June 26, 1956
On June 26, 1956, the Senate and House both approved a conference report on the Federal-Aid Highway Act (also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act). Three days later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed it into law. The authorization to build 41,000 miles of interstate highways marked the largest American public works program to that time. Ike usually gets the credit for building the interstate highway system, which has been named in his honor, but that version of the story omits the critical role played by Congress.
Eisenhower’s interest in the U.S. highway system dated back to his participation in the Army’s first transcontinental motor convoy from Washington to San Francisco in 1919, which gave him first-hand knowledge of the poor quality of America’s roads. During World War II he became impressed with the German autobahns. In his State of the Union message in 1954, he proposed an American interstate highway system, which he justified as a national defense program. The highways could be used for transporting troops and for evacuating cities in case of nuclear attack.
The Eisenhower administration proposed financing the interstate highway system through a federal bond issue, and expected state and local governments to contribute 70 percent of the cost. That plan was rejected by the chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on roads, Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, Sr., who substituted his own bill. Among its features, Senator Gore drew on his harrowing experiences while driving to Tennessee on West Virginia’s notorious “suicide alley” turnpike, with its sharp-turn exits. His bill specified that the new interstate highways would feature cloverleaf exits and entrances. Senator Gore also favored having the federal government pay the largest share of the cost, funded by a gas tax and taxes on the motels and gas stations along the highways. However, his bill left the responsibility for initiating revenue-producing legislation to the House. The Senate passed Gore’s bill in 1955.
In 1956, the House of Representatives also rejected the administration’s plan, and instead adopted a measure sponsored by Louisiana Representative Hale Boggs. That bill created a Highway Trust Fund that drew on an increased gas tax, along with taxes on tires, buses, and trucks. In this version, the federal government assumed 90 percent of the costs. A conference committee then reconciled the House and Senate versions of the bill. The final legislation, therefore, made Albert Gore and Hale Boggs, along with Dwight Eisenhower, the founders of today’s interstate highway system. Their accomplishment turned a jumble of unconnected local roads into a national transportation network that stretched from coast to coast.