It’s hard to imagine the United States without its interstate highways, the 43,000 mile (68,600 kilometer) multi-lane, limited-access divided highways that carry people and commerce from coast to coast. and from one border to another without a single red light. It has been called the largest civil engineering project in the world, larger than the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt or the Panama Canal.
It has fulfilled a dream President Eisenhower had since 1919, when the 28-year-old lieutenant took part in a military motorized convoy after World War I to highlight the deplorable state of the roads of the United States. They followed the Lincoln Highway from New York to San Francisco, the approximate route of today’s Interstate 80.
The toll of collapsed bridges, stuck vehicles and bodily injuries convinced Eisenhower that the nation was in dire need of a good road network. This was further reinforced during World War II when, as Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower was impressed by the efficiency with which German highways moved troops and equipment, including those of the Allies, to across the country.
The authority for the interstate system was the Federal Highway Aid Act of 1956, signed by the President on June 16, 1956. Officially called the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate Highway and Defense, it became known simply as the name of interstate highway system, or just the highway.
The interstate system was a federally sponsored program that states could join voluntarily. Since the US government reimbursed 90 percent of the cost, all states participated. Existing toll roads like the Pennsylvania Turnpike were incorporated and about five percent of the system is toll.
Engineers and construction crews began work soon after the signing and by the end of 1956 the first sections of the highway were completed. Standardized materials and specifications were applied throughout, stipulating a limited access highway with a minimum of two lanes 12 feet (3,658 mm) wide in each direction.
Although designed for 70 mph (112 km / h), it could adapt to higher speeds. Indeed, some states like Nevada and Montana had no limits, requiring only motorists to drive in a “reasonable and proper” manner. The curves were smooth and sloping and the pavement was smooth and as straight as the terrain allowed. Realizing the potentially hypnotic effect of driving in a straight line, rest stops were typically scheduled about 35 mi (56 km) apart.
Drivers were guided on their way by distinctive digital red, white and blue shields. The information was transmitted on rectangular green and white signs. The east-west highways were even and north-south odd. Numbering started in the southwest corner of the country, for example, I-5 extends north of San Diego, California to the Canadian border and I-10 east of Los Angeles. in Jacksonville, Florida. Bypasses and branch lines are triple-numbered, for example, route 285 around Atlanta.
Freeways gradually shifted iconic roads such as the Lincoln Highway and Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles, which held a special place in American folklore. During the 1930s, Route 66 transported countless souls fleeing the dust bowls of states like Oklahoma and Kansas in search of a better life in California. John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, a poignant novel about families ravaged by the depression to the west, made Route 66 famous as the “Mother Road”.
Although immortalized by television and song, Route 66 was gradually replaced by freeways, the last track between Chicago and Joplin, Missouri being decommissioned in 1985. The Mother Road has officially disappeared, but its memory and traditions endure. in the Route 66 associations and the remaining remains. of a broken pavement infested with weeds.
A system that crosses a semi-continent of rivers, canyons, mountains and railroads requires many bridges, including 55,000 on the highway. Some float, like the Floating Bridges of Lake Washington in Washington State. There is a combined bridge and an underwater tunnel, the Monitor and Merrimac Suspension Bridge in Virginia. Some are magnificent like the cable-stayed Sunshine Skyway in Florida and the Mackinac Suspension Bridge in Michigan. Most, however, are the indescribable girder bridges that form the backbone of the system.
Tunnels also play an important role. Although more expensive than bridges, there are over 100 of them on the interstate network, one of the most impressive being the eight-lane, 1.7-mile I-95. (2.7 km) Fort McHenry Tunnel under Baltimore Harbor, Maryland. Mountain tunnels include the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel under Loveland Pass in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the world’s tallest tunnel, and the highest point on the highway 3,400 m (11,155 ft) above the level of the sea.
Although slated to be completed in 1972, changes, controversies over the roads and additions delayed final completion until the start of the 21st century. It came with the completion of Boston’s Central Artery / Tunnel project, nicknamed the “Big Dig,” 42 mi (68 km) of freeway lanes carrying I-90 and I-93 under Boston. It is the most elaborate tunnel system ever built, a fitting homage to President Eisenhower’s dream.
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