Ribbons Across the Land

Building the U.S. Interstate Highway System

Building the Highways

Funding the Interstates

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 provided federal funding to cover 90 percent of the cost of construction for what was known officially as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. President Eisenhower insisted that the program pay for itself. Rather than a series of toll roads, Congress established the Highway Trust Fund. Money collected from gas and other vehicle taxes was deposited and issued from the fund to pay for the federal share of the roadways. Individual state highway agencies would be asked to pick up the tab for the remaining 10 percent and coordinate construction of the highways within their borders.

Photograph of the Lewis and Clark Viaduct between Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, that illustrates the complexity of urban freeways. Kansas Department of Transportation photograph in: Schirmer, Sherry Lamb, and Theodore A. Wilson. Milestones: A History of the Kansas Highway Commission & the Department of Transportation. Topeka: Kansas Department of Transportation, 1986. View Source.

Paving a section of Interstate 70 west of Topeka, Kansas, in 1959. Photograph courtesy of the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Setting Standards

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials created design standards for the Interstate Highway System to ensure vehicle safety. The standards included controlled access to the roadways, 12-foot-wide lanes, 10-foot-wide right shoulders, bridges with 14 feet of clearance, design speeds of between 50 to 70 miles per hour depending on terrain, and a minimum of two lanes for each direction of traffic.

The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways: Status of Improvement as of March 31, 1971. Washington: GPO, 1971. View Source.

Connecting the Country

Fifteen years after President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, over 32,000 miles of Interstate roads were open to traffic with another 4,000 miles under construction. Most of the major highways were completed during the 1980s.