Road-Building Stakeholders Converge For Interstate Golden Jubilee

Leaders of the concrete industry joined their peers in the surface transportation establishment to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Interstate system


Leaders of the concrete industry joined their peers in the surface transportation establishment to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Interstate system and brainstorm the system’s future at a forward-looking conference. The Federal Aid Highway and Highway Revenue Acts of 1956 Û signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 29, 1956 Û authorized a 13-year construction period beginning July 1, 1956, to be financed mostly on a pay-as-you-go basis. Thus created, the Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways reached its golden anniversary in June, providing an opportunity to focus national and local attention on highway surface-transportation needs.

The highlight of the commemoration was to have been the noon arrival of a Celebrate the Interstate Convoy at the Zero Milestone at the Ellipse fronting the White House, with attendant ceremonies. When record-setting rains in D.C., however, made the Zero Milestone area a morass, the arrival ceremony was held indoors.

The ceremony was preceded by a symposium Û The Interstate Highway System: Fifty Years and Looking Forward Û sponsored by the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials and the Transportation Construction Coalition, a public-private sector umbrella group. That event served to examine key issues and challenges facing the Interstate system today.

Capping festivities was a black-tie dinner that evening sponsored by the American Road & Transportation Builders Transportation and Development Foundation. Among underwriters of the occasion were Platinum sponsors Cemex and Oldcastle Materials, Inc.; Silver sponsors American Concrete Pavement Association, Portland Cement Association, and Vulcan Materials Co.; and, Bronze sponsors APAC Inc., G.A. and F.C. Wagman, Inc., and the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association. The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association also supported the black-tie dinner.

Concrete industry conference participants included Robert Sullivan and Will Sears, representing NRMCA; PCA’s John Shaw, John Sullivan and Tom Gibson; Paul Detwiler, New Enterprise Stone & Lime, Inc.; Gary L. Godbersen, Gomaco Corp.; and, Michael Stanczak, Material Service Corp. Representing ACPA were Gerry Voight, P.E., Patrick Nolan, Peter Deem, Ed Graber, and Jim Kolb, the association’s lobbyist. Pam Whitted and Joy Wilson participated on behalf of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association.


This year’s convoy retraced the route of Eisenhower’s Transcontinental Motor Train, which traversed 3,250 miles in 62 days Û across roads of every imaginable condition after departing Washington, D.C., on Monday, July 11, 1919. More than two miles long, that convoy comprised 81 vehicles, including trucks, cars, motorcycles, ambulances, mobile kitchens, and repair trucks. By contrast, the commemorative convoy reversed Ike’s route, traveling from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., crossing 13 states, with 18 major stops, in a period of 14 days.

What we saw as we crossed America was a far different world than that of 1919, and even of 1956, when the Federal-Aid Highway Act providing funding for the system was enacted, said Oklahoma DOT Director Gary Ridley, chairman of the AASHTO Steering Committee that organized the trip. But, where they struggled through mud, destroyed 88 bridges, and literally pulled heavy vehicles across the Salt Lake Desert by hand, we traveled in comfort Û 60 miles per hour, compared to their average speed of only six.

The convoy was formative for Eisenhower, as he was able to see how inadequate roads imperiled movement of men and material from coast to coast. According to Merrill Eisenhower Atwater, President Eisenhower’s great-grandson, who took part in the 2006 cross-country convoy, seeing the German autobahns later convinced the president that a superhighway system Û ribbons of highways across the land Û was essential to unleashing the economic might of the nation.

The trip wasn’t just about celebrating past achievements, said Georgia DOT commissioner and 2006 AASHTO President Harold Linnenkohl. It’s also about opening our eyes to look ahead to the next 50 years of the Interstate system.

At the indoor ceremony welcoming the convoy were outgoing Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta; former transportation secretary Rodney Slater; Rep. Don Young (R-AK), chairman, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), ranking Minority Member, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), chairman, Highways, Transit and Pipelines Subcommittee; Mary Eisenhower, president and CEO, People to People International and President Eisenhower’s granddaughter; Col. Tim McNulty, chief of staff, Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, U.S. Army; AASHTO’s Linnenkohl; Oklahoma DOT’s Ridley; and, AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley.


The AASHTO-TCC policy forum on the Interstate system’s future brought together transportation and industry leaders to identify challenges facing the highway network and options to maintain the system as the nation’s economic backbone. The forum featured brainstorming on a number of topics by the 150 participants in eight small group settings.

These groups considered the topics of system preservation, protection and maintenance; new corridors and intermodal connections; performance: optimizing operations and management; and, innovation in finance, plus pricing and public-private ventures. In the course of deliberation, the groups determined that system-expansion decisions are more easily addressed in rural areas; multi-modal options are needed in urban areas; urban area improvements are particularly challenging; mobility is a priority in rural areas; and, future funding formulas must continue to address both rural and urban needs.

In addressing strategies, participants cited the need to look at the Interstate system in conjunction with arterial networks, to identify our nation’s driving aspirations for the future, to focus on freight and commerce, to develop auxiliary improvements such as longer lasting materials, and to secure adequate financial support. Also emphasized were the importance of strengthening partnerships between states and urban areas, expanding Interstate miles over the next 30 years, and developing new technologies. Recommendations included developing a clear vision of future surface-transportation programs; designating freight movement a key part of that vision; enhancing the stability of the federal program, including timely completion of authorization bills; and, using funding more effectively. Ways to increase revenues must be considered, participants affirmed; and, public communication on the benefits of investments must be improved. In order to achieve our goals, they added, all sectors Û business, public entities, the public, and various transportation modes Û must be engaged in a highly cooperative effort.

Rear View: 1892-1956

Only six decades elapsed from the time the Good Roads Movement began to pull America up out of the mud in 1892 to the launching in 1956 of the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Only four decades separate the revival of the federal role in roadbuilding (with the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916) and the Interstate era. But, those decades saw the growth of federal involvement in roadbuilding, leading to the greatest public works project in American history.

An early federal role in improving mail service and providing better roads unfolded during the Good Roads era, as Rural Free Delivery (RFD) became popular. While the first federally subsidized RFD route opened in Alabama in 1914, the federal government’s funding of post-road improvements lasted only four more years. Nevertheless, lobbying efforts and compromises resulting in RFD subsidies softened the way for federal aid legislation that would appear in 1916.

Even as policy makers and engineers debated the federal role in local and state road construction, tremendous pressure to maintain and improve roads came from a different direction: the new class of automobile and truck owners. Government figures show that automobile registrations skyrocketed from 458,000 in 1910 to 2.3 million in 1915 and to 8.1 million in 1920. Trucks registered rose at a greater rate, from 10,000 in 1910 to 1.1 million in 1920.

As a result, the Federal-Aid Road Act was enacted in 1916, creating a steady federal highway program Û the forerunner of all surface transportation legislation to follow, including the 1956 act which created the Interstate system. The act embodied cooperation between federal and state (not county or municipal) road agencies and maintained the rural focus of the RFD program.


As the Great War (1914-1918) in Europe wound down, a new magisterial figure appeared in American road history: Thomas H. MacDonald a.k.a. The Chief. Even more than Eisenhower, MacDonald is above all the man to whom Americans are indebted for the Interstate system.

MacDonald revolutionized the federal road program when, for example, he and his allies in state road agencies felt that user fees Û gasoline and other motor vehicle taxes Û should be dedicated to roadbuilding and maintenance. Moreover, a federal road bill for 1921 bearing MacDonald’s imprint forced states to establish a state highway system, part of which had to be Interstate in character. The act provided funds for a limited, interconnected system and mandated minimum engineering standards.

Additionally, as head in 1937 of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR – predecessor to today’s Federal Highway Administration), MacDonald was requested by President Roosevelt to conduct a feasibility study on proposals to build transcontinental toll roads. The result was a landmark report, Toll Roads and Free Roads, contending that such roads could not be self-sustaining; instead, it recommended a separate network of high-performance, free highways that would supplement the existing federal-aid primary system and urban roads.

MacDonald’s network of 1 percent of the nation’s road mileage would carry 20 percent of the traffic. (Today’s Interstate comprising 1.2 percent of the roadway network carries 21 percent of the traffic.) His proposal was the direct ancestor of the Interstate system. During World War II, the plan was further refined in an Interregional Highways report, released in 1943 and distributed generally in 1944, calling for a 39,147-mile interstate-type system with a 20-year life expectancy.


With the return of prosperity and full tax coffers after World War II Û soon followed by an explosion of auto and truck traffic Û the highway establishment turned to fulfillment of MacDonald’s plan. For the system, articulated in Toll Roads and Free Roads, limited access design was embraced.

When Eisenhower succeeded Truman in 1953, MacDonald left the BPR, having served as The Chief of the agency through seven presidential administrations. In August 1954, eager to get the ball rolling, Ike asked retired Gen. Lucius D. Clay to establish a committee to look at expediting construction of MacDonald’s Interstate system. On Jan. 11, 1955, the Clay Committee presented to Eisenhower a plan establishing a Federal Highway Corporation to handle $2.5 billion of highway financing annually. A bill based on the Clay Committee plan, however, was defeated by the Senate in May 1955 and by the House that July.

Major elements of the Clay Committee Report eventually were abandoned, and 1956 compromise bills Û derived from legislation authored by Reps. Hale Boggs of Louisiana and George Fallon of Maryland, and Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee Û were passed. Final legislation was signed by Eisenhower June 29, 1956, and the Interstate system was launched.