THE INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM
The design and construction of the Interstate Highway System represent a major act of national planning. In cubic yards of earth moved or cubic yards of concrete poured, the system, taken as a whole, may well be the largest construction project in human history. The construction of a coordinated system of highways all built to the same standards and linking every major city and more than 90 percent of all cities down to a population of 50,000 or more residents, across a land of about 3 million square miles, was a major act of planning. It was done as a cooperative venture between the federal government and 49 states.22
The federal presence in highway construction began with the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. This act provided federal funds to assist states in the construction of intercity highways. It established a basic pattern of shared funding responsibility and local consent to and participation in highway planning that persists to the present time.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the increase in the number of automobiles and the dispersal of population, largely owing to widespread automobile ownership, outpaced the rate at which the states and municipalities could build roads. In 1934 federal legislation authorized funds for state highway planning in addition to supplementing the states' construction expenditures. This set in motion a variety of traffic studies and placed the idea of a national highway grid on the national political agenda.
In 1938 Congress requested the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR, a federal agency that subsequently became the Federal Highway Administration) to study a proposal for a system of six superhighway toll roads, three to cross the country from east to west and three from north to south. Toll roads were suggested because the federal government and the states were starved for revenues during the Great Depression, and tolls appeared to be a way to make the highways self-financing. BPR studied the matter and decided that this proposed 14,000-mile system would not be able to generate enough toll revenues to be self-financing. Instead, in 1939 BPR came back with a proposal that recommended a national highway system of 26,700 miles. A succession of planning studies over the next decade and a half produced a vision of a national highway system of approximately 40,000 miles.23 The system would be jointly planned by the federal government and the states, would be built to the same design standards across the nation, and would be a system of limited-access roadways. Limited access was necessary to maintain a smooth, high-speed flow. The concept had been proved on a very small number of parkways beginning with the Bronx River Parkway in the late 1920s (see Chapter 3).
Although the vision of a single, integrated, limited-access system was compelling, the passage of legislation that would bring it into being was stalled by the problem of how to finance it. Studies indicated that tolls, despite their financial success on a few roads such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, could not generate the revenue required to build and maintain a national system. It took a decade after the end of World War II before that problem could be resolved.
In 1956, at the urging of the Eisenhower administration, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Title I of the act called for uniform design standards across the nation, established methods for apportioning highway funding among the states, and dealt with questions of procedure and administration. But the crucial part of the act was title II, which provided for a mechanism that would deliver massive funding for highway construction. The act set up the Highway Trust Fund, which would receive money from excise taxes on new vehicles and sales taxes on motor fuel. These funds would be dedicated, meaning that they could be used only for highway construction. Since the passage of the act, motor vehicle ownership, miles driven, and fuel consumed have risen rapidly, providing a growing tax base to sustain highway construction.
The design of the system was a joint effort between the Federal Highway Administration and state officials. The overall plan of the system was worked out by the federal people, but the exact routing within the states was largely determined by state officials. Design standards were uniform. There were four 12-foot lanes to be separated by a median and provided with shoulders at least 10 feet wide. The highways were designed for maximum speeds of 50, 60, or 70 miles per hour depending on topography. Early on, it was decided not to permit any services on the highways themselves, in contrast to the practice on toll roads. The argument given for this was to preserve competition and avoid the granting of "monopoly positions." But one might speculate that this decision had the fortuitous effect of increasing support from local businesspeople, who would see the highway as a source of additional customers rather than as a source of additional competition.24
The system, at this writing, covers about 42,500 miles and is virtually complete. The total cost of the system is estimated at about $129 billion. In that the entire system is a single entity built to a single set of standards providing high-quality connections between virtually all of the major urban centers in the United States, it is a huge act of planning. It has shaped the development of the nation to an enormous degree, but it must be said that there were unanticipated effects.
From the beginning it was recognized that there would be a choice between whether the interstates would go through cities or would bypass them with a circumferential road. It was understood that this choice would have important urban design consequences, and the 1956 legislation provided that where such a decision was to be made, a public hearing would be required. Within a few years enormous public opposition to cutting interstates through cities developed, and the decision was almost always to bypass.
The decision to bypass brought into being the familiar beltway pattern that we see around most major cities. And that is a profoundly deurbanizing design. The beltway creates a major locus for economic activity around the city. People who work for businesses on the beltway no longer need to live within commuting range of downtown. The beltway, in effect, becomes the new downtown. The "edge city" of which Joel Garreau writes (see Chapter 10) is made possible by the beltway design.
Proponents of the Interstate Highway System believed that it would strengthen the economy of the city by providing better access to the city's central business district both from other cities and from the city's hinterland. But it was not foreseen that this effect would be overshadowed by the larger effect of creating huge masses of highly accessible commercial space outside the central business district and outside the city itself.
In the cases of the largest metropolitan areas, congestion on the beltway and the areas around it, in time, creates demand for a second beltway.
The New York metropolitan area has, in effect, a double beltway system, though it has breaks in it due to topographic considerations and bodies of water (Long Island Sound and the lower reaches of New York Harbor). In the Washington, DC metropolitan area there has been much discussion of a second beltway 10 or 15 miles farther out. This would bring many hundreds of square miles of exurbia into the metropolitan area.
The building of the Interstate Highway System accelerated the shift of U.S. manufacturing from rail-borne to truck-borne freight by providing a road network that greatly increased the efficiency of trucking. That, of course, was also a decentralizing force. It probably also accelerated the growth of the sunbelt relative to the rest of the country by tying formerly remote rural southern areas into a single, highly efficient national highway system.
One might wonder how different America would look if, instead of taking the path we did, we had attempted to keep cities compact and spent much of the money devoted to interstates on a high-quality, heavily subsidized rail system. But although one may wonder about this, there was no real possibility for such a choice. The American love affair with the automobile and the process of suburbanization were well underway by the time the interstate system was begun. The rail-served, compact city configuration has its appeal, and it certainly can make a claim for environmental virtue. But it never had the mass support that might have made it a real possibility.
The system accomplishes what it was intended to do. It provides rapid, safe, high-quality automotive transportation between cities, and between cities and their hinterlands. It has also accomplished much that was not intended.