History and consequences of the Interstate

Public Works Historical Society presents Interstate Town Hall Meeting during Congress

Becky Wickstrom
Manager of Media Affairs
APWA Washington Office

Creation of a transcontinental road system altered the American landscape. Connecting cities and towns, the Interstate System of Highways also connected people and opened up passageways through largely unseen and rugged landscapes. According to Bruce E. Seely, Professor of History at Michigan Technological University and featured speaker during the Public Works Historical Society (PWHS) Town Hall Meeting held at Congress, the impact of the Interstate stretches far beyond the roads on which we travel.

During his presentation, Seely discussed the long political process involved in creation and construction of the Interstate. He also examined some of the consequences of the massive infrastructure system, including lessons learned from this showpiece highway network about big public works projects, situations where Interstate planning missed the mark, and changes and unanticipated consequences of the Interstate.

The importance of the 1956 legislation funding for the largest public works project in this country's history cannot be minimized. The following excerpt appeared in The States and the Interstates, an extensive study of the Interstate performed by PWHS for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO):

"In 1956, the United States Congress approved the construction of the Interstate system, 'the most ambitious public works program since the Roman Empire.' Through the creation of the Highway Trust Fund, federal aid for highway construction was doubled. The legislation pledged completion of the 41,000-mile Interstate system in 14 years, with anticipated costs of $27.8 billion. The 1956 Act committed the federal government to pay 90 percent of the bill for each Interstate project—signifying its priority in the federal-aid program and its perceived importance to the national defense."

Becky Wickstrom can be reached at (202) 218-6736 or bwickstrom@apwa.net.