The Federal-Aid Highway Acts

As the popularity of the automobile grew in America, so did a desire for many for bigger, faster, more direct roads.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938

In the late 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed interest in construction of a network of three east-west and three north-south super-highways as a means of putting people back to work.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 called for a feasibility study of a six route toll network.  Although the study determined that the amount of transcontinental traffic was not sufficient to support a highway project of that scale, the report recommended a 43,000-kilometer (km) direct interregional highway network to follow existing roads where possible, preserving earlier investments in improvements, and depressed or elevated routes through cities.

In 1939, Roosevelt referred the report to Congress recommending action on the network of highways, designed to meet the needs of national defense and a long-range peacetime traffic.

On one hand, political opponents saw it as one critic put it: “Another ascent into the stratosphere of New Deal jitterbug economics.”  On the other hand, the “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair featuring a 14-lane “magic motorways” had helped to stir interest the super-highway concept.

Those within the highway community were in favor of idea, however, America was about to enter into the war in Europe.  It was not the time for such a considerable highway program.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 authorized designation of a 65,000-km “National System of Interstate Highways,” connecting major metropolitan areas, cities, and industrial hubs to serve the national defense and to connect with important continental routes in Canada and Mexico.  Although it authorized the interstate system, it did not authorize special funding, increase the federal share, or make a federal commitment to construct it.

In 1947, the Public Roads Administration announced designation of the first 60,640-km of interstate highways, however construction of the interstate system was slow and many states did not want to divert federal-aid funds away from local needs.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 under President Harry S. Truman authorized $25 million for the interstate system, and it was the first time federal funds were authorized specifically for interstate construction, matching funding on a 50-50 basis.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954

By the time President Dwight D. Eisenhower came into office in 1953, the states had completed 10,327-km of system improvements, half of which came from the federal funding.  He came with a belief in the importance of highways which was inspired by two experiences.  The first was his 1919 participation the U.S. Army’s first transcontinental motor convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. Along the way, the convoy experienced primitive road conditions and extremes of weather from desert heat to mountain freezing, making for a long, challenging trip.  The other was during World War II, where he saw the advantages of the autobahn network in terms of the Allies’ enhanced mobility in advancing into Germany.


Start of Trans-Continental Tour. (1919). Library of Congress. npcc 01835


“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,” Eisenhower had said.

During his 1954 State of the Union Address, Eisenhower focused on the nation’s highway problems and the importance of protecting “the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system.” Congress acted quickly on the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954 which authorized $175 million for the interstate system, matching on a 60-40 ratio. Eisenhower signed it on May 6, 1954, saying it was one step in meeting the accumulated needs, but he did not think it was enough.

He then called for a grand plan for a 10-year $50 billion highway program to correct the existing national highway network.  He cited the consequences of the nation’s obsolete network including the annual death and injury toll, the billions wasted on detours and traffic jams, highway-related lawsuits, the inefficient transportation of goods, and “the appalling inadequacies to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come.”

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

After much quibbling in Congress over how to fund the construction, The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed, providing for a 66,000-km system of interstate and defense highways to be built over 13 years and $25 billion with a federal share of 90 percent authorized through 1969. Eisenhower signed the bill while in Walter Reed Army Medical Center after an attack of ileitis.

A Nation Transformed


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According to biographer Stephen  Ambrose, stated that, of all Eisenhower’s domestic programs, his favorite was the Interstate System. In his 1963 memoir, Mandate for Change 1953-1956, Eisenhower wrote,


More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America. … Its impact on the American economy – the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up – was beyond calculation.

For some, America’s interstate highways are an indispensable resource that allows them to travel far distances in a reasonable timeframe. For others, the Interstate System is a symbol of destruction and displacement. And for many, interstates are just fixtures in our landscape. Whether it is love, hate or complete indifference that one feels, there is no denying it has profoundly transformed the America experience.


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