By MICHAEL CABANATUAN
San Francisco Chronicle
June 24, 2006
In signing the bill that created the nation's interstate highway system, Ike not only kick-started a nationwide freeway construction boom. He also fueled the country's then-burgeoning car culture, which helped drive family car vacations, suburban sprawl, long-distance commutes and frontage-road commercial districts laden with fast-food franchises and chain motels.
"It was no less than the rearrangement of the ways people live their lives," said Owen Gutfreund, director of the urban studies program at Barnard College in New York and author of "20th Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape."
"New communities have been born, communities have grown, central cities have died."
While Americans were taken with the automobile by the 1950s, and freeways were under construction in urban areas around the country, a much-discussed interstate network was not funded until Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Eisenhower eagerly signed it that year on June 29 in Walter Reed Hospital, where he was recovering from surgery after a bout of ileitis.
The act, which envisioned a 41,000-mile network of smooth, wide, fast and intersection-free superhighways from San Francisco to New York City, promised to reimburse states for 90 percent of the cost of building the new thoroughfares. It set off a highway building boom that produced nearly 47,000 miles of interstate highways as of 2004.
Every state but Alaska has them - yes, even Hawaii - and Alaska and Puerto Rico have freeways funded under the interstate program but not meeting the system's standards. According to Dan McNichol in his book "The Roads That Built America," the amount of concrete used to build the network could build a wall 9 feet thick and 50 feet high around the world.
"The interstate highway system was the most important public works project in United States history," said Kenneth P. Jackson, a Columbia University history professor. "It has made life and travel easier for tens of millions of Americans. You can drive from New York to Memphis without hitting a red light."
In addition to making it easier and quicker for average Americans to drive, interstates also made it faster and cheaper for businesses to move goods around the nation and led to a huge boom in the trucking industry. Today, 2 million trucks travel the interstates and move more than 10 billion tons of goods, compared with 120,000 trucks hauling half a billion tons when Eisenhower signed the bill.
"Commerce is the biggest impact the interstate system had," McNichol said. "Mostly trucking, but also where businesses and shopping centers are located - near the interstate. The system is central to shipping and receiving, and growing even more so."
The interstate boom brought with it an economic boom, particularly for the highway construction, oil and automotive industries. But it also benefited the tourism industry and helped drive the growth of fast-food outlets, national motel chains and business districts built around off-ramps - even in the middle of nowhere.
"Interstates played a part in (the boom in) fast-food outlets," Gutfreund said. "But we would still have McDonald's without it. More than creating fast food, the interstate system shaped the location of businesses. Show me an interstate, and I'll show you a business district."
The network also brought suburban sprawl. Suburbs had existed, even flourished, before the advent of the interstate. But the new, wide-open interstates made it not only possible, but also enjoyable, to live a significant distance from work.
"It seemed so easy," said Amanda Brown-Stevens, field director for the anti-sprawl Greenbelt Alliance in the Bay Area. "We could live here, and we could work there. People didn't think of what the impacts would be."
The nascent ease of travel brought new, more-distant suburbs, which lured residents and businesses from central cities, leading to the decline of many downtowns and creating communities that required driving to get to the supermarket, the park or the shopping mall.
"The positives (of the interstate system) are balanced by the negatives," Jackson said. "The decline of the sidewalk, the decline of walking, the decline of the front porch - you can't put all of these on (interstate) highways and the automobile, but it was encouraged by all those ribbons of concrete."
Today, with the ribbons of concrete often clogged with commuters, the travel is no longer easy. That hasn't stopped the development of far-flung suburbs or the willingness of people to live in them while working far away.
But the biggest impact of the interstate system, historians and some critics say, it that it has created a nation in which a car is necessary and public transportation is often dismissed as an undesirable alternative to driving, and an economy that is dependent on oil. And even with rising gas prices, the mentality that drove the interstate boom is hard for many people to shake, say critics of sprawling development.
"It's still part of the vision of how we build things in this country," Brown-Stevens said. "It's somewhat nostalgic of big cars and open roads. For some people, it's hard to imagine any other way."
Even those who hail the national highway system acknowledge that it has problems, particularly with congestion, overuse and inadequate maintenance.
"The interstate system is 50, and it's going through its midlife crisis. Americans love to build, but they hate to maintain," said McNichol.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation's roads and highways, including the interstates, a "D" rating, while the Federal Highway Administration says it needs billions of dollars more annually just to repave and keep the roads safe and functional.
"The system is overtaxed based on the current population in the country - especially in California," said Steve Whitaker, a highway engineer and vice president of HNTB Corp., an infrastructure firm. "It's crumbling beneath the crush of ever-increasing traffic."
Transportation officials say they are focusing on maintaining and improving the condition of the interstates rather than building new highways. One new route - an extension of I-69 from Indianapolis to the Mexican border in Texas' Rio Grande Valley - is under way, but construction is slow, incremental and controversial.
"We're limited in our ability to add capacity," said Will Kempton, Caltrans' director. "We have to figure out ways to make the system work better instead of just going out and adding lanes."
So where is the interstate highway system headed in the next 50 years? Expect more private-public partnerships - that usually means toll lanes or roads - as well as everything from metering lights and driving-time estimates to systems that allow cars to communicate with each other and the roads, highway officials and others say.
McNichol said to expect dedicated truck lanes, perhaps even truck-only highways in some places, and more urban freeways beneath downtown areas. Whitaker said he expects California to focus on rehabilitating highways as well as investing more in urban transit and a statewide high-speed rail system.
Nobody expects to see the highway building boom of the 1950s and 1960s return.
"In the next 10 to 20 years, I don't think we're going to see anything massive," McNichol said, "mainly because of a lack of will in Washington. Eisenhower saw the need for a massive federal program, but I think the responsibility is going to fall to the states. We need (more interstates), but I don't think it's going to happen."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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