The Superhighway to Everywhere

South of the White House stands the Zero Milestone, the end point Thursday for the anniversary caravan.
South of the White House stands the Zero Milestone, the end point Thursday for the anniversary caravan. (By Michael Williamson/Post)
By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

EXIT 275, INTERSTATE 70, Kan. -- There were no Wal-Marts in 1956, no Ramada Inns or Best Westerns. Cross-country travel most often meant the railroad and only about two-thirds of adult Americans had a driver's license.

But that America began to change on June 29, 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the law launching a massive federal project that had been his dream for decades: the Interstate Highway System.

To mark the 50th birthday of one of the most ambitious and consequential engineering projects in human history, a caravan of highway figures led by Eisenhower's great-grandson has been traveling across the country by interstate and will arrive in the District of Columbia on Thursday. They have been celebrating a system that includes 47,000 miles of highway with 55,500 bridges, 104 tunnels, 14,750 interchanges and zero traffic lights.

It reaches every state -- plus 13 miles in the District -- except Alaska; in Hawaii the superhighways are designated by an "H" rather than an "I." And it has spawned such basic elements of American life as the suburb, the motel, the chain store, the recreational vehicle, the seat belt, the spring-break trek to Florida, the 30-mile commute and the two-mile traffic jam. Today, nearly nine out of 10 adult Americans have driver's licenses. The interstate system was born when the word "Communism" had the same emotional impact among Americans that "terrorism" has today. Eisenhower argued that the nation needed a road system that could "meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come."

The atomic war never came, but the interstates -- officially known today as "The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways" -- have proved their value in catastrophic times.

More than 2 million Gulf Coast residents evacuated inland in the hours before hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck last summer. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, notes highway historian Dan McNichol, "when every airplane was grounded, we were able to move goods and people on the interstate system and keep the economy moving."

Specifically designed to accommodate high speeds, the nation's fastest highways are also the safest. The Federal Highway Administration reports about one fatality for every 100 million vehicle miles on the interstates, about half the death rate of other U.S. roads.

But the nation has paid a social price for all that pavement.

Unsightly stretches of asphalt sprawl now surround virtually every major U.S. city. The continent-wide delivery system that allows Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Gap, 7-Eleven, Blockbuster and Holiday Inn to offer identical products and services in identical stores from coast to coast has turned a richly diverse nation into a standardized single market -- changing the shape of towns across America.

"Exit 59 [off Interstate 80] is about three miles from downtown," notes Gary Person, city manager of Sidney, Neb. "When the highway first opened, people talked about 'old Sidney' and 'new Sidney.' But today we've got about 50 businesses out there with 3,500 jobs, which is right good for a smaller community. And the gap in between is filling with housing, parks and the like."

With the number of drivers increasing much faster than highway mileage, a system designed to save travel time has become a chronic waste of time for millions of commuters. A study for the Federal Highway Administration found that drivers using interstates in and around large cities spent about 25 hours per year in traffic jams in 1982; by 2002, the annual waiting time was more than 60 hours.

On a national system, though, congestion is a relative term.

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