when he launched the construction of the interstate system are plaguing us now, loss of life on the -- on the interstate system, congestion because of -- of clogged arteries.

And, most importantly, to prepare ourselves for a hurricane or another terrorist attack, the system needs to be improved to facilitate commerce during those critical moments.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dan McNichol, thanks for talking to us.

DAN MCNICHOL: Jeff, thank you for having me.