Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Above: townspeople offer free lemonade to members of the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy.
My father’s house in Florida is seven-hundred miles away from my own. When I visited recently, I got up early, settled into the car, and was there in time for dinner. When my father was a child, this would have been impossible, but for me it was easy. Eleven hours on I-26, I-95, and I-75—and the only hardship was that NPR kept repeating the same shows all day.
As I sat there, in the slightly-too-cozy confines of the Mini, I thought about the massive highway system along which I was cruising. I thought about how I-95 ends in Miami but begins in the snowy pines of the Maine-New Brunswick border. I thought about the highway sign in California’s Mojave Desert that reads “Wilmington, NC 2,554 mi.” I thought about the greatest reimagining of infrastructure that has ever occurred in this country: the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. The interstate highway system is coast-to-coast proof that America can pull off huge, transformative infrastructure projects, and while it’s not exactly what we need now (the future does not belong to the homogenous and ecologically obtuse) it’s an example of the sort of thing we’ve accomplished before—and it’s a challenge, to the next generation, to aim high.
The Eisenhower highway system has two origin stories, both of which are good enough to include here. The first begins in 1919. Eisenhower was twenty-nine years old, an Army major with, presumably, a full head of hair. He formed part of what was called the Transcontinental Motor Convoy, a group of eighty-one vehicles heading from Washington, DC, to San Francisco, in an effort to test the quality of the nation’s roads. It took them two months (two months!) at a little over fifty miles a day. It was late summer, and in those days before air conditioning the trucks and tanks and encampments and hotel rooms must have been miserably hot. The roads were dirt or mud, the bridges uncertain. Most of the people in the towns they passed through had probably never left Ohio, or Nebraska, or Nevada. When the convoy reached the Pacific, Eisenhower must have felt a little like Lewis and Clark.
Fast-forward a quarter-century. In 1944, Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. The Allies fought their way across the hedgerow country of northern France, and, by all accounts, had an absolutely vile time of it, struggling bloodily through a landscape that hadn’t changed much since Henry V came that way in the 1400s. Then they reached the German border. The autobahn zipped the Americans, Brits, and Canadians straight to Berlin. Eisenhower would not forget it.
Skip ahead to 1954, when Eisenhower was president and had begun to lobby for massive upgrades to the American highway system. A national system had been a policy goal since the days of arch-infrastructurist Franklin Roosevelt, but by the 1950s, America was ready. Eisenhower proposed a vast expansion of highway construction. Anyone with access to a car could travel across the continent—which would immensely boost business, tourism, and educational opportunity while providing jobs for years nationwide. As Eisenhower said, it would “Unite the States.” He also pointed out how crucial it would be, in the event of war with the Soviet Union, that Americans and the American military be able to move around the country with ease. Did people complain regardless? Of course they did! To be fair, this was all extremely expensive. But the benefits were clear and Eisenhower was by far the most popular man in the country. A series of highway acts were passed, culminating in the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.
The Act poured $25 billion (about $200 billion today) into road construction, with the goal of establishing a 41,000-mile interstate system. It also set national standards for width, lanes, and so on. The money, 90 percent of it federal, would come from user charges, mainly rises of a few cents in the gasoline tax. The work was to be done over a decade. Members of congress were delighted to have the new highways in their states (and all they brought with them), but they quibbled about the cost well into the 1960s. Still, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson kept the program going, and in 1990, Eisenhower’s name was officially given to the accomplishment. As of 2014, the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is over 47,000 miles long. The route that took Eisenhower two months in 1919 now takes four days.
Imagine if we embarked on a similar project today. Would we have solar panels on the roofs of federal buildings and covering parking lots? Would we have a national program to retire defunct dams? Buffers of native vegetation along all our major rivers? A comprehensive single-stream recycling program? Eisenhower’s vision was intended to solve a logistical problem, not an environmental one, and to serve the national interest. Nowadays, communities across the country are solving their own environmental and infrastructural problems, and rightly so, but it is tantalizing (to me, at least) to imagine America attacking big questions of waste and energy. I have to think we would be smarter about it, too—instead of a monolithic, one-size-fits all program, perhaps we’d institute a textured, flexible approach to nationwide problems. New Mexico’s rivers need buffers, and so do New Jersey’s, and a national program should address both, but the pollution, and the solution, is different at each location. We have the knowledge and the skills to do this. Perhaps, one day, we’ll have the will.
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.