Transportation in Rural America

Highway System SignsFor farmers and ranchers, transportation systems are matters of life and death. Roads are the only physical connection between far flung farms and the markets for their products or the services they depend on – including medical services in times of emergency. During the early part of the 20th century, farmers often built and maintained their own roads. So, it’s no accident that the same manufacturers that built tractors soon adapted their machines for road construction.

Railroads and later long-haul trucking lines were the connection from local markets to the consumers in the cities. In the 19th century, many of the farm protest movements began with the railroads arbitrarily raised their rates on shipping agricultural products.

In the 1950s and 60s, the need for a truly national transportation system was promoted as a matter of life and death by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. For him, the Interstate was a matter of national security – 79 percent of the U.S. public believed that the Soviet Union intended to rule the world, and if nuclear war erupted, Ike said, the population would need good roads to evacuate from contaminated areas and to move military equipment.

In 1919, “Ike” – as he later became known throughout the world – was a 28-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Army, and he was ordered to join a convey of 78 cars, trucks motorcycles and other vehicles in a publicity tour across the country following World War I. What the convoy experienced opened a lot of eyes.

They averaged only 58 miles a day with one “calamity” for every 14 miles. The roads were the problem. Mud would swallow truck axles. Quicksand took others. Trucks crashed through bridges and into rivers. Ruts would shake the vehicles apart. In Utah, they sank in soft sands. Nine trucks were damaged so badly on the trip that they were abandoned on the side of the road.

There were times when they couldn’t find the road. So few of the highways were actually marked that the convoy had to send motorcyclists up ahead to scout out the correct route.

The convoy made it across the 3,000 miles of the Lincoln Highway, but Eisenhower’s report was scathing. If the country was attacked or if it needed to transport large shipments of military goods, we would be in serious trouble.

That experience planted a seed in Ike for the Interstate Highway System.

Later, Eisenhower became Supreme Commander of all Allied forces in Europe in World War II, and he used Germany’s own Autobahn system to quickly push back the retreating Nazi Army toward Berlin. Ike and his troops were impressed with how fast they could move on the four-lane, divided highway with limited access points from other local roads. The Autobahn became he model for the U.S. Interstate.

When Ike was elected President of the United States in 1952, the Bureau of Public Roads admitted that 76 percent of their roads were inadequate. Even the best rural highways in the country were narrow two-lane roads that were being asked to carry more and larger traffic. Americans were on a car-buying binge acquiring 16,000 new, bigger and more powerful cars a day.

Ike pushed for a brand new highway system, rather than trying to rebuild existing highways. His new Interstate system would be built to high design standards imposed by the federal government. Ike proposed a system that would cost $50 billion. But he argued that the threat of an atomic war was real and survival depended on the ability of citizens to evacuate contaminated areas – something that the roads of the day would not accommodate.

In 1956, Congress finally passed the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” Act. The plan called for 41,000 miles of new highway consuming over 1.6 million acres of land (40 acres per mile) most of that bought from farmers. Ninety percent of the costs would be paid for by the federal government out of taxes on gasoline, diesel, rubber tires, heavy trucks, buses and other items that went into a Highway Trust Fund. The government anticipated that the entire system would be built by 1972 – a target date that was wildly optimistic. The system was not actually fully complete until the 21st century.

But most of the work was completed between 1956 and 1966 – a time that became known as the Interstate Decade.

US first interstate road constructionIn 1958, a consortium of federal and state governments, auto manufacturers and drivers’ associations built a seven mile test road in Illinois at a cost of $27 million. They tested various bridge designs, access designs and road building materials – concrete and asphalt in 836 different configurations. Then the military brought in their trucks. In two years, the test road had endured 1,114,000 axle loads from one ton to 24 tons. The results of the tests helped state engineers design the best stretches of road for the local conditions and material availability.

Construction actually began even before the test was done. Missouri became the first state in the union to begin work on the Interstate in August 1956. They began converting a section of U.S. Route 40 into I-70.

After he signed the Interstate law, Eisenhower said, “More than any single action by government … this one would change the face of America … Its impact on the American economy – the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up – was beyond calculation.”

Actually, some of the calculations were done –

  • Construction of the Interstate system removed 42 billion cubic yards of earth, more than any other engineering project anywhere in the world anytime in history. By comparison, the Panama Canal removed 262 million cubic yards.
  • Each mile of the system cost an average of $1 million.
  • Billions of tons of steel, sand and cement were used and those commodities became scarce and expensive for other projects.
  • So many engineers were needed that, for the first time, state road departments hired women engineers.
  • There were 54,663 bridges and 104 tunnels built in the system.

film_martin_R-1As the Interstate system began to open large sections in the 60s, the economy began to change. Railroads were supplanted by trucks hauling both agricultural and manufactured goods. Today, 93 percent of the nation’s freight is hauled over the highways, mostly on the Interstates.

Alex Martin says the Interstate system also produced profound social changes. “It made the rural community more mobile, and you could reach an urban center more readily,” Alex says. “Many people began to have employment in ana urban center but live in a rural area. And that wasn’t really feasible without a good highway system.”

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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