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Comment: Highway system lesson: do not fear bold & expensive plans

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  • 12/26 Los Angeles Times
    Published Friday, December 26, 2008, by the Los Angeles Times Comment Eisenhower s roads to prosperity The story of how and why the country s interstate system
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2009
      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.
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