By: Dwight Eisenhower
Date: February 22, 1955
Source: Eisenhower, Dwight. Speech to the U.S. Congress. February 22, 1955. Available online at ; website home page: http://www.eisenhower.utexas.edu(accessed June 18, 2003).
About the Author: Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) graduated from West Point in 1915. By 1940, he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. With the eruption of World War II (1939–1945), he swiftly advanced to four-star general in 1943. That same year, he received the assignment to lead one of the largest military campaigns in world history: the D day invasion of June 6, 1944. After the war, he went into politics and served as the thirty-fourth U.S. president from 1953 to 1961.
Before the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, the U.S. interstate highway system developed on a piecemeal basis. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which proposed a nationwide network of roads akin to the eventual interstate highway system. This measure, though, did not allocate any federal funds for the project.
The 1944 Federal Aid Highway Act called for the building of the first specific stretches of this network, which would feature dedicated traffic lanes in each direction, standard widths and safety specifications, and stop light–free driving. Although the federal government again offered no monetary support, construction eventually began in 1947, but the project suffered from little federal aid and uneven state support. Yet, another Federal Aid Highway Act, passed in 1952, marked the first time the federal government actually dedicated funds for interstate roads with an authorization of $25 million. By the time of Eisenhower's inaugural address in 1953, only six thousand miles had been completed, for a total cost of over $950 million. The entrance of a moderate Republican president, who desired to reform government and roll back the New Deal domestic programs of his predecessors, did not bode well for the overbudgeted, underconstructed interstate system.
During his long military career, however, Eisenhower realized the enormous benefit to the country that could be achieved with a uniform, national network of roads. Shortly after World War I (1914–1918), in 1919, the young colonel participated in the U.S. Army's transcontinental motor convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. The cross-country journey took nearly two months, and the crews experienced myriad problems due to inadequate, and sometimes nonexistent, roads and bridges. As a general during World War II, Eisenhower admired the speed and precision with which drivers could traverse Germany using its autobahn highways, which had been constructed during the 1930s.
As president, Eisenhower urged a massive expansion of the nation's highways. This process began with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1954, which provided $175 million in federal funds for the system. Eisenhower realized that this amount would not come close to covering the necessary construction costs. On February 22, 1955, he addressed Congress and the nation concerning the need to vastly improve the interstate system. From his opening sentence, he emphasized how the creation of an interstate highway system would strengthen the entire country. The United States' "unity as a nation," he argued, depended on free-flowing transportation and communication.
In addition to the economic benefits to be gained through smoother interstate travel, Eisenhower asserted that the nation needed a cohesive highway system to survive in the event of nuclear war. The freeways, in effect, could serve as escape routes in the event of atomic attacks on the nation's major cities. Thus, the ongoing struggle with the Soviet Union permeated the speech and shaped many of his primary rationales for this project. Ultimately labeled the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways," Eisenhower's highway policy underlined the Cold War's far-reaching impact on American society during the 1950s.
Although Eisenhower initially called for the network's completion by 1964, interstate roads would continue to be built into the twenty-first century. The bulk of the system, however, was completed by 1990, when President George H.W. Bush renamed the system the "Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways." Eisenhower's highway policy developed into the nation's single largest project and, according to certain officials, the biggest public works endeavor in world history—ironic for a president not known for domestic policy. Early in the twenty-first century, the network contained more than forty-six thousand miles of roads and sustains one-fifth of the nation's daily traffic. By restructuring how Americans live, work, and spend their vacations, the interstate system has fundamentally altered life in the United States.
Primary Source: Speech by Dwight Eisenhower to the U.S. Congress, February 22, 1955 [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: In the following speech, Eisenhower justifies an enormous public works program in the name of national defense and economic security at the height of the Cold War. He transmits to Congress General Lucius D. Clay's report concerning the need for an advanced interstate highway system, which calls for the federal government to contribute $27 billion to the project. Though Congress defeated the plan in 1955, Eisenhower signed a modified Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956. In effect, this policy created the modern interstate network.
To the Congress of the United States:
Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods. The ceaseless flow of information throughout the Republic is matched by individual and commercial movement over a vast system of inter-connected highways criss-crossing the Country and joining at our national borders with friendly neighbors to the north and south.
Together, the uniting forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear—United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.
The Nation's highway system is a gigantic enterprise, one of our largest items of capital investment. Generations have gone into its building. Three million, three hundred and sixty-six thousand miles of road, travelled by 58 million motor vehicles, comprise it. The replacement cost of its drainage and bridge and tunnel works is incalculable. One in every seven Americans gains his livelihood and supports his family out of it. But, in large part, the network is inadequate for the nation's growing needs.
In recognition of this, the Governors in July of last year at my request began a study of both the problem and methods by which the Federal Government might assist the States in its solution. I appointed in September the President's Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program, headed by Lucius D. Clay, to work with the Governors and to propose a plan of action for submission to the Congress. At the same time, a committee representing departments and agencies of the national Government was organized to conduct studies coordinated with the other two groups.All three were confronted with inescapable evidence that action, comprehensive and quick and forward-looking, is needed.
First: Each year, more than 36 thousand people are killed and more than a million injured on the highways. To the home where the tragic aftermath of an accident on an unsafe road is a gap in the family circle, the monetary worth of preventing that death cannot be reckoned. But reliable estimates place the measurable economic cost of the highway accident toll to the Nation at more than $4.3 billion a year.
Second: The physical condition of the present road net increases the cost of vehicle operation, according to many estimates, by as much as one cent per mile of vehicle travel. At the present rate of travel, this totals more than $5 billion a year. The cost is not borne by the individual vehicle operator alone. It pyramids into higher expense of doing the nation's business. Increased highway transportation costs, passed on through each step in the distribution of goods, are paid ultimately by the individual consumer.
Third: In case of an atomic attack on our key cities, the road net must permit quick evacuation oftarget areas, mobilization of defense forces and maintenance of every essential economic function. But the present system in critical areas would be the breeder of a deadly congestion within hours of an attack.
Fourth: Our Gross National Product, about $357 billion in 1954, is estimated to reach over $500 billion in 1965 when our population will exceed 180 million and, according to other estimates, will travel in 81 million vehicles 814 billion vehicle miles that year. Unless the present rate of highway improvement and development is increased, existing traffic jams only faintly foreshadow those of ten years hence.
To correct these deficiencies is an obligation of Government at every level. The highway system is a public enterprise. As the owner and operator, the various levels of Government have a responsibility for management that promotes the economy of the nation and properly serves the individual user. In the case of the Federal Government, moreover, expenditures on a highway program are a return to the highway user of the taxes which he pays in connection with his use of the highways.
Congress has recognized the national interest in the principal roads by authorizing two Federal-aid systems, selected cooperatively by the States, local units and the Bureau of Public Roads.
The Federal-aid primary system as of July 1, 1954, consisted of 234,407 miles, connecting all the principal cities, county seats, ports, manufacturing areas and other traffic generating centers.
In 1944 the Congress approved the Federal-aid secondary system, which on July 1, 1954, totalled 482,972 miles, referred to as farm-to-market roads—important feeders linking farms, factories, distribution outlets and smaller communities with the primary system.
Because some sections of the primary system, from the viewpoint of national interest are more important than others, the Congress in 1944 authorized the selection of a special network, not to exceed 40,000 miles in length, which would connect by routes, as direct as practicable, the principal metropolitan areas, cities and industrial centers, serve the national defense, and connect with routes of continental importance in the Dominion of Canada and the Republic of Mexico.
This National System of Interstate Highways, although it embraces only 1.2 percent of total road mileage, joins 42 State capital cities and 90 percent of all cities over 50,000 population. It carries more than a seventh of all traffic, a fifth of the rural traffic, serves 65 percent of the urban and 45 percent of the rural population. Approximately 37,600 miles have been designated to date. This system and its mileage are presently included within the Federal-aid primary system.
In addition to these systems, the Federal Government has the principal, and in many cases the sole, responsibility for roads that cross or provide access to Federally owned land—more than one-fifth the nation's area.
Of all these, the Interstate System must be given top priority in construction planning. But at the current rate of development, the Interstate network would not reach even a reasonable level of extent and efficiency in half a century. State highway departments cannot effectively meet the need. Adequate right-of-way to assure control of access; grade separation structures; relocation and realignment of present highways; all these, done on the necessary scale within an integrated system, exceed their collective capacity.
If we have a congested and unsafe and inadequate system, how then can we improve it so that ten years from now it will be fitted to the nation's requirements?
A realistic answer must be based on a study of all phases of highway financing, including a study of the costs of completing the several systems of highways, made by the Bureau of Public Roads in cooperation with the State highway departments and local units of government. This study, made at the direction of the 83rd Congress in the 1954 Federal-aid Highway Act, is the most comprehensive of its kind ever undertaken.
Its estimates of need show that a 10-year construction program to modernize all our roads and streets will require expenditure of $101 billion by all levels of Government.…
In its report, the Advisory Committee recommends:
- That the Federal Government assume principal responsibility for the cost of a modern Interstate Network to be completed by 1964 to include the most essential urban arterial connections; at an annual average cost of $2.5 billion for the ten year period.
- That Federal contributions to primary and secondary road systems, now at the rate authorized by the 1954 Act of approximately $525 million annually, be continued.
- That Federal funds for that portion of the Federal-aid systems in urban areas not on the Interstate System, now approximately $75 million annually, be continued.
- That Federal funds for Forest Highways be continued at the present $22.5 million per year rate.…
The extension of necessary highways in the Territories and highway maintenance and improvement in National Parks, on Indian lands and on other public lands of the United States will continue to be treated in the budget for these particular subjects.
A sound Federal highway program, I believe, can and should stand on its own feet, with highway users providing the total dollars necessary for improvement and new construction. Financing of interstate and Federal-aid systems should be based on the planned use of increasing revenues from present gas and diesel oil taxes, augmented in limited instances with tolls.
I am inclined to the view that it is sounder to finance this program by special bond issues, to be paid off by the above-mentioned revenues which will be collected during the useful life of the roads and pledged to this purpose, rather than by an increase in general revenue obligations.
At this time, I am forwarding for use by the Congress in its deliberations the Report to the President made by the President's Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program. This study of the entire highway traffic problems and presentation of a detailed solution for its remedy is an analytical review of the major elements in a most complex situation. In addition, the Congress will have available the study made by the Bureau of Public Roads at the direction of the 83rd Congress.
These two documents together constitute a most exhaustive examination of the National highway system, its problems and their remedies. Inescapably, the vastness of the highway enterprise fosters varieties of proposals which must be resolved into a national highway pattern. The two reports, however, should generate recognition of the urgency that presses upon us; approval of a general program that will give us a modern safe highway system; realization of the rewards for prompt and comprehensive action. They provide a solid foundation for a sound program.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
The White House,
February 22, 1955.
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: The Interstate Highway System and the Transformation of American Life. New York: Viking, 1997.
"Interstate Highway System." Dwight D. Eisenhower Library. Available online at ; website home page: http://www.eisenhower.utexas.edu(accessed June 18, 2003).
Weingroff, Richard F. "Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate System." Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center. Available online at http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/summer96/p96su10.htm; website home page: www.tfhrc.gov (accessed June 18, 2003).
AUDIO AND VISUAL MEDIA
Divided Highways: The Interstates and the Transformation of American Life. By Tom Lewis and Lawrence Hott. Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1997, VHS.