Interstate Highway Act of 1956: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

The Interstate Highway System is one of America's most storied accomplishments, and it all began with the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. In this lesson, discover this law's history and its importance to the infrastructure of the United States.

Rollin' Down the Highway

Have you been stuck in traffic lately? Taken a trip across multiple states? Felt the need for speed? You probably experienced these situations while on an interstate highway. The infrastructure of the United States is grounded in this intricate system of high-speed roads that connect nearly every corner of the continent. Though highways were envisioned as early as the 1920s, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 established the modern system of highways as we know it today, and it was the vision of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Perhaps no public works project was as large as this one, and its legacy permeates to the present. In this lesson, read three essential questions and their informative answers to learn about this important legislation. As an aside, the law is officially called the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

Question 1: What Were Roads Like Before the Act?

Early roads were worse than today's construction! Since the invention of the automobile in the early 20th century, Americans wanted to drive - and drive anywhere they could. But roads were few and constructed poorly. They could not support the weight of many cars. There were a few early attempts through congressional laws to improve roads and even establish direct routes between the East and West coasts. The military even tried to travel from coast-to-coast; it took them two months.

Early roads were in poor condition
Early Road

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt envisioned better roads, funded by tolls, to connect more of the country. But most importantly, they would put people to work. The idea was put on the back burner due to World War II and the need to focus resources there. Roosevelt saw his vision revisited in 1944 with legislation calling for 40,000 miles of highways, but it lacked funding.

Enter Dwight D. Eisenhower, a general who served in Europe during WWII. He saw the Autobahn, the German superhighway, and its effective use by the German military. When he became president in 1953, he was fixated on getting this system built. There were struggles and battles over the issue mainly regarding funding. Who was to foot the bill? The states or the federal government? Finally in June 1956, Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act.

Question 2: What Did the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 Do?

The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 expanded the current plan (from Roosevelt) to 41,000 miles, provided $25 billion dollars of funding over 13 years, and placed the federal government in charge of construction. The government would acquire land needed for the new highways. Additionally, the act stipulated that the funding would come from a variety of taxes on gasoline and truck equipment, for example.

Construction of the Interstate Highway System

There were other aspects of the law that dictated the way highways should be designed, constructed, and signed (labeled). You probably are thinking of that familiar badge-shaped sign - you know, the one that has white numbers on a blue background with a red top. As the law dictated over signage, the north-south highways would be odd numbered with higher numbers in the east and lower in the west. East-west routes would be even numbered and decrease from north to south. Think about highways near you. Do you see the pattern? Over time, expansion has caused outliers that don't follow the standard.

Familiar interstate sign

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