The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956
known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways
(Public Law 84-627), was enacted on June 29, 1956,
when Dwight D. Eisenhower
signed the bill
Appropriating $25 billion for the construction of of Interstate Highways
over a 20-year
period, it was the largest public works
project in American history to that point.
The money was handled in a highway trust
that paid for 90 percent of highway construction costs
with the states required to pay the remaining 10 percent. It was
expected that the money would be generated through new taxes
on fuel, automobiles, trucks and tires.
Eisenhower's support of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 can be
directly attributed to his experiences in 1919 as a participant in
the U.S. Army's first Transcontinental Motor Convoy
across the United States on the historic Lincoln Highway
, which was the first road
across America. The highly publicized 1919 convoy was intended, in
part, to dramatize the need for better main highways and continued
federal aid. The convoy left the Ellipse south of the
House in Washington D.C. on July 7, 1919, and headed for Gettysburg,
Pennsylvania. From there, it followed the Lincoln Highway
Bridges cracked and were rebuilt, vehicles became stuck in mud, and
equipment broke, but the convoy was greeted warmly by communities
across the country. The convoy reached San Francisco on September
The convoy was memorable enough for a young Army officer, Lt. Col.
Dwight David Eisenhower, to include a chapter about the trip,
titled "Through Darkest America With Truck and Tank," in his book
At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends
(Doubleday and Company,
Inc., 1967). "The trip had been difficult, tiring, and fun," he
said. That experience on the Lincoln Highway, plus his observations
of the German autobahn
World War II
, convinced him to support
construction of the Interstate System when he became President.
"The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane
highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons
across the land." His "Grand Plan" for highways, announced in 1954,
led to the 1956 legislative breakthrough that created the Highway
Trust Fund to accelerate construction of the Interstate
Eisenhower argued for the highways for the purpose of national
defense. In the event of an invasion by a foreign power, the
military would need good roads to be able to quickly transport
troops around the country. Following completion of the highways the
cross country journey that took the convoy two months in 1919 was
cut down to two weeks.
Another result of the act was the direct subsidization of the
suburban road infrastructure, making commutes between urban centers
to suburbs much quicker, furthering the flight of citizens and
businesses and divestment from inner cities, and compounding
vehicle pollution and excessive petroleum use problems.
Many limited-access toll roads built prior to the act were
incorporated into the Interstate system (for example, the Ohio Turnpike
carries portions of Interstates
76, 80, and 90).