Today an average American can wake up one morning in San Francisco, and with enough money for gas and a car (and the time and will to do it), make a spontaneous trip to New York. Over 2400 miles separate New York from San Francisco. Along the way, there are obstacles that most modern Americans don’t even have to pay attention to – mighty mountain ranges such as the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, barren deserts stretching for hundreds of miles, and great plains as far as the eye can see. Today, this gargantuan road trip crossing 8 unique biomes can be completed in 48 hours by car.
Most people take this system and its comfort for granted. The Interstate Highway System – the $114 Billion (half a trillion inflation-adjusted), almost 50000-mile highway system, remains unparalleled for any other country the size of the United States. Why did the US invest in such a big undertaking?
Like most American megaprojects, it started due to military and defense reasons. In 1919, then Major Dwight D. Eisenhower was assigned to a transcontinental army convoy from DC to San Francisco. The convoy had an average speed of 5 miles per hour, took 62 days, and was generally hell. He described the western roads as a “succession of dust, ruts, pits, and holes”, realizing the United States was in dire need of an improved road system for better troop mobility and the safe movement of Americans across the nation.
In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt drew the following hand-drawn map, beginning the planning for today’s Interstate Highway System: