The History of the Interstate Highway System
Over 60 years ago President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and in doing so created the Interstate Highway System (IHS). President Eisenhower explained the necessity of an interstate system in a 1955 statement to Congress:
“Together, the uniting forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear—United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.”
Now encompassing 47,000 miles of roadway, the IHS runs through all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
Interstates have transformed the way we move goods and people in the U.S. In 1919, then Lt. Colonel Eisenhower traveled in an 80-vehicle military convoy from Washington, DC to San Francisco. The trip took 62 days, inspiring him to create the system.
Today that same drive could be completed in about three days. The Interstate Highway System cost approximately $500 billion to build (in 2016 dollars), but America’s investment has paid off – literally. The system has returned more than six dollars in economic productivity for each dollar that it cost.
Economic Benefits of the Interstate Highway System
The Interstate Highway System (IHS) did more than just make travel easier. Over the decades, it has dramatically and positively impacted our economic growth.
According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), the Interstate Highway System has been a fundamental force in raising America’s gross domestic product from $3 trillion to $19 trillion (as of 2021). Industries that rely on the system include hotels & hospitality, restaurants & fast food, convenience stores and gas stations, and tourism.
Since the interstate system was launched, traffic has increased by over 400%. Twenty-six percent of all vehicle miles traveled are attributed to the IHS, but “75 percent of truck freight” is carried across IHS roads.
The Future of the Interstate Highway System
Today’s America would have been unimaginable to President Eisenhower, and the country will likely continue changing in ways we can’t fathom over the next 60 years. Whatever the future holds, the one thing that’s always needed is money.
Funding for the Interstate Highway System has been flat for years, allowing for basic maintenance but little innovation. At current funding levels, it will be impossible for the interstate system to modernize and meet the needs of our growing country.
The ARTBA report notes how far behind we are in maintaining and improving our interstate roads:
- While interstate roads paved in the 1950s and 60s were only expected to last 20 years, over one-third of the IHS is more than 50 years old.
- Over one-third of IHS bridges need repair or replacement.
- In 2019, congestion on interstate highways cost $9 billion dollars.
In order to invest sufficiently in the Interstate Highway System, Congress needs to overhaul and modernize its federal funding source — the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). The HTF is primarily funded by an 18.4 cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline. This rate has not increased since 1993, meaning inflation has cut its value by 40% over the last 23 years.
As advancements in fuel efficiency continue, drivers will need to buy gas less often, further reducing the HTF’s income. As electric vehicles grow in popularity, drivers will pay almost no taxes to maintain the roads and bridges they drive on. We’ll need a new way to add revenue for the Highway Trust Fund.
One alternative funding mechanism is a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee. This fee would be assessed on each vehicle owner based on how many miles they’ve driven. Some proposals call for modifying the fee so that heavier vehicles like semi-trucks (which do more damage to roads) would pay more.
Mileage-based fees are currently being tested in several states. VMT fees could provide stable revenue for the HTF, which in turn would allow for adequate investment in the future of the Interstate Highway System.
Happy birthday, Interstate Highway System!
We wouldn’t be here without you.