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The History of the Highway System and Construction Today

View of a highway with trucks and vehicles passing as the sun sets in the far horizon below clouds.

On any given day, most people will in some way or another interact with the nation’s highway system. Many will spend a considerable amount of commuting time on it, stuck in traffic, or zipping through from one side of town to the next. The nation’s highway system—or interstate system— was actually a revolutionizing change for the country in the midst of the 20th century. We might not think about it much today, but this interconnecting system of highways is one of the most impacting national projects in the nation’s history. So how did this great highway system begin? 

Let’s take a step back…way back…to 1908.

In 1908, Henry Ford introduced his famous Model T automobile—a.k.a Tin Lizzie. The model was not only revolutionary in its engineering but also in its practicality and affordability. It was designed, in a way, for the common man and marketed as the automobile that was within reach of everybody. That is, no longer a luxury of the rich but a necessity for the everyday American looking to get around. 

The Role of the Early Automobile 

Thanks to the Model T and other automobiles’ accessibility, Americans began buying cars. In 1919, there were about 6.7 million cars on the roads. Only 10 years later, in 1929, 26 million cars were driving around the country. To put it in perspective: today we have about 250 million cars on the roads. So what happens when you produce a lot of vehicles and increase the number of people driving? Add to that the industrial revolution in the United States, growth of cities, suburbs, and the furthering away from city centers. Well, people need and want to go places. 

Soon, it becomes a necessity to travel and the call of adventure drives demand for easier connections from one coast to the other. 

The Highway System is Born 

On June 29, 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 came into existence via the signature of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. And while Eisenhower is often given the credit for conceiving of the project, he was not, in fact, the first to think of it. The Interstate System was first described in a Bureau of Public Roads report in 1939. It was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944. President Eisenhower was mostly responsible for funding and building it. 

This bill created what would change America culturally and economically for many years to come. Eisenhower’s support for the project was informed by civilian needs. In large part, it was to support economic development, improved highway safety, and the relief of road congestion that had been building up. There is a myth that stated that Eisenhower wanted the highway system in order to have an emergency mode of evacuation in case America was attacked by the atomic bomb.  It created a 41,000 mile “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” that would be a solution to what had become a system of unsafe roads, insufficient routes, traffic jams, and bad conditions. Among many civilian needs, it was also aided by the idea to encourage safe travel across the nation’s borders. 

The Revolt Against the Highways 

A somewhat lesser-known part of the history might be the discontent that arose in some areas of the country once building started. The building process disrupted communities and neighborhoods and many people were not happy about that. This was not a large movement, but one that asked valuable questions about the government’s ability to build on private property or how to better approach these building projects in the future. 

The Interstate System’s Impact on American Culture and Commerce 

This gargantuan undertaking that was to connect the entire nation via an organized system of highways, would have an impact on the way people did business but it would also be completely revolutionary to the American culture and pair with America’s unique characteristic: freedom. The first highways were like a series of badly conceived trails that were difficult to navigate. The highway system opened up the country to people everywhere. This meant that travel was not only accessible and easier but it was encouraged. 

The Highway system also created a nation of drivers, which even today we see as a big part of our culture. After all, getting your driver’s license is a big rite of passage as it indicates the ability to own and drive a vehicle, which means the opportunity for freedom and connection to anywhere you want to go in the country. As these highways were traveled, there was an opportunity for roadside gas stations, restaurants, businesses and more. This meant that small towns across the country would benefit and grow as a result. At the same time, the concept of fast food is closely connected to traveling Americans going from one side of the country to the other. The get-in and get-out model was the ideal for motorists that were on the road. The expansion of these businesses off interstate off-ramps created the cross-country road traveler culture that we see depicted in so many of American pop culture. Just look at how many films and songs take the team of cross-country traveling as part of their plot or premise. It suggested freedom, change, and the ability to call your own destiny. These are all, of course, quintessentially American traits. 

Not long ago, we wrote about the history of the highway rest stop. So even the creation of state-sponsored rest stops became a part of the traveling journey in its own way. For modern Americans, traveling down the highway means the ability to get to know the American landscape and visit this great nation.  

Building Highways and Roads one Step At a Time 

Here at Constructors, Inc, we love this country and its ability to provide opportunity and prosperity for all. As a family-owned and operated company that has been building in the Southwest area for three generations, we know that our highways are part of us. It’s why every road we build is built with the utmost quality. If you need something built, call the construction experts at Constructors, Inc.

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