Mile Marker: Celebrating 50 Years of the Interstate

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the official inception of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Universally known simply as the Interstate, this road system is the single most significant American public works project of the 20th century. The historical significance of the Interstate goes well beyond the mileage, dollars, tons of earth moved and concrete poured. The Interstate literally transformed the American landscape, affecting where people lived and worked, where goods were produced and how they were distributed.

The Interstate could not have been built without the efforts of engineers, elected and government officials, and private industry. And its construction was not without conflict and controversy. At its beginning, Interstate highway engineers responded to the public clamor for new roads by trying to build facilities as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Unfortunately, placing routes through parklands and poor neighborhoods (places where the cost of taking land was cheap), while efficient in an abstract sense, turned out to be a political problem. The entire policy-making process of road building changed less than a decade after the start of the Interstate.

The Public Works Historical Society (PWHS) is pleased to provide a series in the coming months of short articles in the APWA Reporter which will cover key aspects of the Interstate and its impact on our society. Some of these pieces will draw upon the extensive study of the Interstate performed by the PWHS for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

For the majority of Americans who have always had an Interstate Highway System, it is hard to imagine being without it. It is a feature of many public works systems that once constructed and extensively used and relied upon, they virtually blend into the landscape. It is this aspect of public works, the Interstate included, which makes them almost invisible. What is basic to our existence is often simply assumed. As a result, things that are built by humans can be taken for granted as they come to be perceived as almost elements of nature. It is fitting that we recognize this anniversary of a most important public works program. It should certainly not be taken for granted.

Submitted by Howard Rosen, Ph.D., Program Director, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and President, Public Works Historical Society. He can be reached at (608) 262-4341 or rosen@engr.wisc.edu.