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Planning is Complete, but Funding is Slow to Come for the Interstate Highway System

After nearly three years of work, a plan was set for a system of 33,900 miles of interregional roadways, plus an additional 5,000 miles of auxiliary urban routes. The plan, developed by the National Interregional Highway Committee, which was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and headed by Thomas H. MacDonald, commissioner of the federal Bureau of Public Roads, was detailed in a January 1944 report to Congress.

Later that year in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, Congress acted on MacDonald and company's recommendations. The act called for designation of a National System of Interstate Highways to include up to 40,000 miles “…so located, as to connect by routes, direct as practical, the principal metropolitan areas, cities and industrial centers, to serve the National Defense and connect at suitable points, routes of continental importance in the Dominion of Canada and the Republic of Mexico.”

When the first 37,700 miles of roadway were announced by MacDonald and Philip B. Fleming, Federal Works administrator, hopes were high, but progress was slow since no funds were authorized to build the system.

The first funding set aside specifically for construction of the interstate came in 1952, but only a token amount of $25 million a year for fiscal years (FY) 1954 and 1955 was appropriated. Legislation in 1954 authorized an additional $175 million annually for FY 1956 and 1957.

On June 29, 1956, it was official. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 to provide more federal funding for road building in the coming four years than in the previous 40. Title II of the Act, called the Highway Revenue Act of 1956, created the Highway Trust Fund as a dedicated funding source for the Interstate Highway System. Revenue from gas and other motor-vehicle related user taxes was credited to the Highway Trust Fund to pay the federal share of the interstate and all other federal-aid highway projects. Also new with the Highway Trust Fund was the 90 percent federal funding share of interstate construction.

As he signed the legislation, Eisenhower emphasized the need for the use of photogrammetry, modern management practices and standard designs to efficiently implement such a large program.

The 1956 act provided for an extended network of more than 41,000 miles and nationwide design standards. The standards included a minimum of two, 12-foot lanes in each direction, ten-foot paved right shoulders and design speeds of 50-70 miles per hour.

At its November 1956 meeting, the American Association of State Highway Officials' outgoing president, Rex Whitton of Missouri , noted that studies of cost estimates, maximum sizes and weights, policies for reimbursing for highways already on the interstate system, and a study on the costs of different classes of highways were critical to the future of the highway program. At that meeting John Volpe, Federal Highway Administrator, also warned of the temptation to overbuild due to the 90 percent funding level provided by the federal government.

During the meeting, discussion centered on highway improvements in urban areas as more than half the funds planned for the system would be spent there due to the extremely high cost per mile of constructing an urban facility. The benefits discussed included the roadway's service to transit, as well as personal vehicles, and using properly placed infrastructure to encourage good urban development.


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