As popular interest in the automobile ignited in the early 1900s, the United States Congress, recognizung the need for better roads for both strategic and commercial reasons, permanently established the Office of Public Roads under the Department of Agriculture in 1905 (now the Federal Highway Administration under the Department of Transportation). The Office of Public Roads released its first proposal for 12 transcontinental highways in 1911 based on submissions from “Good Roads” organizations throughout the country.
In 1912, Carl Fisher, the Founder of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the first owner of an automobile dealership in the country, conceived and launched a fundraising campaign to build the Lincoln Highway (later U.S. Route 30) from New York’s Times Square to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Fisher officially dedicated the highway in October 1913.
It wasn’t until 1916, however, that Congress opened its checkbook with the Federal Aid Road Act, signed by Woodrow Wilson to build rural postal roads. Little actual work was done before the U.S. entered World War I, sapping resources and labor.
After WWI, Lt. Col Dwight Eisenhower participated in the first-ever military transcontinental convoy in the summer of 1919. More than 80 Army trucks and other vehicles zigged and zagged over the Lincoln Highway, covering 3,251 miles in 61 days – an average of just 53 miles per day – in a test of military mobility (or immobility) in the event of invasion. Eisenhower would later credit that experience, as well as lessons learned in Germany during World War II, for his passion for building America’s interstate system.
The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, replacing the expiring 1916 act, both increased funding for highway construction and resolved a number of technical and legal issues in the earlier act. It was the Pershing Map, commissioned by the Bureau of Public Roads and overseen by Army General John J. Pershing in 1922, that laid the groundwork for a national highway system. The first official topographic map of the United States, it included 78,000 miles of roads in three categories of priority, with an emphasis on the coasts, transcontinental routes, and border crossings. Most of the routes identified by Pershing’s commission are federal highways to this day.
The first formal standards for road signs were adopted in 1926, along with the plan to officially number highways with a white shield. But it was the Depression-era New Deal suite of job-creation programs that got tens of thousands of miles of highways actually built in the mid to late 1930s, including the famous Route 66.
America’s involvement in World War II would again spur a military incentive for road building. That’s part of the reason disconnected states of Alaska and Hawaii have “interstate” highways – to connect population centers with areas of industry, promoting national defense.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 authorized, but didn’t fund, 40,000 miles of highways. Funding would not appear until the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952. It was Eisenhower, upon taking the office of the President in 1953, who would finally kickstart the interstate system.
With the Federal-Aid Highway Acts of 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1959, the Eisenhower Administration greatly increased federal funding for the interstate system and established the Highway Trust Fund to build and maintain new roads, funded primarily by a tax on gasoline.
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