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A Backbone of American Progress & Safety

ASCE has designated "Seven Wonders of the United States". These included such diverse and well known projects as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, and the Panama Canal. But perhaps the project having the greatest benefit to the most citizens, and in fact being a backbone of our country in so many ways, is the Federal Interstate Highway System. It created safe and reliable transportation links between major cities and it had both initial and continuing positive effects on the economy. But even with the renewed national security awareness that exists after terrorist events of September 11th, few citizens in their convenient everyday use of this 43,000 mile asset recognize what is perhaps the main function of the interstate system . . . . . making our land defensible from invading armies!

After the eye-opening experiences of World War II, President Eisenhower knew that a modern network of roads would be, as he stated after his 1952 election, "as necessary to defense as it is to our national economy and personal safety." Thus the official name for the system: "The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways".

After several decades of success in the early 20th century's "Good Roads Movement", it became clear that the next challenge to improving ground transportation would be an enormous and costly undertaking. A massive hurdle to undertaking such a project included not only the technical challenges the civil engineers would face, but the cost of such an all-encompassing undertaking. Many of the leaders working to solve both of these problems were Civil Engineers.

Civil Engineer Charles D. "Cap" Curtiss, Commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads summed it up in late 1956 when he said "The future economic progress of our country depends in no small measure on the success of this program. We must not fail." Despite the sound concept and the convincing need for the project, early attempts to pass legislation authorizing such a massive project did fail. However, the highway funding puzzle was finally solved with the establishment of a new concept, a "Highway Trust Fund".

As we look back over the more than 40 years it took to build this elaborate system, it is clear that this project serves its multiple purposes well. Safety in ground transportation has drastically improved. Based on fatalities per 100 million person miles, the fatality rate for interstate highways is nearly 60 percent lower that of the rest of the system and the injury rate is 70% lower.

From a military defense standpoint, America's strategic advantage in effective surface transportation is unchallenged and no other nation has developed such a comprehensive surface transportation system. We now have the means to move large numbers of military personnel and huge quantities of military equipment and supplies in the event of an attempted foreign invasion. And economically, the project helped sustain a more than 10-fold increase in the gross national product since 1956. This civil engineering "wonder" can rightfully be considered the infrastructure "backbone" that helped increase post-war productivity, create the world's strongest economy, and further enhance our safety and quality of life.

- John P. Wier, P.E., R.P.L.S., Historical Chair, Fort Worth Branch ASCE, April 2002

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