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Ribbons Across the Land: Building the U.S. Interstate Highway System

Eisenhower’s Push for the Interstates

Ike’s Dream

Plans to build a federally-funded national highway system gained momentum in Washington during the 1930s, but the Great Depression and World War II would prevent meaningful funding for the project until the 1950s. When President Dwight Eisenhower took office in 1953, highway improvements was one of the main items on his domestic agenda. “The nation badly needs new highways,” he wrote to Congress in 1955. “The good of our people, of our economy, and of our defense, requires that construction of these highways be undertaken at once.”

President Eisenhower reviews a map of proposed federal highway system presented by General Lucius Clay, far left, and his Advisory Committee. Photo courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum.

Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program

In September 1954, the President appointed an Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program headed by Lucius Clay, a retired four-star general. The Committee recommended an ambitious 10-year, $100 billion federal road program. The new highways would increase safety and alleviate traffic congestion. They would also make it easier to evacuate cities during atomic attacks, which was an important priority during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

A section of Interstate 95 in Virginia that shows features of the Interstate System that the committee recommended: limited access, wide lanes, shoulders, and divided traffic.

A section of Interstate 95 in Virginia that shows features of the Interstate System that the committee recommended: limited access, wide lanes, shoulders, and divided traffic. The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways: Status of Improvement as of March 31, 1971. Washington: GPO, 1971. View Source.

Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

President Eisenhower won bipartisan support for his highway program. He signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 on June 29 at his bedside in Walter Reed Army Hospital while recovering from an illness. The Act established federal funding for a 41,000 mile Interstate Highway System to be built by each state.

photo of men standing in from of Road Improvement initiative sign

On August 2, 1956, the Missouri State Highway Commission awarded the first construction contract under the new Federal-Aid Highway Act. The contract was for improving Route 66 into Interstate 44 in Laclede County between Springfield and Rolla. Missouri also became the first state to initiate construction under a federal contract. Photo courtesy Missouri Department of Transportation.