Interstate Gallery

Featured Articles

Iowa’s Interstate Highway System

The Iowa Highway Commission started with a blank slate when they began sketching out Iowa’s portions of the Interstate Highway System. Efforts were quickly initiated to begin design of the system, acquire the needed right-of-way, and finally, build what was to be a 710-mile, ultra-safe highway system.

Lincoln HighwayIowa’s original interstate plan included the development of Interstates 29, 35, 74 and 80. The Highway Commission estimated it would cost taxpayers $478.77 million to complete all 710 miles.

Eventually, other freeways were added to Iowa’s plan and the total miles was raised to 781.51. With the additional highways, the Highway Commission revised its estimated cost to $588.6 million.

In October 1956 the Highway Commission let the first interstate project for bid. By Sept. 21, 1958, the first section was opened to the public. The project was a short segment at the southwest edge of Des Moines - I-35/I-80.

On Nov. 7, 1976, the Iowa Department of Transportation became one of the nation’s leaders in completing the four-lane Interstate Highway System by opening a 50-mile segment on I-35 between former U.S. 20 near Williams and former Iowa 106 near Clear Lake. The opening marked completion of the original 710 miles of the system.

On Sept. 12, 1985, nearly 27 years after the first section of roadway opened in 1958, Iowa’s interstate system was complete. The last section opened to the public was located on Interstate 380, the link between Waterloo and Iowa City. The largest and most expensive public works project in the state’s history totaled 781.51 miles, cost $1.05 billion and was constructed at a cost of $1.34 million per mile.

Maintaining the investment

America’s Interstate Highway System is now becoming a victim of its own success. In 1956 Congress never envisioned its incredible results - more people are traveling to more places than ever before. Americans are traveling almost twice as much as they did in 1973, and the number of cars and trucks on the nation’s roads has increased by more than 50 percent.

This success poses a real dilemma for Americans. Though highway spending has increased steadily since 1956, it has not kept up with inflation. Funding is falling short of what is needed to maintain the system.

The combination of this incredible success and potential lack of funding means that in the future Iowans may be facing a bumpy road. During its 50-year life, the Interstate Highway System has taken a real beating from high usage and vehicle weights. Nearly 35 percent of the urban interstates in the country are rated as being in poor or mediocre condition.

Iowa’s commitment to the system is evident to anyone passing through Des Moines. Interstate 235 through the city is in the midst of a $426 million reconstruction with completion scheduled for 2007. Once this huge undertaking is complete, the DOT has set its sights on reconstruction of the interstates in the Council Bluffs area, as well as work in Sioux City and Iowa City.


One of the greatest benefits the interstate provided was a significant reduction in travel time. In 1956 the average speed between major metropolitan cities in Iowa was 36.5 miles per hour. Today, with the safety enhancements of the interstate, those speeds are nearly doubled and travel times cut in half.

Construction of the interstate can be closely linked to Iowa’s economic growth over the past 40 years. Improved accessibility to markets, raw materials and consumers increased the use of the land near interstate routes. The highway system also benefited employers and employees by broadening the labor and job markets and reducing commuter travel times.

Linking one state to another brought new tourism and recreational opportunities as well. Piling into the station wagon for a cross-country trip became a tradition for many American families. Development of recreational facilities along these routes also blossomed. Today, there are travelers who plan trips just to see Iowa’s 10 new-generation rest areas situated along the Interstate Highway System.

The 2006 reenactment caravan

Lincoln HighwayThe American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and its member states invite you to participate in a reenactment caravan of Eisenhower’s 1919 trek. Beginning in San Francisco, CA, and ending in Washington, D.C., the caravan will travel nearly 3,000 miles along the Interstate Highway System on a route parallel to that taken by Eisenhower during the epic 1919 transcontinental military cavalcade. The motorcade will stop on June 23 at Living History Farms in Urbandale. Attractions planned for the event include a concert headlined by Jerry Martin and the Sounds (with our own DOTer, Layton Zbornik III) from Mason City. The second stopover later that day will be at the Iowa 80 Truckstop near Walcott. That stop will include a reception for the caravan participants and a tour of Iowa 80’s Trucking Hall of Fame museum.

Lincoln HighwayEisenhower crossed Iowa in 1919, where the soldiers battled days of engine-clogging dust, and bridges and culverts that collapsed under the weight of their heavy trucks. Despite the difficulties the troops encountered, the caravan was greeted by throngs of welcoming Iowans who supplied them with bountiful Iowa hospitality. Eisenhower acknowledged that this trek laid the foundation for his belief that the nation required an efficient Interstate Highway System.

Back to Featured Articles