Comment: Highway system lesson: do not fear bold & expensive plans
- Published Friday, December 26, 2008, by the Los Angeles Times
Eisenhower's roads to prosperity
The story of how and why the country's interstate system was created
holds lessons for today.
By Tom Lewis
In his Dec. 6 radio address, President-elect Barack Obama vowed to
"create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment
in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal
highway system in the 1950s." The story of President Eisenhower's
decision in 1956 to create the interstate highway system, how it was
funded and its effects on American commerce and culture holds lessons
that the new president and the country would do well to heed.
Eisenhower was the first Republican to occupy the White House after
Herbert Hoover, who in the 1950s still wore a mantle of shame for his
role in the market crash of 1929 and its aftermath. Eisenhower had an
almost pathological, but healthy, fear that he might be blamed for
allowing the nation to fall into another depression. When a mild
recession early in his first term pushed the unemployment rate above
5%, Eisenhower told his Cabinet that "we could be in terrible trouble"
and asked for solutions.
The highwaymen at the Bureau of Public Roads (the precursor of today's
Federal Highway Administration) heeded the call. They reported that
each federal dollar invested in construction generated close to one
half-hour of employment. Like a stone cast into a pond, a mile of
modern, four-lane, limited-access highway would create waves that
would ripple through the economy. Workers across America, not just
those who built the roadways, would benefit -- in cement and steel
plants (50 tons of concrete and 20 tons of reinforcing steel go into
each mile), in paint and sign manufacturers and in heavy equipment
factories and oil refineries.
Another impetus for the massive project was that the president knew
firsthand the need for better roads. As a young lieutenant colonel,
he traveled in 1919 over the Lincoln Highway in the Army's first
transcontinental caravan, a journey that lasted 62 days and sometimes
required oxen to pull the trucks through mires of mud. Eisenhower
called it a trip "through darkest America in truck and tank." A
quarter of a century later, a ride over Adolf Hitler's autobahn
showed the general how highways might serve the defense of a nation.
Eisenhower realized that he could not fail with highways. Americans
wanted more roads for their postwar cars. Construction would prime the
economic pump (1950s language for "economic stimulus package") and
help secure the nation's future. He signed a small highway bill in
1954 and, on June 29, 1956, the $25-billion Federal-Aid Highway Act to
build a 42,000-mile interstate highway system by 1972. Ultimately the
cost would escalate to more than $130 billion, and workers would not
finish the roads until 1993, with the Century Freeway in Los Angeles
County as the last link.
Eisenhower wasn't afraid to create a huge public works program, and
unlike today's presidents, he wasn't afraid of taxes. (He even vetoed
his Republican Congress' repeal of a 20% federal admission tax on
motion pictures.) The 1956 highway bill levied a tax of 3 cents on
each gallon of fuel -- equal to 24 cents today. The revenue went into
a dedicated highway trust fund. Though it wasn't enough to support
the entire program, it was a start. And the tax proved to be a Mobius
strip of money. Each gallon of fuel pumped helped to create more
highways, which enabled more cars to drive more miles -- and use
more gas, which generated yet more money for the trust fund.
Eisenhower's interstates also changed the face of the nation. In the
19th century, each of the stops on the railroad as it pushed westward
became an opportunity for a community and commerce to develop. Today,
16,000 interchanges on the interstates have had a similar effect on
our economy and our lives. Eisenhower's interstates are an essential
part of our culture.
The highway system, though, also would have deleterious effects, which
Eisenhower probably couldn't have foreseen. He didn't know, for
instance, that rapacious planners like New York's Robert Moses would
plunder urban neighborhoods and displace thousands to lay down roads.
He didn't foresee that the interstates would contribute in large
measure to the United States' dependence on automobiles and foreign
In 1956, Eisenhower likely didn't fully realize that he was creating
not just a public works program but an economic and social blueprint
for the next 50 years. Now, along with every other aspect of our
infrastructure, the interstates are crumbling. Irresponsible
legislators rail against the current federal highway tax of 18.4 cents
a gallon -- far less in today's prices than Eisenhower's 3 cents.
Seduced by easy money, governors consider leasing parts of the highway
system to foreign companies.
So the lessons for Obama are clear: Don't be afraid to propose bold
-- and often expensive -- programs that improve the nation's
infrastructure and peoples' lives, and don't be afraid to pay for
them with taxes.
It is said the 44th president is taking office at a Lincoln moment and
a Roosevelt moment. True enough, but it can be an Eisenhower moment as
Tom Lewis is the author of several books, including "Divided
Highways," a history of the interstate highway system that was made
into a PBS documentary. He teaches English at Skidmore College.