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Connecting the Coasts: A Road Revolution

Fifty years ago, the highway system had a lot of supporters, but it was President Eisenhower who used the bully pulpit of the Oval Office to push Congress to fund the ambitious plan. That's why he is often referred to as the "father of the interstate system."

As a young Army officer, Eisenhower was part of a cross-country truck convoy meant to test the U.S. military's mobility. The convoy took 62 grueling days to get from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, fording rivers and crawling over mountain passes.

Later, when Eisenhower was in Germany at the end of World War II, he marveled at the efficiency of the defeated nation's modern Autobahn system. He vowed to make a modern highway system a priority of his presidency, and after his landslide re-election bid in 1956 Congress moved to make it a reality.

It couldn't come at a better time for America -- more and more people were buying cars, but were growing frustrated by the lack of roads and the congestion in the cities.

But there was a dark side to the push to build the system, too. Buildings would need to be razed and homes and people displaced to make way for the roads, and more often than not those displaced were poor and black.

By mid-70s the system was largely in place -- 47,000 miles of road, 5,600 bridges and 15,000 interchanges. This year alone, Americans will use that system to drive an estimated three trillion miles.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Proffitt
Steve Proffitt is Senior Producer for Day to Day. In addition to on-air reporting, he’s responsible for a stable of contributing writers, including humorists Brian Unger and Annabelle Gurwitch, and musician and critic David Was.