Highway Act of 1956

Highway Act of 19562018-11-28T09:55:26+00:00

The Highway Act of 1956 for APUSH

Highway Act of 1956 for APUSH

About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.

In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.

The Highway Act of 1956

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, for the first time, authorized the construction of over 40,000 miles of interstate highways in the United States and ultimately became known as the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.  While it bears Eisenhower’s name, in many ways the creation of the interstate highway system was an outgrowth of long-standing federal efforts to improve roads augmented by the increasing migration to suburbs and Cold War fears feeding the need for the mass evacuation of cities in a nuclear emergency.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, for the first time, authorized the construction of over 40,000 miles of interstate highways in the United States and ultimately became known as the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.

Federal Funding Dating to 1806

From the early 1800s the federal government was integral in improving transportation facilities.  As early as 1806, federal funds were used to complete the Cumberland Road (National Road) from the headwaters of the Potomac River to the Ohio River. Henry Clay’s vision of an “American System” called for, among other things, federally funded internal improvements including roads and canals.  Clay’s vision of a national transportation system was severely limited by a strict interpretation of the constitution which held that federal involvement infringed on states’ rights.  Both James Madison and Andrew Jackson vetoed attempts by Congress to fund such ventures.

From the early 1800s the federal government was integral in improving transportation facilities.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, technological advances in transportation increased calls for the federal government to become involved in road construction.  Even a cycling group joined the cause, forming the National League for Good Roads in 1892 to lobby Congress for federal funds to improve existing roads.  The needs of World War I, even before direct U.S. involvement, led Congress to pass the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1916 to make it easier to move supplies to East coast ports.

The Model T and the 1920s

The creation of the Model T made the automobile affordable to even average American and stimulated suburban growth as Americans.

By 1920, more Americans lived in urban areas than in rural areas.  The creation of the Model T made the automobile affordable to even average American and stimulated suburban growth as Americans distanced themselves from urban settings.  As more American moved outward from city centers, the cry for better roads increased.  Additionally, the prosperity of the 1920s led to increased leisure time and greater travel opportunities.  The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921 (Phipps Act) was a comprehensive plan to develop an immense national highway system.  The federal government provided 50-50 matching funds to states and authorized the spending of $75 million in 1921.

During the Great Depression, federal highway construction became an integral part of many New Deal “make work” programs.

During the Great Depression, federal highway construction became an integral part of many New Deal “make work” programs.  The WPA (Works Progress Administration) constructed more than 650,000 miles of streets, roads, and highways and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) built miles of scenic highways.  While the intent of these projects was not to create a national highway system, it nevertheless engaged the federal government in the business of road construction, to a degree previously unknown.  Even so, a study of three potential North-South and three East-West interstate highway routes, financed by tolls, was conducted under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 and found to be financially infeasible.  In the 1940s, World War II contributed to highway construction slowing, due to resources and manpower redirected to the war effort.  Still, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 called for the construction of 40,000 miles of interstate highways after the war, one-half of the cost financed by states with the federal government covering the other half.  However, while the federal government continued to spend money on road construction, funds were not allocated specifically for the construction of the interstate highway system until the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (Highway Act of 1956).

Fear of a nuclear attack during the Cold War led to consideration of interstate highways as a means for mass evacuation of urban centers during an atomic strike.

Highways in the 1950s

By the mid-1950s several factors changed to catalyze the actual construction of an interstate highway system.  Tremendous increases in population, as well as the number of cars on the road, necessitated massive spending on road construction.  Additionally, the tremendous growth of suburbs, like Levittowns, drastically increased the number of commuters and clogged traditional highways.  The increased consumerism of the 1950s meant that goods needed to be transported longer distances efficiently.  Finally, fear of a nuclear attack during the Cold War led to consideration of interstate highways as a means for mass evacuation of urban centers during an atomic strike.

Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of more than 41,000 miles of interstate highways connecting major urban centers.  It set up the Highway Trust Fund to finance the construction with revenue from certain excise taxes, fuel taxes, and truck fees, specifically earmarked for interstate highway construction and maintenance.  Most notably, it increased the federal government’s share of the cost of constructing these highways from 50% to 90%.  Despite federal attempts to create mass transit systems to decrease pollution and congestion in urban areas, a cultural association with the automobile has led to expansion of the interstate highway system and the creation of “beltways” around major cities.  Since the 1950s the interstate highway system has grown to more than 47,000 miles of roadways.

Federal attempts to create mass transit systems to decrease pollution and congestion in urban areas, a cultural association with the automobile has led to expansion of the interstate highway system and the creation of “beltways” around major cities.

While increasing the ease and efficiency of travel, the interstate highway system had negative impacts as well.  One suggested goal of the interstate system was to eliminate slum areas in many cities.  Like other “urban renewal” projects of the late 1950s and early 1960s, accomplishing this goal of doing away with slum housing failed to create new low-income options to replace tenements in the “renewed” areas.  The interstate highway system also dislocated many small businesses along the highways it paralleled and negatively impacted the economy of towns it bypassed, much as railroads had done in the 19th century.

The interstate highway system also dislocated many small businesses along the highways it paralleled and negatively impacted the economy of towns it bypassed, much as railroads had done in the 19th century.

Conclusion

The Highway Act of 1956 created the interstate system we know today.  It was the result of a long, sometimes painfully slow, process of involving the federal government in creating a national system of connective highway links to create the national market economy Henry Clay envisioned.  It was both demanded by and a bolster to American mobility.

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