Connecting the Coasts: A Road Revolution This week marks the 50th anniversary of legislation that created the nation's interstate highway system. It couldn't come at a better time for America -- drivers were growing frustrated by the lack of roads and the congestion in the cities.
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Connecting the Coasts: A Road Revolution

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Connecting the Coasts: A Road Revolution

Connecting the Coasts: A Road Revolution

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

This week, the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways turns 50. Perhaps you don't remember, or can't imagine a time without our fancy interstates, so for a little walk down memory lane here is NPR's Steve Proffitt.


By the mid 1950s, the United States had gotten past World War II and Korea. But it was deep in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and a former General, Dwight David Eisenhower was running for his second term.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: It's Eisenhower by a landslide with 457 electoral votes to 74 for Stevenson.

(Soundbite of an Elvis Presley song)

PROFFITT: In 1956, Elvis Presley had his first big hit. It was a vintage year for fine American automobiles. Vets were snapping them up, along with houses in the suburbs bought with no money down G.I. Bill loans. It was a time of great optimism, rapid expansion, and traffic nightmares.

(Soundbite of promotional film)

Unidentified Man #2: Will you stop honking, Mack? We ain't going nowhere.

Mr. TOM LEWIS (Author, Divided Highways): Cities in the 1950s were difficult places to maneuver, about as difficult, by the way, as they are today.

PROFFITT: Tom Lewis is the author of Divided Highways, a history of the massive effort to plan and implement the Interstate Highway System.

Mr. LEWIS: But it wasn't just a city phenomenon, it was also across the country. People wanted to traverse the country. They had these automobiles, which gave them a sense of freedom, and yet they found themselves constricted by the roads.

PROFFITT: Dwight Eisenhower was frustrated by the nation's bad roads. In 1919, as a young Army officer, he was part of a cross-country expedition to test the mobility of the nation's armed forces. It took 62 long days to get from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. And, when in Germany at the end of World War Two, Ike experienced first hand the highly engineered four-lane autobahns.

Mr. LEWIS: He and many G.I.'s thought, why can't we have something like that in the United States?

PROFFITT: During his first term, Eisenhower pushed and prodded Congress to pass a comprehensive highway bill.

President DWIGHT DAVID EISENHOWER: The modern highway system is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security.

PROFFITT: Finally, shortly after his re-election, Ike succeeded. The Interstate Highway Act called for the creation of some 42,000 miles of four-lane highway.

(Soundbite of promotional film)

Unidentified Man #3: This is the American dream of freedom on wheels.

PROFFITT: Building that dream meant huge injections of cash into economies across the country. But it also meant buildings had to be razed, and people had to be displaced. Often those people were poor and black. To counter opposition, businesses that stood to get fat contracts from the building program turned out propaganda, emphasizing a civic duty to support the super highway plan.

(Soundbite of promotional film)

Unidentified Man #4: For only when each citizen becomes better informed about his state's highway program, only when he helps develop the popular support so essential to highway progress, can the nation meet the highway challenge.

PROFFITT: It took more time and more money than originally planned. But by the mid 1970s, the system was largely in place: 47,000 miles of freeway, 5600 bridges and almost 15,000 interchanges. This network stimulated our economy and fueled our addiction to auto mobility.

Historian Tom Lewis.

Mr. LEWIS: The interstate highway system is actually a vast stage, on which we have, for the last 50 years, played out our desires.

PROFFITT: And we continued to act upon that stage, driving our cars and trucks some three trillion miles this year, much of it on a now middle-aged interstate highway system.

Steve Proffitt, NPR News.

(Soundbite of promotional film)

Unidentified Man #5: So the better, safer roads of tomorrow will become the roads of today.

BRAND: Tomorrow, as our series continues: suburbs, fast foods urban alienation. You know it, there's a highway connection. We'll have some of the consequences, intentional and otherwise, of more efficient roads.

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