Happy Birthday to the Interstate Highway System
Though no major celebrations are planned, the United States is experiencing an important anniversary this summer. Our nation’s Interstate Highway System turns 65 years old!
On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act which created our Interstate highway system. Today the 47,622-mile super highway network - representing only one percent of all U.S. road miles – carries 21 percent of the nation’s traffic.
President Eisenhower’s primary motivation for building an interstate highway system was national defense. The former general wanted a highway system which could be used to efficiently move the military during wartime. In addition, he believed such a system would aid in the evacuation of cities in the event of a nuclear attack.
During World War II Ike was impressed with the efficiency of the German Autobahn.
The idea for an interstate highway system was conceived in 1919 when Lt. Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed by General John J. Pershing to determine how quickly the U.S. could mobilize its troops in the event of war. The assignment took the young lieutenant and a military convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, passing through Iowa on the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30.) The grueling 3,000-mile, 62-day trip resulted in a 1922 document – the Pershing Map – which proposed an 8,000-mile Interstate highway system. The proposal was ignored by Congress and further delayed by World War II.
Ike’s Interstate highway project generated controversy in Iowa. Among the concerns was the location of the new routes through nearly 35,000 acres of the world’s most productive farm land.
Iowa’s first section of Interstate – a short portion of I-35/I-80 west of Des Moines – was opened to the public on September 21, 1958.
Fourteen years later, in December 1972, the final section of Iowa’s I-80 was opened to traffic. In August 1973 the last section of Iowa’s I-29 was opened to the public.
The state’s original 710-mile Interstate highway project was completed in November 1976 when a 50-mile segment of I-35 was opened from U.S. 20 near Williams to Clear Lake.
Another 71.5 miles were added to the state’s Interstate system over the years. Those miles were finished in 1985 with the completion of I-380 between Waterloo and Iowa City.
When all was said and done, Iowa’s 781.5 miles of Interstate highway cost $1.05 billion – about $1.34 million per mile.
In October 2019 the 17-mile portion of east-west I-680 in western Iowa was redesignated I-880 to lessen confusion over road closures related to Missouri River flooding. This entire segment was I-80N before 1974.
In 1990, the 100th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s birth, Congress renamed the Interstate system “The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.”
Older Iowans like me can remember pre-Interstate road trips – stopping at nearly every highway junction, slowing for every small town, crawling through major cities, steep hills, sharp curves, narrow roads with curbs.
In 1956 the average speed between metropolitan cities in Iowa was 36.5 miles per hour. At that time it took eight hours to cross Iowa on U.S. Highway 6. Today, you can drive from Council Bluffs to Davenport on I-80 (which roughly follows the U.S. 6 corridor) in about five hours.
Beyond speed, safety and convenience, the Interstate system has profoundly affected Iowa’s economy. The system put Iowa at a major crossroads, bringing a great deal of business to the state.
While many communities located near the Interstates have prospered from that proximity, more remote communities have had to fight harder to survive. The Interstate highways have also brought more crime to Iowa.
Overall, however, the Interstate system has benefitted our state and nation in many ways. We can be thankful for Ike’s vision and for the fact that the impetus behind it – national defense – has never had to be tested.