Interstate Highway System 50th Anniversary

The interstate highway sytem was born half a century ago today.

Fifty years ago today, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill that transformed South Florida and the United States. With the possible exception of the Internet, no innovation over the last 50 years touched more American lives on a daily basis, via commerce and culture, than the advent of the interstate highway system.

The 47,000-mile network of limited-access highways knit the country together, forging a common sense of the American identity, much like the transcontinental railroad in the mid-1800s and television after World War II, said Doug Callaway, executive director of Floridians for Better Transportation.

The piece notes that the Interstates helped spawn the car culture, mass migration to the suburbs, and the decline of downtown areas.

These are not universally good developments, obviously. Stil, the life we live today, including the abundance of fresh meats, fruits and vegetables even far from farmland, would not be possible without the rapid transportation permitted by the interstate highways. Anyone who has ever tried to drive several hundred miles along the state highways knows how maddeningly slow that can be. Add in all the traffic currently diverted to the interstates, including the 18-wheelers, and it’s not a pretty thought.

via Bill Jempty

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Wasn’t the original justification for the interstate system to allow rapid movement of troops? Maybe it’s just urban legend, but I thought Ike liked the autobahn in Germany and thought we should have the same.

  2. James Joyner says:

    YAJ: Quite so.

  3. DC Loser says:

    The full name of the system is the Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

    This is one of the marvels of American engineering achievement. Foreign visitors to this country have marveled at our ability to drive across the continent with such ease.

  4. M1EK says:

    The interstates weren’t the only possible solution to freight movement – upgraded intercity railroads would have done the same thing, with less overall cost. (Freight trucking is unnaturally cheap – subsidized by motorists, since almost all road damage occurs as a result of those trucks; but even with these subsidies, it’s still actually more expensive than freight rail – so imagine if instead of tearing up thousands of miles of rail since the 1950s, we had instead built a few thousand more).

  5. Steven Plunk says:

    Rail has it’s own problems. Rail lines once constructed are immovable and we can all point to abandoned lines around the country. When businesses move the rail lines don’t move with them. Trucks can accommodate any location.

    Rail is notoriously slow and it’s difficult to track the freight. Trucks are necessary for just in time delivery systems that reduce inventory costs such as warehousing. Just in time delivery has increased efficiency of business everywhere.

    Rail advocates have for years talked of subsidies and damage to roads. In Oregon a cost responsibility commission sets the appropriate tax rates and charges a fair amount, no subsidies. The wear and tear on the road is accounted for across the country. Studded tires, the weather and father time do much more damage than trucks. Truck axle weights are regulated to minimize damage by spreading the force over a wide area.

    Trucking freight is more expensive than rail but shippers prefer it in many cases. Giving the customer what they want and letting the markets work is what’s happening.

    Of course I own a trucking company.

  6. M1EK says:


    No, even in Oregon, freight trucks don’t come remotely close to paying their own way. For one simple example – the railroad company must pay property taxes on the land they use for their infrastructure. There’s dozens more – like how the damage to the roadway is proportional to the CUBE of the axle weight, but actual ‘user fees’ don’t scale up anywhere near that much.

  7. Steven Plunk says:


    The cost responsibility commission would disagree with your statement. Property taxes have nothing to do with paying for roads as well. Those taxes go to the city, county, and school districts.

    The debate could go back and forth and that is why the commission was set up, to establish what share trucks should pay in relationship to what cars pay.

    In Oregon that is about 13 cents per mile or the equivalent of about 78 cents per gallon if it were a fuel tax. That’s on top of the 24.4 cents per gallon paid in federal tax and the annual registration fees.

    We do pay property tax on the truck yard and office space, but again that doesn’t go to roads and the federal government didn’t give us the land to start with.

  8. M1EK says:


    In every state with which I’m familiar, large amounts of road spending do indeed come from property taxes; but in this specific case I brought it up to point out that the company running the trains doesn’t get to avoid paying taxes on the land they use for their infrastructure. The interstate highways are your infrastructure, and yet nobody compensates the local governments for lost property tax revenue (or just pays them, a la the railroads).

  9. M1EK,

    Property taxes go to the local governments (and school districts) here. Some of the city and county money goes to road repair. In addition, some of the sales tax for the empty buses they run around here also goes for road repair. But this is “last mile” type road repair. Surely you aren’t suggesting that every grocery store should have a train track out back for deliveries.

    My father used to run a heavy industry company. They would produce equipment that would literally go all over the world, but most went in the US. The plant had a train track spur that went into the plant yard. They shipped by truck, train, barge and ship (the last two required a truck or train to get the equipment to a dock). The decision was based on economics and practicality. Shipping by train may require re-loading and shipping the last few miles by truck (the movement from one to the other was not quick, required space and equipment). Load size was limited on the trains compared to trucks (which had much more flexibility on the routes chosen, could go for ‘wide load’ variances if needed and could make the decision for this delivery as opposed to being one or two cars on a 100 car train).

    BTW, have you seen some of the subsidies congress has passed out to keep trains on the track. Surely you know your history well enough to know about some of the enormous subsidies made to get a lot of those tracks put in in the first place. You can make an endless comparison about “free rides” various people think different people get. Bottom line to me is let the market decide. Getting the state to help with infrastructure such as we did to get the railroads and highways built is fine as long as it is done in the open. But for the most part, let the market decide.