Reihan Salam has a new essay at Slate summarizing the history of the Interstate Highway System and the political dysfunction preventing proper maintenance today. Here’s an excerpt, but it’s worth reading in full.
In the pre-interstate era, most of America’s superhighways were turnpikes, financed by tolls. Because these roads had to pay for themselves, there was a powerful incentive to avoid building more road than was strictly necessary. Early plans for a national highway system involved tolls as well. Yet lawmakers in the Deep South and sparsely populated Western states objected to the idea, fearing that their highways wouldn’t generate enough toll revenue to make them financially viable. Thus was born the idea of financing the entire Interstate Highway System through a federal tax on gasoline, which would redistribute resources from states that generate a lot of gasoline tax revenue to those that generate very little. This new federal tax would fund a Highway Trust Fund, and through it the federal government would meet 90 percent of the cost of new highway construction, including local highway construction. Since the Interstate Highway System was almost entirely funded by the federal government, local policymakers found it hard to resist going along with plans that tore neighborhoods apart. Who in their right mind would turn down “free” money? Who would turn it down if the neighborhoods that were being destroyed were full of people who didn’t have a ton of political power, as was frequently the case?
Ike’s fascination with the German autobahn may sound strange today. But during the 1930s there was a routine exchange of ideas between National Socialists in Germany and technocratic progressives in America and Great Britain. I have a favorite anecdote which illustrates that exchange although it transpired during WW2. In the early 1940s the British government commissioned a book titled the Beveridge Report, which was the blueprint for domestic reforms that would be enacted by British socialists following the war. It was something like the British version of the New Deal. When the Soviets captured the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin in 1945 they found summaries of the Beveridge Report among the captured documents. Nazi officials were discouraged from bringing up this “consistent system…superior to the current German social insurance in almost all points,” but if asked about it they were to claim that the report was “obvious proof that our enemies are taking over national-socialistic ideas.”
That sense of admiration went both ways. Spend time in the archives of more than a few New Deal functionaries and you’ll find letters glowing with admiration for fascist technical genius. They might moot concerns over Germany’s anti-semitic social policy and expansionism, especially after 1938, but they longed for the kind of power the regime had in setting economic policy. Set in that context, Ike’s open admiration for the autobahn makes more sense. The Nazis, or so the logic went, may have been evil people, but they built great things. Every time I walk up the mall toward Pattee Library with its harsh neo-classical lines, I’m reminded of that technological, cultural, and ideological exchange. It’s like taking a stroll to the Zeppelinfeld at Nuremberg! (Construction took place from 1935-1939 at Nuremberg and 1937-1940 at State College.)
Eisenhower might have talked a good game when it came to criticizing the military-industrial complex, but he was its architect. The interstate highway system was an example of the kind of federal largesse laid out for defense initiatives during the 1950s. Ike wanted a road system that could quickly transport troops and tanks to repel a Communist invasion. Beyond the usual guff about shovel-ready jobs and the realities of pork barrel politics, broader social consequences were generally unintentional.
However, those unintended social consequences were immense. Installing highway belts around cities decreased the time it would take to commute to work from outside the city. With the advent of cars people were already moving out to the new suburbs, but the highway system turned the flow into a flood. The people who could most afford the move, and a car, and a new house were disproportionately middle-class and white. And as both white and black middle classes moved out of the city center, most major US cities suffered from a generation of inner city decay. Highways weren’t the only government-induced variables to unintentionally fuel suburbanization and white flight–federal housing subsidies and redlining practices deserve a hefty share of the blame–but they played an enabling role.
I wonder how the highway system is taught in high school history textbooks today. As I remember it from my grade school years, Eisenhower’s highways were treated like the Hoover Dam or the transcontinental railroad, lauded as symbols of American ingenuity, determination, and prosperity. I’m not sure that narrative had space for the negative unintended consequences of what amounts to an incredible federal subsidy for automobile transportation. It makes sense that it’s time for historians to reevaluate how they tell that tale. After all, Richard White (book, article) and others have revised the exceptionalist narrative about the transcontinental railroad by revealing the sketchy politics, graft, and general wastefulness associated with its construction. It shouldn’t be any harder to do the same for the interstate highway system.