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Interstate Highways Modernized America

By Ken Root

It was sixty years ago when the interstate highway system was legislated by Congress.  It was initially touted as a post war defense system and a civilian jobs program but the network of highways turned out to be a highly successful rewiring of America from coast to coast, border to border.

In central Oklahoma, the first “four-lane” was built from Oklahoma City to Tulsa as a ninety mile, controlled access corridor.  The highway missed our farm by about two hundred yards.  It crossed Wild Horse creek so the first construction was a bridge across the troublesome stream.  My parents were farming full time on a marginal quarter section so they milked cows to supplement their otherwise seasonal income.  My mother said she and dad were in the barn milking one morning and she told him she’d milk the cows if he’d go down to the bridge and see if he could get a job.  She said she finished the cow, picked up the bucket and noticed that he was gone.

Oren took his first off farm job before it was fashionable.  He would come home each evening with stories of what they were doing as he described equal parts fascination and giddiness about having a job that brought in steady income.  He was hired by the foreman who took him down into a large concrete form where the men were tying reinforcement rods together with “pigtails” that required a lot of hand labor.  The foreman came back a couple of hours later and seemed impressed at the amount of work this farmer, turned construction worker, had completed.  For the rest of the week, dad did the same job and never slowed down in his daily accomplishment.  On Friday afternoon, the foreman asked if he could drive dad home.  When he got to the house, he asked if they knew any other farmers who would be interested in working on the bridge construction.  Mom made several phone calls and on Monday morning, the foremen hired a crew of farmers and fired all the general laborers.

This was only a microcosm of what was happening all across the country as the major interstate’s replaced narrow, dangerous and aging roads.  Route 66 was just two miles away from us and had been the only way to go east-west since the 1920’s.  Soon Interstate 40 ran the same route and allowed motorists to go six hundred miles in a day if their cars would hold up.

The highways were supposed to be a means of national defense by allowing troops, machines and munitions to be moved quickly.  The original design was to have one of every five miles run straight so military aircraft could land on the highway.

The public mindset was much different on individual property rights.  The wide highways cut through farms and cities without much ability by private citizens to resist the expansion.  Eminent Domain was used like a bulldozer to clear the path for progress.  Ultimately, we say it worked but the thousands of square miles under Interstate concrete or underwater from federal dam projects will remain out of the tax base and out of production permanently.

In the sixty years since this network of highways was started, the federal government has appropriated trillions of dollars toward construction and states have put in their percentage as well.  Some of the roads also carry a toll, depending on whether the state decided it needed money for expansion and upkeep.  There may have to be expanded taxes or tolls in the future as road and bridge infrastructure is clearly in need of repair.  Once you create a giant, you realize it has to be fed.

It is hard to say what is next for our transportation system.  We seem to have given up on rail service except for freight and coastal passenger travel.  Airplanes took the bus and train passengers in a subsidized airline industry that is now trying to be profitable from ticket sales.  It seems we all want to have a car as our major means of transport with flying as the means to go long distances.

Automated vehicles may by the next step as sensor laden cars are becoming more defensive.  To take this forward, I think we should put a major emphasis on separating cars and trucks on interstate roads.  There is room to build dedicated truck lanes on almost all rural interstate highways and the move should be toward developing “smart highways” that will allow trucks to be “self-driving” but with a driver in the cab just like a tractor with auto-steer.  This would improve both safety and efficiency of operation.  When a car and truck collide, the car loses.  If we reduce the incidence by separating them on major roadways, the cars can continue to be built lighter and smaller while the trucks can be as large as the roadways can accommodate.  There is also the matter of needing a driver in a truck so it can come off the smart road and continue to its destination.

A salute to Dwight D. Eisenhower, a General who became president and saw the need to modernize America.  His leadership, along with peacetime innovation following World War II, brought this country through developing status to leadership in defense and commerce.  Look at a map of the North American Continent compared to South America.  In the Plains states we are more landlocked than any agricultural region of Brazil but our highways and rail lines allow us to ship grain to China at just over half the cost to transport a bushel from similar regions to our south.

I vividly remember taking my first drive on several new interstate roads and thinking: “This is the highway to tomorrow!”