The long road

December 7, 2016 Francesca Russello Ammon
boreala /
U.S. interstate highway map

First Year author Margaret O’Mara argues in her essay “The Long Game” that “the new economy rests on solid old economy foundations.” History also shows, however, that new technology can rest on solid old technology foundations. That is, innovation need not only include the invention of the new. It can also derive from the timely application, expansion, and maintenance of old ideas that have not yet been fully realized. This is aptly illustrated by technologies related to mobility itself, including the interstate highway network.

O’Mara describes how President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to military needs by funneling investment into the high-tech industry. He also used the dual justifications of national defense and peacetime commerce to direct significant federal funding to transportation infrastructure technology. The result was the interstate highway network, one of the country’s most critical “foundational, long-range investments.” Today, thoughtful investment in America’s now-aging transportation infrastructure is an integral component of the government effort needed “to keep the bedrock firm.”

Eisenhower’s support for the interstate highway system stemmed most immediately from his World War II experience as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. As he later reflected, “After seeing the autobahns of modern Germany and knowing the asset those highways were to the Germans, I decided, as President, to put an emphasis on this kind of road building… This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it.”

Just one year into his presidency, Eisenhower put those thoughts into action, assembling the advisory committee whose recommendations helped lay the final groundwork for the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956). A critical feature of this act was its strong federal funding provision. It authorized an initial fund of $25 billion for a 41,000-mile, ten-year building program. Program duration, roadway length, and fund size would all increase over time.

One constant, however, was the federal government’s 90 percent sponsorship of interstate construction costs, versus 50-50 cost sharing with the states that characterized primary roadways. The impact of this funding was significant. Before the act’s passage, the federal government had spent just over $1 billion, in total, on all urban highways. By 1960, that figure was up to $1 billion per year. Our present-day interstate highway system, stretching more than 46,000 miles in total, is the product of this federal policy and its local implementation by state highway departments.

While Eisenhower’s wartime experience may have galvanized his enthusiasm, he was not proposing a wholly new idea when he advanced the interstate highways. Rather, the roots of the network date back at least as far as World War I, during which the military organized truck convoys to supplement railroads. Navigating these challenging routes highlighted the need for better infrastructure.

The first Federal-Aid Highway Act passed amidst the war in 1916. It established a highway program funded 50-50 by federal and state governments, but did not prescribe design standards. Three years later, the Army attempted the first transcontinental truck convoy. The difficult two-month trip “dramatized the need for better highways,” as one participant in that convey, then Lieutenant Dwight Eisenhower, later put it.

In 1922, at the request of the Bureau of Public Roads, the Army produced the “Pershing Map” (named for the general behind its design), the first map of roads of prime importance in case of war. The military updated that study in 1935, and most of those routes would go on to become federal or interstate highways.

Even the construction equipment technology that went into building these highways was not a brand-new invention. Bulldozers, loaders, scrapers, and myriad other types of road building equipment had already existed for decades. But ample military uses for construction implements during World War II, followed by postwar domestic opportunities related to housing and highways, helped spur research and development among equipment manufacturers.

As a result of this technological advancement, House and Home magazine could proclaim in 1960 that the earthmoving work of grading, filling, and compacting was no more expensive then than it had been in 1929. Steady investment in existing technologies had yielded long-term advances in power, capacity, and economy that quite literally helped pave the way for new roadway infrastructure.

Today’s now aging highway infrastructure remains critical to U.S. economic health. Although maintenance does not have the same caché as new construction, continued investment in this infrastructure will help to sustain this built fabric as a foundation for further innovation and use.

Future investment should not be made blindly, however. Investment in old infrastructure is not at odds with the development of new technology—even autonomous vehicles still rely on legacy roadways. But maximizing the value of this investment may require ongoing optimization for a changing use environment. It will also require coordination with the kinds of mass transit and dense urban development that were relatively absent from the interstate era.

Moreover, the full history of interstate highway construction includes not only technological progress but also damaging social and environmental consequences. In cities, engineers disproportionately targeted interstate highways for the neighborhoods of minority residents. As they displaced people, businesses, and existing built fabric, these nation-spanning connectors tore local communities apart. When slashing through rural and suburban geographies, highways also wrought environmental destruction upon wildlife, forests, and streams; previously stable and undeveloped topography; and formerly productive farmland.

As the next president tries to spur innovation in the infrastructural technology of the future, he should not be afraid to build upon existing ideas and investments. Critically, however, he must also ensure that the application of new infrastructural technology avoids the social injustices and environmental damages of the past. Thoughtful investment and innovation can help put more Americans on the road to mobility. As this investment seeks to drive economic productivity, however, it must do so in a way that also advances equity and sustainability.

Francesca Russello Ammon is assistant professor of City & Regional Planning and Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania and a former fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Her recent book, Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape (Yale University Press, 2016), is the first scholarly history of the bulldozer. It tracks the machine, as both means and metaphor, from its military deployment during World War II to its planning applications in postwar suburban, highway, and urban renewal projects back home.