A Brief History of our Interstate Highways

Many of us take our highway system for granted, but it is hard to imagine life without them. In fact, our Interstate System has been hailed as the “Greatest Public Works Project in History”.

Earlier this month, AAA projected 94.5 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home during the year-end holiday season in it’s annual Year-End Holidays Travel forecast.

The report also estimates that ninety-one percent of those travelers (85.8 million in all) will travel by automobile!

With so many of us hitting the highways this holiday season (an estimated 27% of the American population), we thought this would be a good time to share some interesting facts about our 42,800-mile Interstate System–now officially called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, that has served us for decades.



• The origins of our highway system date back to 1893 when General Roy Stone, a Civil War hero and good roads advocate, was appointed Special Agent in charge of the new Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) within the Department of Agriculture. With a budget of $10,000, ORI promoted new rural road development to serve the wagons, coaches, and bicycles on America’s dirt roads.


•When Henry Ford introduced his highly acclaimed Model T in 1906, the federal government became pressured to become more directly involved in road development.

•The Federal- Aid Road Act was passed in 1916. It is historic as it established the basis for the Federal-Aid Highway Program under which funds were made available on a continuous basis to state highway agencies to assist in road improvements.

•The Federal Highway Act of 1921 authorized The Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to provide funding to help state highway agencies construct a paved system of two-lane interstate highways. During the 1930s, BPR helped state and local governments create Depression-era road projects that would employ as many workers as possible.

•After World War II,  the nation’s roads were in disrepair, and congestion had become a problem in major cities. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed legislation authorizing a network of rural and urban express highways called the “National System of Interstate Highways.” Unfortunately, the legislation lacked funding.

•In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act and the the Interstate program as we know it got under way.

•By 1966, the changing times prompted legislation to establish the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). When the new department opened in April 1967, BPR, renamed the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), was one of the original components.

•Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Federal Highway Administration  worked with the states to open 99 percent of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

• As of 2010, our Interstate System has grown to 47,182 miles, making it the world’s second longest after China’s.
The cost of construction has been estimated at $425 billion (in 2006 dollars).

• Today, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is responsible for ensuring that America’s roads, bridges and highways continue to be among the safest and most technologically sound in the world. FHWA conducts research and provides technical assistance to state and local agencies in an effort to improve safety, mobility, and livability, and to encourage innovation

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