The federal highway system is a great idea

Recently, we returned from a fall vacation road trip, and I marveled at how the federal highway system is a great idea. Federal funding and planning for our cross country highways is almost 85 years old making our leisure and business transportation is much better because of it.

1906 Maxwell on road
1906 Maxwell on contemporary road

In 1909, there were 2.2 million miles of road in the United States. Only about 190,000 miles were surfaced. Most travel was in urban areas, with travel into the country mostly being attempted in fair weather. Rain quickly turned country roads into thigh-deep mud ruts, making travel extremely difficult. If they got stuck in the mud, many travelers had to enlist the aid of a nearby horse team to extract them from the quagmire.

Road building and maintenance were entirely the province of local government. There were no federal funds for roads in those years. The tiny state and county appropriations were sometimes wasted on projects that had little effect on the conditions of roads.

In the fall of 1912, Hoosier auto entrepreneur, Carl G. Fisher announced his idea for a coast-to-coast rock highway from New York to San Francisco to alleviate the problem of bad roads. With the enthusiasm of Indiana auto manufacturers, Fisher began a letter writing and personal visit campaign to representatives of the automotive trades across the country. Fisher believed that the success of the infant auto industry revolved around the use of better roads.

Within 30 days of his announcement, Fisher raised over a million dollars in pledges and considerable ink in the nation’s press. In early December, Fisher received a letter from Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Motor Car Company, pledging $150,000 and recommending that the road be built in the name of Abraham Lincoln. In the summer of 1913, Joy became president of the Lincoln Highway Association. The Lincoln Highway ran through 13 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.

The optimism of non-governmental funding development for the road soon led to reverting to the earlier practice of states, counties, and communities providing the major funding. Joy proposed that the association fund and oversee the construction of “seedling miles” in places where improvement was most needed. This was the way most highway development preceded across the country until the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916. The act established provisions for the construction of rural Post Roads and construction and maintenance of National Forest roads in cooperation with the state and local authorities.

In fall of 1925, the federal highway plan introduced national numbered highways with a uniform style of regulatory and warning signs to replace the named routes across the country. With the completion of last section of U.S. Route 30 in Nebraska in 1935, the original Lincoln Highway became the first paved transcontinental highway in the country.

At mid-century, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. The act authorized construction of a highway network that promised to hurry the nation’s commerce and military and greatly reduce driving time by eliminating stoplights, sharp curves, intersections, and no-passing zones.

The Interstate Highway System that we know today revolutionized highway travel and interstate commerce. Now, on a good day, one can drive from central Indiana to central Florida in 16 hours. A large amount of the commercial products we use daily are transported via interstate highways. These benefits are made possible by a 90 percent federal – 10 percent state funding formula and Federal Highway Administration certification.

Federal highway programs still benefit us on other U.S. highways across the country. On our recent trip, for instance, in Kentucky we used U.S. routes 25, 50, 150, 127, and 421 to travel along lesser traveled roads from Mt. Vernon to Madison, Indiana. I especially enjoy these back roads to get a taste of how life used-to-be during a simpler time in America.

I want to say thank you to all of my friends and relatives across the country for making our federal highway system possible through their tax dollars. What a great idea!

For more information on our automotive heritage follow this link.

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