Celebrating 80 Years of Better Roads
Better Roads Staff
The decade of the 1950s, and the period after 1956 and into the mid-1960s, was most prolific. With the post-WWII economic and population boom in full swing, and with the notion of an interstate system in mind, President Dwight D. Eisenhower set the wheels in motion for the most extensive road construction program ever attempted.
Although a national highway “system” was established in 1944, it was not until 1952 that it was specifically allocated funds, and then only a token $25 million. This amount was upped to $175 million in 1954 not nearly adequate enough to fund a true national road network.
Eisenhower’s vision of a national network of highways stems from two personal experiences. Through a cross-country military convoy in 1919 from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco over dirt roads and un-bridged streams, young Colonel Eisenhower experienced first-hand the need for a road system during a 62-day expedition that “tested” America’s early 20th century road system.
General Eisenhower, during World War II, saw the great mobility of Germany through an extensive autobahn system in that country. He set out to bring a better system to America where a nation dependent upon automobiles and trucks yearned to travel the country, bring goods to market efficiently, and to provide sorely needed military mobility.
Publicizing the need for highways
While GI’s returning from the war told stories of the great concrete bi-ways of Europe, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that the grounds swell to build an interstate system in the United States came into play. Such a vast program would have to be brought forth to the American public, and a relatively new vehicle to publicize this ambitious program called “television” was there for the taking.
In an article in the February 1954 issue of Better Roads titled “Want Public to Back Your Road Aims? Try Television” William F. Steuber, Assistant Engineer, Wisconsin State Highway Commission, espouses television as “the hottest medium today in getting and holding the attention of the public.” Steuber encourages readers to buy TV advertising time to focus on “public attention on road matters,” and to “tell the highway story.”
And what was the cost of television time in 1954 for local advertising for a quarter-hour to a half-hour? $60 to $600. (Compare this cost to the $3.5 million for a 30-second spot for the 2012 Super Bowl!).
Television would become an important tool in the effort to get the Interstate Program off and running.
In his state of the union address on January 9, 1954, President Eisenhower laid the groundwork for an expanded road program by asking for retention of the federal gas tax “to protect the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system.”
The federal gas tax in 1954 was 2-cents per gallon.
Federal-Aid Bill…the embryonic stages of the Interstate Highway System…from the March 1954 issue
”Hearings were concluded in the house of representatives in February on Representative J. Harry McGregor’s (R-Ohio) federal-aid highway bill. The bill, which apparently, has the approval of President Eisenhower, provides a total of $800,000,000 for major highway purposes for each of the fiscal year’s 1956 and 1957—or $225,000,000 more annually than at present”…totaling a record $1.932 billion over two years.
(Note: the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFTEA-LU), the transportation bill during the 80th anniversary of Better Roads, provided $284 billion throughout a six-year period. At publication of this information, SAFETEA-LU had expired and was operating on extensions, while reauthorization of this highway bill is under development.).
Further to this, “Most controversial provisions of the McGregor bill involve the interstate and secondary systems” with the “controversy in regards to a debate on funding to be based on either population of the states, or on a matching funds system.
The bill passed in March, but the controversy about expanding the road effort nationwide sparked debate about building an interstate system.
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