The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, commonly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, commonly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act (although such act never existed), was a pivotal legislation in the United States that initiated the construction of a nationwide interstate highway system.

The idea for a transcontinental superhighway began in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the concept to create jobs. This led to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938. This act directed the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), the predecessor of the Federal Highway Administration, to study the feasibility of a toll-financed system of three east-west and three north-south superhighways.  

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, authorized the building of highways throughout the nation and established an interstate highway system in the United States. Download the entire act here.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 marked a significant step by funding highway improvements and proposing a 40,000-mile "National System of Interstate Highways."

When Dwight D. Eisenhower became President in 1953, only a fraction of this system (6,500 miles) was completed. His experiences, first with the military convoy in 1919 and later with the German autobahn during World War II, profoundly influenced his views on the strategic importance of highways.

In his January 7, 1954, State of the Union Address, Eisenhower emphasized the need for a safe and adequate highway system, which he saw as crucial for national defense and civilian safety. The President called for a "modern, interstate highway system” in his 1956 State of the Union Address.

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Legislation to provide a modern, interstate highway system is even more urgent this year than last, for 12 months have now passed in which we have fallen further behind in road construction needed for the personal safety, the general prosperity, the national security of the American people. During the year, the number of motor vehicles has increased from 58 to 61 million. During the past year over 38,000 persons lost their lives in highway accidents, while the fearful toll of injuries and property damage has gone on unabated.


In my message of February 22, 1955, I urged that measures be taken to complete the vital 40,000 mile interstate system over a period of 10 years at an estimated Federal cost of approximately 25 billion dollars. No program was adopted.


If we are ever to solve our mounting traffic problem, the whole interstate system must be authorized as one project, to be completed approximately within the specified time. Only in this way can industry efficiently gear itself to the job ahead. Only in this way can the required planning and engineering be accomplished without the confusion and waste unavoidable a piecemeal approach.

 

Furthermore, as I pointed out last year, the pressing nature of this problem must not lead us to solutions outside the bounds of sound fiscal management. As in the case of other pressing problems, there must be an adequate plan of financing. To continue the drastically needed improvement in other national highway systems, I recommend the continuation of the Federal Aid Highway Program.


President Eisenhower

Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, 1956



Despite initial legislative challenges and debates over federal and state funding responsibilities, the 1956 Act was eventually passed. It authorized $25 billion for the construction of a 41,000-mile interstate network, to be completed from 1957 to 1969. Eisenhower's signature on June 29, 1956, marked the beginning of this monumental project.

The impact of the 1956 law, along with the Highway Act of 1958 to increase Interstate funding by a total of $800 million for FYs 1959-1961, was far-reaching. It transformed American community development, favoring automobile-based infrastructure and resulted often (un-)intended consequences.

The impact of the Interstate Highway System extended deeply into the urban fabric, particularly affecting inner-city neighborhoods. Many of these areas, often home to low-income and minority communities, were demolished to make way for new highways, leading to significant displacement and economic decline. .

Buford, Wyoming is known as the country's smallest town, with a population of one.

Buford, Wyoming is known as the country's smallest town, with a population of one.

Urban areas saw the construction of large superhighways, often at the expense of poorer neighborhoods, while rural areas and small towns were frequently bypassed. Despite these challenges, the interstate highway system revolutionized interstate commerce and suburban growth, reshaping American society and its landscape in the decades that followed.

TRANSCRIPT

To amend and supplement the Federal-Aid Road Act approved July 11, 1916, to authorize appropriations for continuing the construction of highways; to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 to provide additional revenue from the taxes on motor fuel, tires, and trucks and buses; and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

TITLE I—FEDERAL-AID HIGHWAY ACT OF 1956

SEC. 101. SHORT TITLE FOR TITLE I.
This title may be cited as the "Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956".

SEC. 102. FEDERAL-AID HIGHWAYS.
(a) (1) AUTHORIZATION OF APPROPRIATIONS.—For the purpose of carrying out the provisions of the Federal-Aid Road Act approved July 11, 1916 (39 Stat. 355), and all Acts amendatory thereof and supplementary thereto, there is hereby authorized to be appropriated for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1957, $125,000,000 in addition to any sums heretofore authorized for such fiscal year; the sum of $850,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1958; and the sum of $875,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1959. The sums herein authorized for each fiscal year shall be available for expenditure as follows:

(A) 45 per centum for projects on the Federal-aid primary highway system.
(B) 30 per centum for projects on the Federal-aid secondary highway system.
(C) 25 per centum for projects on extensions of these systems within urban areas.

(2) APPORTIONMENTS.—The sums authorized by this section shall be apportioned among the several States in the manner now provided by law and in accordance with the formulas set forth in section 4 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944; approved December 20, 1944 (58 Stat. 838) : Provided, That the additional amount herein authorized for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1957, shall be apportioned immediately upon enactment of this Act.

(b) AVAILABILITY FOR EXPENDITURE.—Any sums apportioned to any State under this section shall be available for expenditure in that State for two years after the close of the fiscal year for which such sums are authorized, and any amounts so apportioned remaining unexpended at the end of such period shall lapse: Provided, That such funds shall be deemed to have been expended if a sum equal to the total of the sums herein and heretofore apportioned to the State is covered by formal agreements with the Secretary of Commerce for construction, reconstruction, or improvement of specific projects as provided in this title and prior Acts: Provided further, That in the case of those sums heretofore, herein, or hereafter apportioned to any State for projects on the Federal-aid secondary highway system, the Secretary of Commerce may, upon the request of any State, discharge his responsibility relative to the plans, specifications, estimates, surveys, contract awards, design, inspection, and construction of such secondary road projects by his receiving and approving a certified statement by the State highway department setting forth that the plans, design, and construction for such projects are in accord with the standards and procedures of such State applicable [pages omitted] property (real or personal, and including office equipment and records) used or held in connection with such functions, duties, and authority.

(d) EFFECTUATION OF TRANSFER. The Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce shall take such steps as may be necessary or appropriate to effect the transfer from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Commerce of the functions, duties, and authority, and the funds and property, as herin provided for.

(e) DISTRIBUTION OF FUNCTIONS. The Secretary of Commerce shall have power, by order or regulations, to distribute the functions, duties, and authority hereby transferred, and appropriations pertaining thereto, as he may deem proper to accomplish the economical and effective organization and administration thereof.

SEC. 108. NATIONAL SYSTEM OF INTERSTATE AND DEFENSE HIGHWAYS.

(a) INTERSTATE SYSTEM. It is hereby declared to be essential to the national interest to provide for the early completion of the "National System of Interstate Highways", as authorized and designated in accordance with section 7 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 (58 Stat. 838). It is the intent of the Congress that the Interstate System be completed as nearly as practicable over a thirteen-year period and that the entire System in all the States be brought to simultaneous completion. Because of its primary importance to the national defense, the name of such system is hereby changed to the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways". Such National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is hereinafter in this Act referred to as the "Interstate System".

(b) AUTHORIZATION OF APPROPRIATIONS. For the purpose of expediting the construction, reconstruction, or improvement, inclusive of necessary bridges and tunnels, of the interstate System, including extensions thereof through urban areas, designated in accordance with the provisions of section 7 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 (58 Stat. 838), there is hereby authorized to be appropriated the additional sum of $1,000,000,000 for, the fiscal year ending June 30, 1957 , which sum shall be in addition to the authorization heretofore made for that year, the additional sum of $1,700,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1958, the additional sum of $2,000,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1959, the additional sum of $2,200,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1960, the additional sum of $2,200,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1961, the additional sum of $2,200,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1962, the additional sum of $2,200,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1963, the additional sum of $2,200,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1964, the additional sum of $2,200,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1965, the additional sum of $2,200,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1966, the additional sum of $2,200,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1967, the additional sum of $1,500,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1968, and the additional sum of $1,025,000,000 for the fiscal year ending .June 30, 1969.

(c) APPORTIONMENTS FOR 1956, 1958, AND 1959. The additional sums herein authorized for the fiscal years ending June 30, 1957, June 30, 1958, and June 30, 1959, shall be apportioned among the several States in the following manner: one-half in the ration which the population of each State bears to the total population of all the States, as shown by the latest available Federal census: Provided, That no State shall receive less than three-fourths of 1 per centum of the money so apportioned; and one-half in the manner now provided by law for the apportionment of funds for the Federal-aid primary system. The additional sum herein authorized for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1957, [pages omitted] carrying out the study and investigation required by this section. Each such report shall be printed as a House document of the session of the Congress to which the report is made.

(e) FUNDS FOR STUDY AND INVESTIGATION. There are hereby authorized to be appropriated out of the Highway Trust Fund such sums as may be necessary to enable the Secretary of Commerce to carry out the provisions of this section.

SEC. 211. EFFECTIVE DATE OF TITLE

This title shall take effect on the date of its enactment, except the amendments made by sections 202, 203, 204, and 205 shall take effect on July 1, 1956.

TITLE III - SEPARABILITY

SEC. 301. SEPARABILITY

If any section, subsection, or other provision of this Act or the application thereof to any person or circumstance is held invalid, the remainder of the Act and application of such section, subsection, or other provision to other persons or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.

[endorsements]

Sources:


Transcontinental Motor Convoy Report by Col. William T. Carpenter – 1920
Divided Paths: Urban Renewal and the Legacy of the Interstates
Image Gallery – After Ike Documentary
Aerial Image Gallery – After Ike Documentary
Firestone Film – 1919
Contributors to After Ike