Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Big Roads by Earl Swift

Swift, EarlThe Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

The American interstate system is often thought to be a product of the Eisenhower administration.  It’s named for him.  However, the nearly 47,000 miles of interstate were conceived largely before Eisenhower’s presidency.  Even as he observed the Army’s 62-day, cross-country convoy of 1919, engineers were laying the political and technical foundations of national highways.  Earl Swift tells this longer history of the interstates in The Big Roads.

When Americans began calling for better roads, the typical road was mud.  The loudest calls for better roads at the beginning of the 20th Century were cyclists, especially the colorful Carl Fisher.  Fisher’s most famous work is the Indianapolis Speedway, where a popular 500-mile race continues to be run.  His promotion of the Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast highway (at least on paper), provided an important antecedent to the interstates.

The Lincoln Highway Association operated on a system that informed later highway development.  Rather than build a huge new highway, it selected existing roads for improvement, joining them together in a highway.  New roads were built only if necessary.  The association, a private organization that raised private funds for road improvement and route promotion, was a model for later systems in another way.  The Lincoln Highway was built and improved in pieces by a number of local and state agencies.  The association provided a route, coordination, promotion, encouragement, and sometimes funding, but the road improvements were mostly local works.

Thomas MacDonald, an Iowa highway engineer, was using a similar model as he worked for that state.  He worked with city and county road departments to coordinate improvements leading to a statewide system of decent roads.  When he became director of the Office of Public Roads, he brought this model to the federal highway program, institutionalizing it in the Federal Aid system that began in 1916.

Of course, the U.S. highways that developed under this system were not like modern interstates.  They were open to anyone along them.  In rural areas, they might have been and often still are long ribbons of pavement crossed by the occasional farm road.  In cities, they became crowded with business, especially restaurants and gas stations, that slowed traffic to a crawl.  This problems gave rise to the concept of a limited-access highway, first proposed by Benton MacKaye, the conservationist who conceived the Appalachian Trail.

MacDonald and his engineers began working the concept.  His office produced a report, authored primarily by Hubert Sinclair Fairbanks, that laid out most of the current interstate system in 1938Fairbanks supported that idea that better roads might solve problems related to slums and blight in cities.  The recommendations of this report and a follow-up commission were largely implemented in law in 1944, when the term “interstate” first appeared in legislation.


The plans for an interstate system languished during World War II and the years immediately following.  Eisenhower comes into the picture at this time because he strongly supported funding for the interstate system.

Highway engineers saw themselves as providing a good and giving the people what they wanted.  Along the way, as Fairbanks suggested, they could clean up the cities.  As they began to implement their plans in earnest, opposition arose.

Swift gives particular attention to two interstate opponents.  Critic Lewis Mumford provided the intellectual and philosophical foundation for the Freeway Revolt.  Joe Wiles, a black professional and veteran, organized opposition to Interstate 70 in Baltimore which resulted in changes to the plan and help unite the white and black communities in that city.  The federal and state governments began to take seriously the possibility that interstates could have a negative impact on the communities near them

The intestate system, finally completed in the 1990s, is the largest public works project in history.  Now that it is built, it needs to be maintained.  It will be expensive: $225 billion a year for the next 50 years to keep it in good shape.  That is more than twice what we’re spending.  In addition, improved fuel efficiency and reduced driving prompted by the economic downturn has reduced gas tax revenues for the Highway Trust Fund.  In the near future, we may need to find new ways to pay for maintaining our transportation marvel.

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