Archive for Monday, June 12, 2006

Interstate cruising along at 50

Highway system this month hits milestone anniversary

June 12, 2006


Lois Mead of Lawrence remembers traveling before the interstate highways were built.

The roads were usually two-lane blacktop at best, and winding and hilly, said Mead, 70, who is now business administrator at the Douglas County Senior Center.

And the trips took longer because the roads went through every town.

"I still don't like two-lane highways," said Mead. "I prefer the interstate highways for sure because of the safety factor."

Modern drivers may take the interstate system for granted now, but it wasn't too long ago that traveling in Kansas and the United States was a major task.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of when President Eisenhower signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which started the race to build the interstate highway system, the largest public works project in U.S. history.

"It's difficult to think of another development over the past 50 years that has had a greater impact on the nation than the interstate system," Kansas Transportation Secretary Deb Miller said.

"We've come to depend on the interstate and good highways in a way that makes them almost invisible to us," she said.

Dan McNichol, of Boston, author of "The Roads that Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System," said the impact of interstate highways is all around.

"It has changed everything from how we mobilize for war to how we shop for tomatoes," McNichol said.

"Everything we touch, from toothpaste to televisions, is shipped to us at some point over the interstate," he said.

The interstate system, he said, has been the foundation of the country's post-World War II dominance, making it possible for the nation to surge economically.

Kansas connection

The development of the national road system runs right through Kansas.

President Eisenhower, of course, was a Kansan. Two events instilled in him the need for an interconnected, quality system of highways.

In 1919, as a young Army soldier, Eisenhower was part of a military convoy that went across the United States to test how long it would take. It took 62 days.

During World War II, Eisenhower, who was the Allied commander in Europe, learned the military value of a good road system by moving troops on the German autobahn.

When he became president, one of his priorities was to kick-start a U.S. road system, which had been discussed for years before.

Shortly after signing the Federal-Aid Highway Act on June 29, 1956, the nation's engineers and builders went to work.

The first contract for interstate work was let in Missouri, but the first completed interstate project was an eight-mile section of I-70 west of Topeka on Nov. 14, 1956.

Pennsylvania also claims the first interstate because once the legislation was signed, it incorporated its tollway, which had been built in the 1940s, into the interstate system.

Did you know?

¢ The interstate system is comprised of 42,794 miles with the longest route being the 3,020 miles of I-90 from Boston to Seattle. ¢ There are approximately 1,200 rest areas on the interstate system. ¢ All but five state capitals are directly served by the interstate system: Juneau, Alaska; Dover, Del.; Jefferson City, Mo.; Carson City, Nev.; and Pierre, S.D. ¢ In Kansas each year, drivers travel more than 6.7 billion miles on the state's 874 miles of interstate. ¢ In 1964, the posted speed limit on interstates in Kansas was 75 mph; it was 80 mph on the Kansas Turnpike. - Sources: Kansas Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration

Kansas now has 874 miles of interstate, including the Kansas Turnpike. I-70 stretched 424 miles when it was finished in June 1970, which at the time made it the longest continuous stretch of interstate highway completed in any state.

Construction zone

McNichol, the author, said the years 1956 to 1966 were something of a golden age in U.S. roadbuilding.

Half the interstate system was built during that time.

"People were excited; it was intoxicating," he said.

But then it became more difficult and expensive to purchase right-of-way, and many of the projects ran into deep political and social problems as they moved into densely populated cities.

And the interstate also dealt a blow to some towns and businesses by bypassing them.

"Roads have been playing that cruel fate to towns for forever," McNichol said.

Cruise control

But if people yearn for the old days of driving through sleepy towns, the appeal of an open road has an equal pull.

When John Conard of Lawrence attended Kansas University in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he would hitchhike home to Coolidge, which is on the Kansas-Colorado border.

Motorists were generous back then in picking up hitch-hikers, he said, but even so, those were long, arduous trips over two-lane roads.

Now that a good portion of the trip able can be made on I-70, the 450-mile trip from Lawrence to Coolidge takes about 7 1/2 hours.

Later, Conard moved to Greensburg. He remembered when the Kansas Turnpike opened in the 1950s and became part of the interstate system.

A Pontiac dealer in town would take potential car-buyers on the highway as a way to make a sale, he said.

"One of the first things he did was get us on the turnpike cruising at 90 mph between Wichita and Topeka," Conard said.

"It was a real eye-opener for all of us who lived out there, to suddenly have a big, broad, four-lane road where you could really zoom down the highway," he said.

Cross-country convoy

Starting Thursday, a convoy of historic and modern cars will start a trip across the country to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the interstate system. The group will leave San Francisco for Washington, D.C., a reversal of President Eisenhower's 1919 military convoy across the country. The route will be Interstate 80, but a swing group will detour across Kansas on I-70 from June 21-23 for events at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene and the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. The vehicles will participate in parades in Abilene, and speakers will be on hand to talk about Eisenhower and the interstate system. Among those speakers will be author Dan McNichol, who wrote a book on the interstate system, Eisenhower's great-grandson Merrill Atwater, Kansas Transportation Secretary Deb Miller and Dan Holt, director of the Eisenhower Center. On June 23, the convoy will leave Abilene and drive to the Kansas Speedway to take a "victory lap."


insanegrey 12 years ago

Your numbers can't possibly be accurate... I know my car doesn't use 133% more gas at 80mph than it does at 60mph. In fact, my car gets about 30 miles per gallon at 60mph and about 27 miles per gallon at 80mph. Not really a huge difference.

Driving from Lawrence to Wichita (which I do frequently), I have a choice between saving a little over half a gallon of gas or getting there 38 minutes sooner. To me, the 38 minute savings is easily worth it.

Ray Miller 12 years ago

My God. You Ralph Nader types really won't be happy until we're all riding horse and buggies again.

Janet Lowther 12 years ago

The Interstate killed:

A. For-Profit passenger railroads and B. Short & less used freight rail lines.

In grade school I made two day trips on the Union Pacific before they gave up on passenger service: Ironically both were to the Eisenhower library & museum in Abeline.

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