Highways at the Crossroads: The Interstate Turns 50

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

The interstate highway system turned 50 last month, a birthday marked by mixed emotions. No piece of infrastructure has come closer to symbolizing all that is grand and petty, dazzling and deplorable in post-war American politics and technology.

Michigan Tech professor Bruce Seely, chair of the Department of Social Sciences, has been fascinated by highways since he was a boy watching earthmovers carve out the Ohio and Indiana Turnpikes. As he got older, they formed the basis of his PhD thesis and, later, his 1987 book, "Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers."

It's a misconception to mark June 29, 1956, as the birthdate of the interstate highway network, Seely says. The engineers were busy long before that. By the time Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, they had spent two decades debating and designing a vast, uniform network of roads to link all corners of the nation. So, when Congress finally decided how to pay for it, the bulldozers were already lined up at the starting gate.

Over $129 billion later, the system is essentially done and has lived up to its billing. "The interstate system has more than met expectations," Seely says. As anticipated, it has revolutionized American travel and transport. Its 47,000-mile length makes up just 1 percent of all U.S. road miles while carrying more than 20 percent of all U.S. traffic.

"And users have found interesting ways to use the interstate," Seely says. Amazon.com, frequently touted as the ultimate e-commerce success story, owes its quick delivery service to the ribbons of asphalt and concrete linking its warehouses and customers.

The highway system, inspired by America's love of the automobile, does its job so well in part because politicians handed it over to highway engineers, Seely says. "We know the engineers were involved in building the system, but they also took part in congressional debates and even wrote the legislation."

As a result, the system is highly efficient in economic terms, and its construction was remarkably free of graft and corruption. But by the 1980s, when Seely interviewed the state highway engineers who actually built the interstates, he did not find a class of professionals easing gracefully into retirement. "They were incredibly bitter and angry," he says. "They had thought their jobs were technical, but as it turned out, they weren't."

Many of the social, economic and political consequences of the interstate system were dire, and the engineers who built it reaped the ensuing whirlwind. They had never placed great emphasis upon such matters as aesthetics, land use and community, and by the 1960s, the "freeway revolt" was underway in many American cities.

Highway engineers became the targets and endured many difficult public hearings. In their efforts to move cars quickly between the suburbs and urban centers, "the engineers had pressed big roads into the cities, in the process destroying neighborhoods and displacing the poor, primarily black and Hispanic, residents," Seely says. In addition, they ignited the modern environmental movement by paving over whatever lay in a highway's path, including parks. Interstates also shoulder some of the blame for sprawl, paralyzing traffic jams and the death of downtown business districts.

As a result, politicians who were previously content to hand over decision-making to the engineers wrenched it away in 1965. Some outcomes have been positive, such as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which mandated environmental impact statements. And the new generation of highway engineers willingly addresses beautification and environmental concerns as part of the road-building process.

The downside, however, has been the political marginalization of highway engineers and the loss of widespread respect for their colossal expertise. "The engineers have lost control of the political process," Seely said. Into that power vacuum have stepped legislators and special interests, with predictable results. Federal highway dollars are funneled more and more to legislators' pet pork-barrel projects, such as Alaska's two famous $450 million bridges to nowhere, and less and less to programs that respond to national priorities. "The last highway bill had more than 6,000 political earmarks," Seely notes wryly.

"We've gone from experts alone to politicians alone controlling the decision-making process. The pendulum keeps swinging."

Nevertheless, the half-century mark is a good time to reflect on the interstate system and, while planning for the future, avoid the missteps of the past. Seely hopes to have a small voice in that process; at the end of July, he will address the congressionally mandated National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

"This is infrastructure, which by definition is expensive and long-lived," says Seely. "The key assumptions of the interstate system are 70 years old, and the decisions people made back then have had huge ramifications for us today. The lesson is obvious: the choices you make in the present constrain your future."

"So now is the time to be asking questions about where we are going during the next 50 years, because the answers will have huge social, political, economic and legal implications," he says. "Otherwise, you're just doing something and waiting to see what happens."

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.