As you prepare to head out to join with family and friends for that Thanksgiving turkey, give thanks right now for one of the most magnificent engineering feats of all time.
Or, as it is more formally known, The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
It's 50 years old this year. And it was in this very month, November, 1956, that the first eight-mile stretch of what would eventually be more than 42,000 miles of limited access highway lacing the states together was opened in Topeka, Kansas.
Give thanks because the Interstate is going to make your holiday trip, this week, and at Christmas, immeasurably faster and easier than it used to be. Only those who drove or rode as children in automobiles in the '30s, '40s and '50s can fully appreciate how much faster and how much easier.
Long distance auto trips back then meant stop and go driving through a maze of dangerous intersections with and without traffic lights; through railroad crossings, perilous curves and steep grades on which motorists too often found themselves crawling along behind heavy trucks. Most main routes led directly through cities and towns and there were few by-passes. For every charming little roadside restaurant now remembered through the haze of nostalgia, there were scores of dirty joints of decidedly uneven quality. If you were lucky you might find a good motel, but often you were left with a grim, run-down tourist cabin.
The system that would change all that was born on June 29, 1956, when an ailing President Eisenhower, without fanfare or photographers, signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956 into law in his room at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Washington, D.C., where he was recovering from surgery for an inflamed intestine.
The signing received little notice in the newspapers (he put his signature to 26 other bills that day). Both press and public were more interested in whether Ike, who had suffered a heart attack the previous September, was too sick to serve as President or run for a second term that year.
President Eisenhower, looking gaunt and small inside his double breasted suit, left the hospital the next day, June 30th, and headed north to his Gettysburg, Pa., farm to recover and go on to win a second term in a landslide that November. Even he did not fully sense at the time that the highway bill was one of the greatest political triumphs of his career, setting in motion one of the most profound economic, cultural and social changes in the nation's history.
But there was never any doubt in Ike's mind that he had done the right thing. He had campaigned incessantly throughout his first term for a "grand" system of high speed highways linking the nation from sea to sea. And he got what he wanted.
That's why I often, when on cruise control somewhere west of Laramie, or Perth Amboy, say a little prayer of thanks for Ike, and also for George and Hale - three men, all of whom I had the privilege of meeting in my career as a journalist, who were instrumental in bringing the Interstate system into being:
Eisenhower, the Republican, dreamed the grand dream and then managed it into reality through the dense political web of a Democrat-controlled Congress.
Rep. George H. Fallon, a Baltimore Democrat, hated to drive and commuted almost daily by rail to his Capitol office. But he nonetheless believed firmly in the importance of an interstate highway system and largely drafted the 1956 bill as chairman of the highways subcommittee of the House Committee on Public Works.
Rep. Thomas Hale Boggs, (everybody called him Hale) another Democrat, from Louisiana, was the key member of the House Ways and Means Committee, who worked the Republican Administration's notion of a "Highway Trust Fund" into the 1956 highway bill, thus paving the way for the financing of the vast system through dedicated highway user taxes.
Well the "sacrosanct" Highway Trust Fund got busted into in the 1970s (thank you Dick Nixon) but that's a story for another time. You can read a detailed history of the Interstate here, and get some interesting Interstate trivia here, but if you haven't learned to love the Interstate, you should. Yes, it can get boring. Yes, it's ugly in some places...
But it's GREAT!
Despite "Work Zone Ahead" signs and those miles of orange cones, I love the Interstate. Despite that sharp turn on I-95 in downtown Jacksonville, Fla., and that bumper-to-bumper automotive torrent at the Washington, D.C., Beltway in Springfield, Va., I love it. Despite that bottleneck on I-78 at Jersey City, N.J., and the one at Breezewood, Pa., and Spartanburg, N.C., and that disconnect at the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey near Philadelphia, I love the Interstate.
When it comes to the Interstate I throw all my reservations about Big Government out the car window. I don't care about the history of graft and the lobbying by the "Road Gang" and the fights over "urban freeways" and the tales of pork barrels and political favoritism and the bifurcating of neighborhoods and the scandals of inferior concrete and faulty inspections and on and on. The Interstate got built and it works.
I'm sorry about the little towns that got bypassed and the quaint restaurants and funky roadside attractions that moldered away before they could be rediscovered by "shunpikers." I just love having all that concrete or asphalt rolling under me as I sip a hot Dunkin' Donuts coffee and the sun's coming up and I know the miles are going to melt away.
I love the fact that whether my trip's a couple hundred or a thousand miles away I can figure it in hours. I love the roaring trucks racking up hundreds of millions of ton-miles bringing my shoes from L.L. Bean, in Maine, or my car wax from Griot's Garage, in Iowa, or those '66 Cadillac front end parts from California.
I love those Florida state troopers hiding in their "slick top" Crown Vics and that RV swaying in the wind somewhere west of Columbus, and that distant town at the foot of the Rockies that takes a long time getting closer even at 85 miles an hour.
I love the "Wide Loads' with a half a house on board, or a big Caterpiller dozer or some giant piece of machinery. And they're always led by that bearded guy in the Woolrich shirt driving a battered station wagon with a rack of yellow lights bolted to the roof. I love those truck mud flaps with chrome silhouettes of nude women flashing in the sunlight up ahead, and the Subaru Outback with its rear covered in bumper stickers, and the French Canadian snow bird headed south in his black Cadillac.
I love the brochures at the rest stops and the big "you are here" maps on the walls and the people walking their dogs. I love the little red Geos bursting their lungs at 70 miles per hour. I love the gleaming stainless steel tanker trucks and the Wabash National box trailers with the "Worship at the church of your choice" signs on the back doors.
And, yes, I love the predictability of McDonalds and Bob Evans and Best Western and those huge truck stops with sweeping phalanxes of gas pumps. There are some snobs who grouse about the Interstate and brag about how they shunpike their way between point A and point B on the side roads so they can drink in the scenery and enjoy that cute little diner in Outofthewaysville.
Well, the reason they enjoy their trip is because all the truck traffic and a lot of the regular traffic is rolling on the Interstate, leaving those side roads less crowded and more serene. I've heard all their stories about how great it was to travel back in the old days before all those bland chain restaurants and motels "made everything the same."
These people get a little catch in their throats about some great stuffed pork chops they had somewhere outside Dayton back in the "old days" and they forget what it was like to follow a heavily loaded 18-wheeler up a two-lane highway in the not-so-Great Smokey Mountains, or to run afoul of some fat-assed tax collector in a police uniform in a little town on the way to Florida.
Suffice it to say, we are all a lot better off for the Interstate Highway act having been passed a half century ago. So whether you're traveling the longest Interstate route (I-90 from Seattle to Boston - 3,020.54 miles) or the shortest (I-97 from Annapolis to Baltimore - 17.62 miles)* give thanks for the Interstate and say a special thanks for Ike, George and Hale. Now I think I'll just slip behind the wheel and roll up some miles.
Ralph Bennett is a TCS Contributing Editor. He recently wrote about playing tennis with Milton Friedman.
* Highway junkies can tell you there are shorter routes that are technically part of the Interstate system. These are the "three digit" connector highways usually found in urban areas.