Interstate Highway Act
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the Interstate Highway Act, was a bill signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower (in office 1953–61) to authorize the construction of a 40,000-mile system of national highways to be built over a 13-year period. Known as the greatest public works project in U.S. history, the act called on the federal government to contribute 90 percent of construction costs, which were projected to exceed $30 billion. Individual states would be responsible for later maintenance costs. The construction of the interstate had substantial socioeconomic effects on U.S. society, especially in the early years of building. The cement and concrete industries boomed, spurring advances in pavement technologies. Goods could be moved more efficiently, which promoted the growth of the trucking industry and contributed to the decline of the
railroad industry. City revenues took a financial hit as increased mobility enabled commuting workers to live farther from their places of work, leading to mass movement of city residents to the suburbs. In 1990 President George H. W. Bush (in office 1989–93) renamed the system the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways. By 2010 more than 47,000 miles of the interstate system had been constructed, at a cost of more than $400 billion. The system extended across the lower 48 states, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The need for a planned network of national highways became apparent by 1919 as automobile use increased across the United States. The limited-access German autobahn system provided a model for a similar system in the United States, and planning began with the passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1938, which called for a feasibility study of a toll highway network. The study concluded that a toll system was impractical and instead recommended a non-toll interregional highway network. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (in office 1933–45) commissioned a second study, which called for almost 40,000 miles of roads. Acting on the findings of the second study, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944. This legislation authorized an interstate highway system but set no priorities for construction and provided no funding. Routes were chosen for almost 38,000 miles of roads in 1947, but construction was slow as the federal government again refrained from designating funds specifically for road building. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 provided the first specifically authorized federal funds for interstate highway construction, allocating $25 million to states on the condition that they match the federal contribution. By 1953 states had constructed almost 20 percent of the designated interstate highway system, though little of it was considered of suitable quality for existing use.
Upon taking office President Eisenhower took a special interest in the proposed system and determined it was crucial to national defense. Congress subsequently passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954, which authorized $175 million annually for road construction and set the federal contribution at 60 percent. Still disappointed with the meager funding commitment, Eisenhower pressed for more sweeping legislation, and in 1956 Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act. Among other things, this legislation called for the creation of a Highway Trust Fund to finance construction. Revenues for the trust fund were raised through taxes on gasoline and other driver-related commodities. Such motor vehicle user taxes allowed the federal government to meet costs on a pay-as-you-go basis. In other words, the program was self-financing and was paid for as those monies came into the system. The pay-as-you-go program ensured that the highway system did not contribute to the federal budget deficit.
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