This act authorized the building of highways throughout the nation, which would be the biggest public works project in the nation's history.
Popularly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956,
the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established an interstate highway system
in the United States. The movement behind the construction of a transcontinental
superhighway started in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed
interest in the construction of a network of toll superhighways that would provide
more jobs for people in need of work during the Great Depression. The resulting
legislation was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938, which directed the chief
of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to study the feasibility of a six-route
toll network. But with America on the verge of joining the war in Europe, the
time for a massive highway program had not arrived. At the end of the war, the
Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 funded highway improvements and established
major new ground by authorizing and designating, in Section 7, the construction
of 40,000 miles of a "National System of Interstate Highways."
When President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in January 1953, however, the
states had only completed 6,500 miles of the system improvements. Eisenhower
had first realized the value of good highways in 1919, when he participated
in the U.S. Army's first transcontinental motor convoy from Washington, DC,
to San Francisco. Again, during World War II, Eisenhower saw the German advantage
that resulted from their autobahn highway network, and he also noted the enhanced
mobility of the Allies, on those same highways, when they fought their way into
Germany. These experiences significantly shaped Eisenhower's views on highways
and their role in national defense. During his State of the Union Address on
January 7, 1954, Eisenhower made it clear that he was ready to turn his attention
to the nation's highway problems. He considered it important to "protect
the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system."
Between 1954 and 1956, there were several failed attempts to pass a national
highway bill through the Congress. The main controversy over the highway construction
was the apportionment of the funding between the Federal Government and the
states. Undaunted, the President renewed his call for a "modern, interstate
highway system” in his 1956 State of the Union Address. Within a few months,
after considerable debate and amendment in the Congress, The Federal-Aid Highway
Act of 1956 emerged from the House-Senate conference committee. In the act,
the interstate system was expanded to 41,000 miles, and to construct the network,
$25 billion was authorized for fiscal years 1957 through 1969. During his recovery
from a minor illness, Eisenhower signed the bill into law at Walter Reed Army
Medical Center on the 29th of June. Because of the 1956 law, and the subsequent
Highway Act of 1958, the pattern of community development in America was fundamentally
altered and was henceforth based on the automobile.
For more information, see the collection of Interstate Highway System documents
at the Eisenhower Presidential Library.