Life in the Fast LaneCreation of the interstate system transformed nation
By GORDON DICKSON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
American life as we know it began 50 years ago today, when President Eisenhower signed a law creating the interstate highway system.
The ribbons of concrete that now crisscross the nation not only made it possible to drive coast-to-coast without stopping -- except to fill 'er up -- but also changed where people live, work and play.
"It invented Texas," said Alan Pisarski, a Virginia-based transportation trend expert. "What would the population of Texas be without interstates? Between the interstates and air conditioning, somewhere in there belongs the credit for the social and economic emergence of the South and the West."
While many people believe the main purpose for creating interstates was national defense -- so the military could respond, and civilians could evacuate, if the commies invaded -- decision-makers in the 1950s knew that the biggest impact would be on job growth, said Jim Carvell, a senior research engineer with Texas A&M University's Texas Transportation Institute.
It took four decades -- twice as long as originally expected -- for the system's more than 40,000 miles of highways to be completed. The final tab was $129 billion, according to a 1991 federal estimate, or nearly five times the original 1956 estimate of $27 billion.
The idea of federally funded roads wasn't unique even then. Federal aid for highways predates World War I. But the interstate act was revolutionary in that it:
Provided a uniform design for states to follow in building the safest possible roads and seamlessly connecting them across political boundaries.
Gave states 90 percent of the money needed to build the roads. The previous federal-local ratio was 50-50.
"The funding was a tremendous help," said retired highway engineer Burton Clifton, who oversaw construction of most western Metroplex highways during his 54-year career. "We already knew how to build better roads. We were already using the interstate design. We just didn't have the money to build them fast enough."
Without the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways," as Eisenhower called it, the phenomenal growth that has transformed Tarrant County would likely have come more slowly. The highway money transformed U.S. 81 into Interstate 35W, opening up north Tarrant County for development.
"You could go 20 miles and be back in 20 minutes," Pisarski said of the interstate system.
"You could move to the outer suburbs, but if you wanted something in the city center, you could go back for it."
One of the region's key economic engines might not exist without interstates, either.
"If we didn't have the interstate highway system, we wouldn't have had D/FW Airport," said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. "The interstate highway system made it possible to blend traffic, north and south, east and west. It created the largest inland metropolitan port in the U.S."
Not all of the change was positive. Interstates 20 and 30 cut the drive time between Dallas and Fort Worth to 30 minutes.
But as traffic moved to the interstate, the business corridor along U.S. 80, Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth and Division Street in Arlington, withered.
The Boaz Trading Post in Fort Worth, near the triangular corner of Camp Bowie Boulevard and Weatherford Highway, was the place to shop in the 1950s and '60s, Clifton said.
But by the 1970s, Boaz began to fade in popularity as people made their way to malls.The era of federal dollars covering highway projects is nearing an end
, Morris said. Future federal funding, which comes mostly from gasoline taxes, will be used primarily to maintain the mammoth interstate system -- which covers every state but Alaska.New roads will be built with "alternative financing," namely toll roads,
Because of the growing cost of road construction and the public's aversion to raising taxes, the window of opportunity to build interstates has passed.
For that reason, Metroplex leaders say, it's all the more important to recognize how special it was that Eisenhower and members of Congress did what they did exactly 50 years ago today.
WHERE ARE THE MOST INTERSTATE MILES?
ROAD TO PROGRESS
Interstates have forever changed Tarrant County, which has seen its population more than triple to 1.7 million thanks to improved mobility during the last 50 years.
Tarrant County highways - then and now
TEXANS WHO PLAYED CRUCIAL ROLES IN THE INTERSTATES
The Denison native made better highways a national priority. In 1919, as a lieutenant colonel, he moved troops from Washington to San Francisco -- and was enraged that it took 62 days.
The 1929 graduate of what is now Texas A&M University is widely regarded as the father of the interstates. The man known for soothing nerves in Congress during debates over highway funding ruled the roost at the Federal Highway Administration until 1972.
The Texas highway engineer submitted the winning design of the interstate logo -- the red, white and blue shield -- in a national contest. Oliver's first version was black and white because he didn't think the federal government would allow colors.
HISTORICAL MOMENTS FOR TARRANT COUNTY INTERSTATES
1956 President Eisenhower signed interstate highway act.
1957 Texas 550 designated Interstate 20 (now Interstate 30) in west Fort Worth.
1958 Original Fort Worth Mixmaster at present-day I-30 and I-35W completed.
1959 Elevated expressway of present-day I-30 completed from Summit Avenue to I-35W.
1960 I-35W completed from downtown Fort Worth to Belknap Street.
1965 Southeast Loop 820 from Hemphill Street to Texas 121 completed.
1966 I-35W completed to north Loop 820; Northeast Loop 820 completed from Texas 121 to I-35W.
1967 I-35W completed from Loop 820 to Denton County.
1969 Northwest Loop 820 completed from I-35W to present-day Business 287.
1973 I-20/Loop 820 east interchange completed.
1975 I-30/Loop 820 west interchange completed.
1978 Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike changed to freeway and renamed I-30.
1982 Southwest Loop 820 completed from Spur 580 to Hulen Street.
1991 New I-20/I-35W interchange completed, I-30/Loop 820 east interchange completed.
2001 Northeast Loop 820/Airport Freeway "Vortex" interchange completed.
2003 New Fort Worth Mixmaster interchange completed.
SOURCES: Texas Transportation Institute, Federal Highway Administration,
Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Texas Department of Transportation
Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816 firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: www.dfw.com