Congress on June 26, 1956, approves the Federal Highway Act, dedicating more than $30 billion to build some 41,000 miles of interstate highways coast to coast. It was the largest public construction project in U.S. history at the time and a milestone victory for longtime road advocates such as automakers and dealers. And it helped spawn a new era for the auto industry.
By the 1960s, the U.S. was a nation of safer and speedier roadways, and drivers, with an estimated one in seven Americans employed directly or indirectly by the auto industry.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the Federal Highway Act on June 29, 1956, from a hospital bed where he was recovering from surgery, discovered the utility of a national system of roads after participating in the U.S. Army's first transcontinental motor convoy in 1919.
Eisenhower came to admire Germany's autobahn network during World War II and he used his January 1956 State of the Union address to again call for a "modern, interstate highway system."
To raise funds for the project, Congress increased the gasoline tax from two to three cents per gallon and imposed a series of other highway user tax changes.
The project, originally estimated to cost about $37.6 billion, far exceeded that amount, costing $128.9 billion.
Construction on the nation's highways began almost immediately in 1956 and helped fuel a surge in interstate trucking, which quickly surpassed railroads to dominate U.S. shipping markets. The vast interstate highway network made travel and commerce more efficient. It also provided key routes for evacuating urban centers -- a priority of national defense during the Cold War era.
The program was criticized for displacing homeowners, farms and businesses, harming cities and excessive costs amid allegations of waste, fraud and abuse. To counter the complaints, the U.S. Bureau of Public Road launched a public relations campaign in the early 1960s that included films such as Road to Prosperity. The film highlighted the benefits seen in Kansas City, Mo., which had used the highway system to attract new industry such as a Delco radio plant owned and operated by General Motors.
Over time, the boom in interstate highway construction sparked the growth of roadside businesses such as restaurants -- what would become fast-food chains -- hotels and amusement parks, as well as suburban sprawl.