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View Full Version : The Interstate Highway System is 50 years old.



Heath
06-30-2006, 09:44 AM
Nice article here by TIME magazine -


The Interstates Turn 50
Half a century after Eisenhower first put the sprawling marvel of civic engineering into motion, our highways have radically changed the nation -- for good and bad

By TOM CHAFFIN

From the air, the 46,000 lunging, rolling, curving, tangled miles of America's Interstate Highway System sprawl across the continent like some outsized Rorschach pattern. These multi-laned, guard-rail-clad corridors by now seem timeless, like pre-Cambrian mountains bolted to the landscape. So it's hard to believe that America's freeway system turns 50 this summer — a chronological blip on the tectonic plates too slight for a spectrometer, but in the life of our republic, a golden anniversary.

In truth, the system's true origins do go back at least several more years. As a young lieutenant colonel in 1919, Dwight Eisenhower volunteered to act as an observer on the U.S. Army's first motorized transcontinental convoy. But the 62-day Washington-to-San Francisco trek left him appalled. On the often unpaved, poorly maintained roads that comprised their route, trucks became stuck in mud, disappeared into clouds of dust, and slid on ice; on occasion, they even crashed through the beds of creaky wooden bridges.

Memories of that obstacle course lingered with Eisenhower. And two decades later, as the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, he noted how easily his armies disrupted German supply-lines by bombing railroads. But he also noticed how, despite Allied pummeling, the country's Autobahn had remained passable. In the 1950s, the general-turned politician, by then elected president, resolved to build a similar system across the United States. "The old convoy," he recalled, "had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land."

Military considerations — his perceived need for good roads to transport troops and materiel over far-flung continental distances — initially compelled Eisenhower. But, with the force of an idea whose time had arrived, the system and its eventual designers found broader inspirations — the German Autobahn, as well as the parkways built by New Yorker Robert Moses as early as the 1930s and the futuristic highway visions of Norman Bel Geddes and French Modernist Le Corbusier.

In a fuller sense, however, it was America's 1950s economic boom that proved the Interstates' true progenitor. The Federal-Aid Highway Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by Eisenhower on June 29,1956, allocated $25 billion to pay 90% of the costs of a 41,000-mile "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways," to be completed by 1972.

To reassure state governments nervous about the tab, Congress levied a 3% federal tax on gas and diesel fuel to pay 90% of construction costs. Congress subsequently expanded the network to include other routes and the new states of Hawaii and Alaska. And even now, ongoing fidgeting with the system — the repaving and widening of established highways and the construction of new metro commuter routes close to growing cities — suggests that old joke about New York City: "It'll be a great place if they ever finish building it."

But America's Interstate system — the largest civil engineering project in human history — is actually substantively complete. And now that it is, we can begin to comprehend its scope and impact. After we've spread enough asphalt and concrete and acquired enough right-of-way to cover the entire surface of the state of Delaware, we can begin to comprehend how this sprawling 75 m.p.h. planet of concrete, asphalt, steel and white-line-paint has changed America — both the way we live and how we view our nation. Like some vast, caffeine-propelled external manifestation of our collective nervous system, these freeways changed everything.

By allowing us to travel with greater speed, freedom and whim than our ancestors could ever have imagined, the Interstates changed how we experience movement through space and time. Not so long ago, when family vacations entailed days poking along in slow-moving cars on even slower roads, the journey ranked almost as high as the destination. To relieve the tedium, Dad made regular stops at places that now seem hopelessly quaint — alligator wrestling joints, tourist cabins, and dinosaur-themed miniature golf-courses.

The Interstates reduced the older highways to ghost roads: "Let's-Stop-Here-Daddy" gave way to "We-Can-Make-Los-Angeles-By-Tomorrow-Morning." The mom-and-pop businesses that squatted just off the blacktops disappeared, replaced by the more impersonal, neon-announced franchise businesses that often sat hundreds of yards from the Interstates. These new entrepreneurs succored road-weary travelers with a dependable uniformity in food and lodging.

Thanks to McDonald's, Holiday Inn, and Howard Johnson, one suddenly could travel coast-to-coast and eat from an unvarying menu and sleep in the same room every night. As Alphonse Karr might have mused, "The more one travels, the more one stays in the same place." Indeed, by now, the Interstates' uniform signages — emblazoned with the system's own red-white-and-blue shield icon; others proclaiming speed-limits and upcoming exits; and still others touting McDonald's, Best Western, Exxon, BP, and Wendy's — float through our subconscious like so many branded Jungian archetypes.

Still one might fairly ask, to what degree does the system incarnate the vision of its 1950s authors? And how does it mesh with the nation's grand romance of the open road? After all, travelers from Walt Whitman to Jack Kerouac have done time on earlier American roads, portraying them variously as pathways to freedom or into a Hobbesian wilderness. And more recently, Hunter Thompson, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen and other myth-makers have tried to hustle the Interstates into that same picaresque canon.

But is that really the way most Americans feel about these roads? Many of us, after all, use them more for daily commutes rather than for recreational trips. And let's be honest —for the millions of metro commuters who endure daily knotted freeway traffic-jams, any portrayal of the Interstates as the latest incarnation of America's classic Open Road rings false. For them —perfectly happy, thank you, to wait to get back on the road again — these highways feel about as romantic as a digital clock.

Celebrated or cursed, the Interstates still evoke sublime feelings about the technological forces that, over five decades, have transfigured American lives. More than television, the space program, computers or any of the other defining, and once controversial, technological icons of our lifetimes, freeways continue to divide Americans. To understand how 19th-century Americans felt about technology, historians often examine individuals' attitudes toward the railroad. Freeways offer a similar litmus: Although still beloved by automobile, trucking, construction, advertising and franchising executives, the roads are excoriated by academics, artists, writers and activists for diminishing communities, landscapes, public transportation and regional distinctiveness.

Moreover, freeway fracases over everything from neighborhood preservation to roadside billboards echo long-standing national conversations that reach back to our republic's dawn. Long before Ike's fountain pen in 1956 inscribed these red-roads into our Rand-McNally pages, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton sparred over how to balance democracy, freedom and commerce in American lives. Put another way, even as history's odometer this season rolls up the Interstates' 50th anniversary, these roads still take us on a multi-lane tour of our murkiest feelings about home and travel, the near and the distant, the here and the there.

westofyou
06-30-2006, 10:00 AM
The Interstates reduced the older highways to ghost roads: "Let's-Stop-Here-Daddy" gave way to "We-Can-Make-Los-Angeles-By-Tomorrow-Morning." The mom-and-pop businesses that squatted just off the blacktops disappeared, replaced by the more impersonal, neon-announced franchise businesses that often sat hundreds of yards from the Interstates. These new entrepreneurs succored road-weary travelers with a dependable uniformity in food and lodging.

I hate the interstate, Americas roads rule, the highway is for time and homoginized living.

RFS62
06-30-2006, 10:18 AM
Kerouac is dead. Long live the Red Roof Inn. Multi-tasking, you know.

Unassisted
06-30-2006, 11:51 AM
The interstate is for people who just want to get to Point B and don't care about what's between there and Point A. There's a lot more of those people than there used to be, and gosh, do they drive fast! :eek:

I saw a documentary on the History Channel about what vehicle travel was like before the interstate system was proposed. That was back when major roads weren't always paved and changing a tire by the side of the road was something you had to do on a regular basis. I can understand why people of that era would look longingly toward the day when they could take a fast trip between cities on a smooth highway. But I'm also glad that there are still other options. :thumbup:

Chip R
06-30-2006, 12:15 PM
When I was on vacation in Iowa last week, I guess Ike's grandson was in the state as part of an anniversary tour.

I don't think it's necessarily fair to say that the interstate begat the homogonized fast food restaurants, hotels and convenience stores you see off the exits. If there was no interstate, I believe these places would have popped up anyway.

A few years ago I was going on vacation back to Iowa. I had to go to LaGrange, KY the morning I was leaving and planned on heading to Indy from Louisville. I got impatient about halfway to Indy and turned off on State Route 46 which would take me to Terre Haute and I could catch 74 from there. Boy, was that a mistake. I barely went over 50 on that road. When I finally got to Terre Haute there was a huge traffic jam on I-70 and I had to take some more back roads in Illinois to finally get to I-74. I bet that detour added at least a couple of hours on to my trip. I blame myself for not being more patient but those back roads are not as romantic as people make them out to be.

dabvu2498
06-30-2006, 12:24 PM
The weekend after we graduated from college we drove from Nashville to Pensacola and decided not to get on the highway. Great fun, right?!?!?! Wrong. 13 hours later we got there. Took us 6 1/2 to get back on I-65.

RFS62
06-30-2006, 12:45 PM
Wonder if Kerouac would have used GPS?

LincolnparkRed
06-30-2006, 01:14 PM
Wonder if Kerouac would have used GPS?

His "on the Road" book IMO might be one of the most overated pieces of literature ever written. I wasn't even able to finish it. I got 3/4 of the way there and decided I didn't really care what happened to him or his friends.

ghettochild
06-30-2006, 01:15 PM
Kerouac is dead. Long live the Red Roof Inn. Multi-tasking, you know.

the chances of me working are...........REMOTE


:bang: :bang: :bang: :angry: :angry:

westofyou
06-30-2006, 01:22 PM
The weekend after we graduated from college we drove from Nashville to Pensacola and decided not to get on the highway. Great fun, right?!?!?! Wrong. 13 hours later we got there. Took us 6 1/2 to get back on I-65.
Time is time that's for sure, but I'd rather drive the west on the 2 laners, you can do 60 miles on those no problem, back east you have too many Burgs, but I'd still rather drive from Cincinnati to Boston without seeing a turnpike and I have several times.

That's America, not the "flair" on the suspenders of some kid from the suburbs named "Chance" who brings me 2400 calories of grease as I watch the trucks blow by.

gonelong
06-30-2006, 01:32 PM
Time is time that's for sure, but I'd rather drive the west on the 2 laners, you can do 60 miles on those no problem, back east you have too many Burgs, but I'd still rather drive from Cincinnati to Boston without seeing a turnpike and I have several times.

That's America, not the "flair" on the suspenders of some kid from the suburbs named "Chance" who brings me 2400 calories of grease as I watch the trucks blow by.

I live near the 70/75 interchange, so I drive the highways a great deal. I often pull off on a state route and run though a few small burgs. Might double the drive time occasionally, but you might just discover something thats worth the drive.

I had a nice, long, slow drive down the PCH last summer. Enjoyed it greatly. I only wish I'd have had a bit more time to stop at a few more places along the way. "Wasted" most of our time in Yosemite. Glorious place.

GL

westofyou
06-30-2006, 01:37 PM
I had a nice, long, slow drive down the PCH last summer. Enjoyed it greatly. I've been itching for a trip, my wife isn't... so I might head down that way in the next week or two. Just me and my bike... I'll do the coast down and 5 or 99 back up. When in the Bay Area I try and stay off the highways and do roads like 35, 9 and 1.

DropDocK
06-30-2006, 01:40 PM
My dad would regal me with stories of his family, with their horse-drawn wagon, taking their produce downtown to sell before 74 was built. Needless to say, it was a positive development for them. That is/was my main route to get to UC for class and a lifesaver cause I hate the thought of taking 75 unless necessary. My preferred route to a game is take 50, if I'm in the area.



His "on the Road" book IMO might be one of the most overated pieces of literature ever written. I was even able to finish it. I got 3/4 of the way there and decided I didn't really care what happened to him or his friends.

Amen. I cannot even remember if I finished it. The first book that made me weary of the "classic literature" label.

westofyou
06-30-2006, 01:42 PM
His "on the Road" book IMO might be one of the most overated pieces of literature ever written. I wasn't even able to finish it. I got 3/4 of the way there and decided I didn't really care what happened to him or his friends.

Me too... I got in my car and took off west myself.

pedro
06-30-2006, 01:45 PM
One of the promises I made to myself when I moved from Atlanta to Portland was that I would stay off the highway as much as possible. Now the only time I get on the highway is if I'm leaving town.

IslandRed
06-30-2006, 02:22 PM
Charles Kuralt, or somebody, said something to the effect of "thanks to the Interstates, you can now drive from coast to coast without seeing anything or meeting anybody."

With the little ones, the loafing and sightseeing on long trips has been reduced, but we'll generally get off I-Whatever for at least a little while. Our road trips are generally between Tennessee and Florida, so we'll side-trip through the Georgia mountains or wait until we get to Florida and cut over to A1A. Or something like that.

Now that I think of it, it's a longstanding habit of mine to not come back exactly the way I went. Even if they're 95% the same roads, I'll vary it just a little. That's usually the case even for trips to the grocery store.

pedro
06-30-2006, 02:30 PM
I drove 23 from Ohio to Georgia once.

It took a very long time.

reds1869
06-30-2006, 02:54 PM
If you had grown up in West Virginia like me, you would love the interstate system. Try going somewhere in that state without an interstate sometime. Scenery and charm is great if you're a tourist, but not fun at all if you drive between Parkersburg and Huntington twice a week.

Chip R
06-30-2006, 03:04 PM
The good thing now is that you have a choice. If you want to get there and back in the quickest time possible you can take the interstate. If you want to stop and smell the roses, you can take the back roads.

Blimpie
06-30-2006, 03:30 PM
I drove 23 from Ohio to Georgia once.

It took a very long time.My friend and I took his car on US 441 from central Florida to central Kentucky. Apparently, he had expired tags on his Accord and thought that it would be more discrete if we stayed off I-75....:help:

RedsBaron
06-30-2006, 08:44 PM
If you had grown up in West Virginia like me, you would love the interstate system. Try going somewhere in that state without an interstate sometime. Scenery and charm is great if you're a tourist, but not fun at all if you drive between Parkersburg and Huntington twice a week.
I generally agree with you about how the interstates have been great for WV, but I actually often take the non-interstate route from Huntington to Parkersburg. I take Route 2 out of Huntington, heading north towards Point Pleasant, and I usually don't pick up an interstate until I hit I-77 around Ripley. This lets me avoid Charleston and seems to be as quick and a whole lot more relaxing than going interstate the whole way. Much of Route 2 is a fun drive.

RedsBaron
06-30-2006, 08:45 PM
The good thing now is that you have a choice. If you want to get there and back in the quickest time possible you can take the interstate. If you want to stop and smell the roses, you can take the back roads.
I was thinking the same thing................so, excellent post!:)

KronoRed
06-30-2006, 11:06 PM
My friend and I took his car on US 441 from central Florida to central Kentucky. Apparently, he had expired tags on his Accord and thought that it would be more discrete if we stayed off I-75....:help:
How long did that take? 441 takes 3 hours from Gainesville to Ocala sometimes :help:

cincinnati chili
07-01-2006, 07:07 AM
Interstates rule.

War 2400 calories of Grease and line cooks named Chancce.

:)

reds1869
07-01-2006, 08:34 AM
I generally agree with you about how the interstates have been great for WV, but I actually often take the non-interstate route from Huntington to Parkersburg. I take Route 2 out of Huntington, heading north towards Point Pleasant, and I usually don't pick up an interstate until I hit I-77 around Ripley. This lets me avoid Charleston and seems to be as quick and a whole lot more relaxing than going interstate the whole way. Much of Route 2 is a fun drive.

I take that route as well, but find the interstate a lot less stressful and actually like stopping a few places in Charleston.

KronoRed
07-01-2006, 04:00 PM
The trouble (for me) with state highways is the stop lights really put a damper on cruise control use.

919191
07-02-2006, 02:49 AM
I got impatient about halfway to Indy and turned off on State Route 46 which would take me to Terre Haute and I could catch 74 from there. Boy, was that a mistake. I barely went over 50 on that road. When I finally got to Terre Haute there was a huge traffic jam on I-70 and I had to take some more back roads in Illinois to finally get to I-74. I bet that detour added at least a couple of hours on to my trip. I blame myself for not being more patient but those back roads are not as romantic as people make them out to be.


I live in Terre Haute (did you notice the smell? The city has spent alot of money on studies trying to figure out exactly what it is and what to do about it) and I take 46 sometimes to in-laws near Bloomington. Since it is in-laws, I'm glad the travel is slow! Seriously, on 46, you can get to know joggers alongside the road as you drive.

About 20 years ago I was coming back here from Louisville and I got on I-64 by mistake instead of I-65. I decided to keep going. I got about halfway across Indiana and started on northbound routes to hit eventuallly 46 or 50. I got on some pretty backwoods roads. There was one place around Birdseye that had alot of rusted cars really old all over the yard. There were 7 of them lined up with one letter painted on each windshield, spelling KEEP OUT.

WebScorpion
07-06-2006, 12:53 PM
I drove route 50 from Virginia to Ohio this weekend. Wow! :eek: There are a few mind-bending curves on that road in WV. Some beautiful scenery though. I took the Interstates on the return trip and got plenty of use out of the cruise control and DVD player (for the kids) I think the difference was about 2 hours...11 hours to Cincy and 9 to return. There's something to be said for both methods.

BTW, I used a Navigation system both ways and it was great for finding places to eat along the way and finding the way back when I took impulsive turns, etc. It gave me the peace of mind to stray from the path whenever I wanted...great investment. :thumbup:

Roy Tucker
07-06-2006, 01:47 PM
Nobody has commented on how there can be interstates in Alaska and Hawaii.

Interstates are a bland and homogenized way to travel. But, with a car full of kids, they can sometimes help you retain your sanity.

Sometimes you don't care about the getting-there so interstates are handy. Sometimes the getting-there is the thing. I'm more of b.) than a.) these days.

M2
07-06-2006, 01:49 PM
His "on the Road" book IMO might be one of the most overated pieces of literature ever written. I wasn't even able to finish it. I got 3/4 of the way there and decided I didn't really care what happened to him or his friends.

I believe the line I used to open my paper on the subject back in college was that Kerouac's "On the Road" presupposes that he's somehow interesting and not some century-late Thoreau wannabe who affects the manner of being some sort visionary far better than he demonstrates it.

The entire book is based on rote serialization - tell a pointless story, make sure to weave in at least one totally preposterous sentence that feigns intelligence and toss in a throw-away line about the actual place you went to (e.g. they've got the prettiest girls in the world in Iowa). Lather, rinse, repeat.

While I'm sympathetic to the notion of taking the less-travelled route and staying off the soulless concrete highways, I'm usually destination-oriented when I get into the car. The less time spent in the vehicle, the better I say.

Though I do like train travel quite a bit. Unfortunately Amtrak takes five-and-a-half hours to cross Massachusetts and doesn't run much in the way trains heading north from here. So basically your only option is to ride the northeast corridor down toward New York and Philly.

registerthis
07-06-2006, 03:08 PM
This weekend, I was to fly from Baltimore to Columbus to visit family. Only, I got bumped from my seat by the airline (whose name I won't say, only that it is the directional oppositie of Northeast.) At any rate, I ended up driving from DC to Columbus, and made it in a shade under 6 hours. If I had taken back roads--such as Rt. 40--I'd still be driving back.

God bless the Interstate system. Also, I-68 through western Maryland and West Virginia is actually a very pretty route, I don't mind driving it at all.

dman
07-09-2006, 09:02 AM
I like the Interstate only when I'm working:devil: Other than that, I love traveling two-lane State Routes, U.S. Routes, and county roads. I live on SR 104 here in Franklin County and unfortunately these types of roads are going the way of the dinosaur around here.

I didn't care too much for the movie "Cars", but I did like how it made the point of how much you miss by traveling the Interstate system.

westofyou
07-09-2006, 11:42 AM
I drove the interstate yesterday from the Bay Area to PDX, 675 miles and 10 hours. You'd never be able to do that on a state road, but then again Highway 5 is only 2 lanes each way and 4 hours straight wind through about 300 miles of mountains and old volcanos.

Buit I also drove the interstate over the week in the Bay Area and it's brutal, nothing fun about 6 lanes on each side and people passing you on the right going 80.

But Highway 1 going up the coast was magic and I'd like to do it again very soon... that is a great highway.

RFS62
07-09-2006, 11:48 AM
But Highway 1 going up the coast was magic and I'd like to do it again very soon... that is a great highway.


For my money, it's the best drive in the continental US

westofyou
07-09-2006, 11:53 AM
For my money, it's the best drive in the continental US
Yep and it's even better after you go for a great ride in the foothills, see some wild turkeys and then go to here.

http://www.myparkphotos.com/scholarship/photos/WS-WA-PacificBeachStatePark-CapeElizabeth-DeanZulich.jpg