Friday, June 30, 2006

The 50th Anniversary of the Interstate Highway System

It was fifty years ago yesterday that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956. For those of you who do not know what the Federal Highway Act of 1956 was, it was a bill which would allot $33,480,000,000 to create a system of highways that would connect over 90% of all cities with populations over 50,000. Put more simply, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 created the Interstate Highway system.

Curiously, for a bill that would change the United States forever, the signing of the Federal Highway Act was performed without ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where Ike was recovering from stomach surgery. What is more, the signing of the bill did not even make the front page of The New York Times, which instead concentrated on riots in Poland and a steel worker strike, among other things. And to tell the truth, many people were probably more interested in Marilyn Monroe's marriage to Arthur Miller that took place that day than they were the Federal Highway Act.

Regardless, the signing of the Federal Highway Act of 1956 would have more far reaching effects than any other event that day. The most obvious result of the Interstate Highway System coming into existence was the fact that for the first time in American history nearly every major city would be connected by a system of roads. Today it is possible to go from New York City to Los Angeles taking Interstate Highways nearly all the way. Arguably, the Interstate Highway System may have contributed to automobile ownership. In the mid-Fifties only about fifty percent of all Americans owned cars. That number would increase dramatically afterwards. While such other factors as the economy and car prices probably contributed to the increase in car ownership, the ease that the Interstate Highway System brought to long distace travel may well have helped.

Of course, the Interstate Highway System has been blamed for things that were not quite so positive. While urban sprawl was taking place to some degree even before the Federal Highway Act of 1956 was signed, it notably accelerated with the creation of the Interstate Highway System. Fast food restaurants, shopping malls, motels, and so on sprung up along the Interstate Highways in much the same way that they once did along Route 66. The Interstate Highway System has also been blamed for the similar phenomenon of surburban sprawl. Since the Interstate Highways made access to the major cities much easier, people could live farther from their work than they could before. As a result, suburbs were built farther and farther away from major cities. As businesses left the cities for the suburbs, this would in turn lead to the decline of many major city's downtowns.

Among the events of the 1950s, the signing of the Federal Highway Act of 1956 was definitely one of those which had the most far reaching consequences for the United States. Some of the changes it made were positive, others were negative, but it definitely changed the nation forever.

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