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Part 1: A Giant Nationwide Engineering Project

06/26/2006 9:00 AM

This week, CR4 celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, "a giant nationwide engineering project" that transformed a nation. Check back with us all week as we cover the "Roots of the Road" on Tuesday, "The Politics of Passage" on Wednesday, "Adventures in Civil Engineering" on Thursday, and "The Road Ahead" on Friday.

On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, landmark legislation that funded a 40,000-mile system of interstate roads that would reach every American city with a population of more than 100,000. Today, almost 90% of the interstate system crosses rural areas, connecting far flung locations and putting most citizens and businesses within driving distance of one another. Although some historians claim that Eisenhower's motivations were military in nature, the nation's civilian population reaped the rewards. From the rise of suburbs to the decline of urban areas, from the growth of trucking to the promise of the automobile, the interstate highway system has shaped American landscapes and lives.

In 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers described the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System "one of the Seven Wonders of the United States". In 2006, this network of roads includes 46,000 miles of highway; 55,000 bridges; 82 tunnels, and 14,000 interchanges. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), excavation for the interstate system has moved enough material to bury the State of Connecticut knee-deep in dirt. The amount of Portland cement could build more than 80 Hoover dams, or lay six sidewalks to the moon. The lumber used would consume all of the trees in 500 square miles of forest. The structural steel could build 170 skyscrapers the size of the Empire State Building, and meet nearly half of the annual requirements of the American auto industry. Lengthwise and in aggregate, the bridges of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System would span the Rio Grande. Although the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 appropriated $34 billion over a 13-year period, that amount would finance just one year of highway construction today. In fact, most of the work on the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was completed during the 1960s and 1970s, when subsequent legislation expanded the project's scope and cost. According to some estimate, the project's total price tag now exceeds $100 billion. The most expensive route is I-95, a north/south highway which cost $8 billion to build and covers 16 states from Maine to Florida. Texas leads the nation with 3,233.45 miles of interstate, but New York has the most interstate routes with 29. I-90, the nation's longest interstate highway, runs from Boston, Massachusetts to Seattle, Washington over a distance of 3,020.54 miles.

Highway statistics are informative, but tell only part of the story. In February 1968, Robert Paul Jordan of National Geographic reported that "Americans are living in the midst of a miracle. A giant nationwide engineering project – the Interstate Highway System – is altering and circumventing geography on an unprecedented scale." This week, the staff of CR4 will take you on a journey through time and across America. Each day, we'll feature a story about the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System and encourage you to post comments, ask questions, and tell some stories of your own.

We'll see you on the road.

Resources:

http://www.interstate50th.org/reenactment.shtml
http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/50size.cfm
http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthemove/exhibition/exhibition_16_1.html
http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/interstate.html
http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/interstate.html

Click here for our second installment "The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System: Roots of the Road."

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#1

Bridges vs. Miles - something doesn't add up

06/26/2006 3:24 PM

How can there be 55,000 bridges in 46,000 miles? I've driven a lot of highways and there definitely is not more than a bridge per mile.

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#2
In reply to #1

Re:Bridges vs. Miles - something doesn't add up

06/26/2006 3:35 PM

Just because there are 55,000 different bridges in the System doesn't mean they are each one mile, or even close to one mile, in length. Weird question.

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#4
In reply to #2

Re:Bridges vs. Miles - something doesn't add up

06/26/2006 3:42 PM

He asked bridge per mile not if it was mile per bridge. They probably added an extra zero.

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#6
In reply to #4

Re:Bridges vs. Miles - something doesn't add up

06/26/2006 3:51 PM

Yeah, that's what I meant, and I think that's how it reads. I didn't ask if there were mile long bridges, it just seemed odd to me that there is more than 1 bridge per mile. I think I have my answer as well, with the over pass and under pass issue pointed out by a few others. That makes sense.

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#3
In reply to #1

Re:Bridges vs. Miles - something doesn't add up

06/26/2006 3:40 PM

Don't think linearly here. Many cities have overpasses, underpasses and other arterials that occur in rapid succession. It is possible to have some sections with 10-15 bridges over the course of two miles, even if the roas themsleves don't directly connect. These would make up for longer stretches that don't have bridges.

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Anonymous Poster
#5
In reply to #1

Re:Bridges vs. Miles - something doesn't add up

06/26/2006 3:45 PM

I would say that this includes bridges built not only as part of the main roadway, but also as bridges built to accomodate the roadway (railway bridges, secondary road bridges, etc. In other words, underpasses as well as overpasses.

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Anonymous Poster
#7
In reply to #5

Re:Bridges vs. Miles - something doesn't add up

06/26/2006 9:03 PM

A box culvert is also a bridge perhaps in their calculations. But also consider that most interstate highways have a median strip and when the highway approaches something that needs crossed, TWO bridges are usually built.

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Anonymous Poster
#8
In reply to #7

Re:Bridges vs. Miles - something doesn't add up

06/27/2006 1:48 AM

One other minor point - that the bridges would "span" the Rio Grande. Threre are places where Mexicans wade across that river. I think they meant that the bridges would be as long as the Rio Grande.

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#9

Another aspect of the transformation

07/06/2006 10:38 AM

I'm enjoying reading he 5 part series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, "a giant nationwide engineering project" that transformed a nation. Shortly after reading the first article, I went to view the new Pixar movie "Cars". The film deals with one very important aspect of that transformation. There is a soliloquy in the film about the way of life that was lost when the new highway system was built. Before the superhighways, roadways followed the contours of the land and afforded travelers a more intimate view of the United States. Numerous towns that once thrived on the business the old routes brought their way, turned to ghost towns once the superhighways were built. I'm all for progress, but we should also remember that with every technological leap, we sometimes lose entire ways of life for many people. To visit the Official "Cars" Web site: http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/cars/

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#10

Re: Part 1: A Giant Nationwide Engineering Project

02/08/2007 1:36 PM
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#11

Re: Part 1: A Giant Nationwide Engineering Project

06/17/2008 6:58 PM

For those looking to drill deeper into this topic:

Author Dan McNichol travelled across the Eisenhower IHS a few years ago, re-tracing Eisenhower's original, pre-WWII journey for the US Army, and his experiences were documented by NPR. Dan used a classic, 1951 Hudson, a car that was in so-so shape, and kept his car going through all those miles with a little help from his friends in the nationwide Hudson automobile club.

I remember listening to this audio-series on radio a few years back, enjoying many NPR "driveway moments" as Dan worked to keep his car functional and complete his trip. He spoke to our local ASME chapter at the Saratoga Auto Museum in November 2007, giving an enjoyable multimedia presentation on this topic, as well as speaking to the Minnesota Bridge Collapse and the rise of similar super-highway systems in China and India that were inspired by the US's success.

Dan's web site: http://www.danmcnichol.com.

- April05

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