THE EISENHOWER INTERSTATE

Are you heading out this weekend, driving some where other than where you are right now, to celebrate the upcoming July 4th holiday? Chances are very good that at some point in your travels you'll encounter the Eisenhower Interstate.  My essay, "Cross Country Impressions" from Over The Hill and Gaining Speed, p. 18-19, highlights how the Interstate came to be--and why we should care.  Safe travels!

CROSS-COUNTRY IMPRESSIONS

This summer, my above-average husband, our handsome dog, and I once again set off cross-country, covering some 2,600-plus miles over a period of nine days.  Like last year, we incorporated several tourist stops, as well as visits with friends and family.  A cross-country venture is not only a great way to reconnect—it is also a first-hand, up-close-and-personal opportunity to experience the varied sights and textures of this great land of ours.  We careered through farmlands and fields, mountains and valleys, forests and deserts.  We drank in big skies and endless horizons.  Some of our observations were inspiring; some were painful.  We observed not only the beauty of nature but also her brutality as we witnessed the aftermath of the violent derechos—straight-line storms with hurricane force—that wreaked havoc on several Mid-Atlantic states and left several hundred thousand people without electricity and water for weeks.  As we angled west-southwest, we observed the slow immolation of once green hills into dusty brown flats and wished for pipelines that could transport water from flooded areas to these parched and burning lands.

We took to the Interstate Highway System—the Eisenhower Interstate—and observed the marvelous mobility of these United States.  On our first day out, our license plate game garnered 33 different US states as well as three Canadian provinces and Guam.  Spotting an Alaska tag on day one was a high-five moment.  Americans are on the move—visiting and vacationing, meeting and greeting, learning and sharing, working and playing, celebrating and mourning.  We saw legions of semis—most pulling two trailers at a time.  They motored on, one right after the other, alternative “trains” unrestricted by rails.  They were hauling everything from carpets to cabbages, horses to housewares, lumber to La-Z-Boys, milk to metals, packages to poultry, timber to toys.  They hauled eastbound and westbound—crossing from state to state without stopping for customs, changing language, or converting currency.  In Tennessee we noticed an armada of utility vehicles, like a parade of grasshoppers—heading east on I-81 into Virginia and beyond, to help restore power to storm-ravaged areas in neighboring states.  Americans were on the move to aid other Americans in need.  The impressions were indelible.

All this social and economic mobility is greatly enabled by our Interstate Highway System.  An inter-regional highway system was first recommended by Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1939 address to Congress.  Political opponents considered it “more New Deal jitterbug economics.”  The idea languished until Dwight D. Eisenhower advocated for it in his 1954 State of the Union address.  Two key events made Eisenhower a strong proponent of a federal highway system.  The first occurred during a post-World War I impediment-filled transcontinental military trip across the United States in 1919.  The second was his first-hand experience of the advantages of Germany’s autobahn system during and after World War II.

According to CNN correspondent Tamar Jacoby, Eisenhower’s highway proposal was “…the health-care legislation of its day—an epic battle.”  Competing political interests and powerful lobbies blocked progress for nearly two years.  Then, in a stunning reversal, everyone suddenly seemed to realize that the benefits would more than outweigh the costs.  Congress became more interested in strategic problem-solving than ideological purity, and the bill was passed.  On June 29, 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act was presented to Eisenhower—in a hospital bed at Walter Reed Hospital where he was confined due to a recent heart attack.  There, he signed into law the vision he had so long championed, without fanfare or ceremony.  At an initial cost of $50 billion, it comprised more than two-thirds of the federal budget in 1956, and is often referred to as “the biggest public works program since the Pyramids.”

In his 1963 memoir, Mandate for Change, Eisenhower defined this Act as his most important domestic achievement.  He stated that more than any other single action by government since the end of World War II, this law would change the face of America in ways that were beyond calculation.  Many historians agree. The Interstate Highway System is part of the American culture and way of life.  It is a major contributor to job creation, daily transportation, interstate commerce, local, regional, and international connectivity, tourism, humanitarian aid and evacuation, and—if needed—defense. Long stretches of the Interstates are straight as a runway—in case they ever need to be used for military aircraft.

Directly or indirectly, every US citizen benefits, one way or another. Infrastructure matters.  Funding for this system is not a given and continually requires Congressional approval.  We urge Congress, as they did in 1956, to once again put aside differences and consider the common good and make this a permanently funded budget item. Such vision and cooperation would continue to provide domestic and global benefits. *

The Bucks County Herald, August 16, 2012

*The “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act” (“FAST Act”) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on December 4, 2015, once again providing long-term funding support for critical transportation projects, including federal highways.