Federal promotion of interstate highways has been a mixed blessing
“Take that wheel to Reno and have a tire pressed on it and meet the convoy at Westgate.”
The speaker was Lt. Col. Charles McClure, the army commander of a truck convoy crossing Nevada. The convoy was stopped in Eureka where McClure told one of the drivers to go to Reno for a new tire.
The date was Aug. 27, 1919. The 81-vehicle convoy had set out from the District of Columbia on July 7 to cross the nation.
From Eureka, the driver of the truck got to Reno, got his tire taken care of and rejoined the convoy, which arrived in Carson City on Aug. 31.
The pretext for the convoy was to test the mobility of the military in the United States at a time when transcontinental travel was difficult, but the real reason was more basic. Highway lobby groups like Goodrich Tires, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the Lincoln Highway Association had pushed for the convoy to promote their highway building agenda.
The truck driven by the fellow who went to Reno for a tire wasn’t a military vehicle; it was a Firestone Tire and Rubber Company truck. And everywhere the convoy stopped, McClure said things like this: “Without paved, hard based roads, transcontinental freight shipping by truck is an idle dream.” That was his comment in Carson City. The convoy traveled 3,251 miles to arrive in San Francisco on Sept 1.
A young officer in the convoy, Dwight Eisenhower, later filed a report. One section read, “There were 230 road accidents, that is, instances of road failure and vehicles sticking in quicksand or mud, running off the road or embankments, overturning, or other mishaps due entirely to the unfavorable and at times appalling traffic conditions that were encountered. In addition to this, there were three instances involving an aggregate period of forty-two hours, which were spent in the most arduous and heroic effort in rescuing the entire convoy from impending disaster on the quicksands of the Salt Lake Desert in Utah and the Fallow [Fallon] Sink Region in Nevada.”
Thirty years later—and 50 years ago last week—President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation creating the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the interstate highway system. He signed it at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he was recovering from intestinal surgery. (Two days later, the federal gas tax was raised.)
Commemorative ceremonies and news coverage last week drew a line of descent from the 1919 convoy to Eisenhower’s support for the bill, which provides 90 percent of the cost of building interstate highways. There was another factor, too—as supreme commander of Allied forces in the Second World War, Eisenhower had encountered the Autobahn. “Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land,” he later wrote. “After seeing the autobahns I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the [United States] would benefit by it.”
The interstate system, now 46,876 miles, has profoundly changed the United States. It made “interstate” into a noun. The system entered popular culture (Chicago columnist Cecil Adams once devoted a column to answering a reader’s query—”How can there be interstate highways in—Hawaii?"). Technology was developed for the new ribbons of asphalt and concrete, giving drivers things like cruise controls. Most shipping was shifted from trains to trucks.
Future development of the system is very much in doubt. Forbes magazine this month pointed out, “Any serious future extension of the U.S.'s Interstate Highway System has to be configured within the context of the global fuel crisis, which is unlikely to get much better anytime soon. In the past year alone, there has been a 34 percent increase in diesel fuel costs.”
The 1956 legislation was sold as something that would bring the nation together. The reality has been otherwise.
In the 1950s, people driving from coast to coast drove down dozens of main streets in dozens of Anytowns. They drove along two-lane highways that crossed meadows and wheat fields and the Rocky Mountains, and they stopped in local restaurants where the term “home cooking” had meaning. Today, it is possible to drive from coast to coast without using any but chain merchants, without really engaging with other humans, and without really seeing the nation, much less experiencing it.
Novelist John Steinbeck lived long enough to see the interstate system rise, but he may have wished he had not: “Instructions screamed at me from the road: ‘Do not stop! Maintain speed.’ Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind like the blow of a fist. These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. When we get these thruways across the whole country, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing!!!”
“Because of the interstates and the larger American highway culture,” said Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson, “the little mom and pop dry goods store, shoe repairs, cleaners, pharmacies, and coffee shops in the old town centers have been replaced in the past half century by big box retailers— K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Kohls, Home Depot, Costco, IKEA, whatever. While those stores offer cheaper goods, the sense of community that once was part of small town and big city America has now been lost.”
In Reno, far from unifying the community, the new law made possible a new east/west freeway that set off a years-long, fiery, polarizing battle that divided downtown’s interests from the interests of many residents.
The plans for what would become Interstate 80 proposed several routes, including one—the “north rim” route—that would not have disrupted any part of the city. It would have passed north of Reno through mostly undeveloped areas. But that would have meant a bypass, and the downtown casinos wanted no part of it. Instead, the “Third Street route” was selected—a route that put the freeway straight through the middle of town. This route would destroy whole neighborhoods, providing plenty of work for homebuilders to construct replacement housing.
The reaction to that route was angry, but the local establishment was unified in its favor. Of area leaders, only U.S. Rep. Walter Baring, then the state’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives, spoke out against it.
Rarely has one elected official in Nevada faced such an array of power. Local, state, and sometimes federal officials, the local chamber of commerce, developers like George Probasco, Emerson Wilson, and Duane Max Ramsey, the Reno Evening Gazette and Nevada State Journal, and lobby groups like the Nevada Highway Users Conference and the Homebuilders Association of Northern Nevada attacked Baring with strong language, questions about his motives, and legal maneuvers.
But Baring, a former Reno city councilmember, seemed to thrive on the opposition. There were no organizations on his side, so a group of residents formed the United Freeway Association to support him. The titanic battle alienated some of Baring’s fellow Democrats like Gov. Grant Sawyer.
But after four years, Baring finally won a major victory. The Kennedy administration killed the Third Street route on June 21, 1961.
North rim supporters and Baring scarcely had time to savor their victory. The same coalition of local power brokers hardly missed a step and prevented serious consideration of the north rim route. Instead, the freeway was pushed a few blocks north of Third Street where it could still empty customers onto the doorsteps of downtown businesses. In 1962, work was underway at Verdi and on its way to Reno.
As the freeway entered the city, many locals watched with bitterness. Here a neighborhood was destroyed. There a historical building was demolished. Home-grown merchants were put out of business. Part of a park was carved away.
The Reno experience was not unique. All over the country, residents and economic interests were pitted against each other.
The new law also directed public policy away from mass transit, tying the nation to greater and greater petroleum consumption (a third of the public in 1956 had no driver licenses). Rubber and oil corporations, General Motors (whose former president was Eisenhower’s defense secretary), asphalt producer Dow Chemical, and the highway lobby all made sure Congress crafted the bill so that the funding source (a Highway Trust Fund, paid for by gas taxes) could be used only for highway construction.
Sprawl is now a collar around every major U.S. city and plenty of minor ones, too. The interstates homogenized commerce and culture. In 1956, goods sold in a corner market on one side of the nation were mostly different from those sold at the other end. Today, the goods in a 7-Eleven at one end are identical to those at the other end.
On top of that, the interstate highway system increased traffic congestion, which itself consumes petroleum with stop-and-go driving and long waits. The Brookings Institution’s Rob Puentes said the interstate system has institutionalized congestion.
He also said there is a debate in the nation’s capital about whether there should even be a federal transportation program anymore, particularly since the original purpose of the program has been completed. The alternative is to leave the task to the states. He says the interstate highway program is just a pass-through—taxes are paid, sent to Washington, and then returned.
“The problem is that, unlike other areas of domestic policy, the U.S. transportation program lacks accountability and performance measures. This laxity is astonishing, given the recent adoption by Congress and the White House of stringent performance standards for state grantees under welfare and education reforms, the annual performance requirements for all federal agencies under the Government Performance Results Act, and the sheer dollar size of the transportation program.
“The federal law sets out criteria to be considered but does not enforce or impose penalties on the recipients of transportation dollars—namely, the states—nor does it reward exceptional performers. The proliferation of earmarked projects and the lack of accountability, then, are emblematic of a much larger problem, namely the fundamental lack of a purpose and vision for the national program. In short, America’s national transportation policy continues to function under the same rules designed to build the interstates—a system that is now complete.”
All over the nation, many older residents still feel dazed by what the interstates have done to their towns, while younger citizens have never known any other configuration for their communities. In some places, people are using the 50th anniversary to look at how to back away from the effects of the interstate. In Montana, a conference is being held this month on the “Feasibility of Commuter Rail Service in the Missoula and Bitterroot Valleys.”
The law had another consequence, too—it accelerated the flow of decision-making from local communities to Washington. It paid for most highway building but accordingly put the federal government in charge of huge segments of state and local government. Acceptance of the money came with strings, and Washington has not been reluctant to pull them. Over the years, dozens of requirements have been imposed, from Social Security numbers in driving records to right turns on red lights.
One of the most onerous of these in Nevada was a 55-mile-an-hour speed limit imposed on all states after the 1973 oil shortage. The requirement was one-size-fits-all and did not differentiate between types of terrain. The double nickel made some sense on crowded urban freeways like the Merritt Parkway, the Washington Beltway, or the Borman Expressway. But in thinly populated western states like Nevada, where freeways ran straight, flat, dry and relatively empty for hundreds of miles, it was like water torture. The feelings about it were so strong in Nevada that at the 1976 Republican National Convention, Reno delegate Cliff McCorkle got an anti-55 plank in the party’s national platform.
One state, Alaska, has never built a highway with federal funds, so it is less burdened with federal mandates.
In state after state, the aging interstates are now decaying. On ABC News last weekend, one highway expert said the single stretch of interstate highway most in need of repair is the stretch of Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Nevada.
Eisenhower was deeply opposed to decisions being made in Washington for local governments, but his highway construction measure released the greatest expansion of federal power of any single legislative measure in U.S. history.