Listen Full interview: Earl Swift on the history of the interstate highways
Jun 6, 2012
Listen Story audio
Congress faces a June 30 deadline to act on a funding bill for the nation's highways and other transportation needs. That's when current funding runs out, so pundits are now wondering what kind of showdown this might create in Washington over the coming weeks.
One major issue facing lawmakers is that the fund from which money for highway projects comes is due to run out in the next fiscal year. The highway trust fund is refilled with gas taxes we pay every time we fill up our cars.
It's certainly not the first time transportation funding has been in doubt. The original proposals to fund highways at the federal level brought with it sharp debate.
In "The Big Roads," Earl Swift looks at the history of the interstate highway system. He spoke with The Daily Circuit about his historical research.
"It's an interesting story because it's one that people my age, I'm 53, tend to think they already know," he said. "I went into the project assuming the basics that I thought I know - that Dwight Eisenhower was the brains behind the idea; that it was a product of the 1950's - that those were pretty much gospel. And that proved not to be the case."
Thomas MacDonald is the man who no one has heard of, but who should arguably have his name on the interstate highway system, Swift said. MacDonald served for 34 years as head of the federal Bureau of Public Roads, during which time the nation built its first U.S. highways, which laid the groundwork for the interstate highways.
"[MacDonald] was effectively the J. Edgar Hoover of roads," Swift said, alluding to Hoover's history of building the FBI from scratch into a powerhouse federal agency.
The ills the highway system has brought included many public fights in urban areas, where proposed interstate highways decimated local neighborhood communities. In his books, Swift tells the story of the revolt in Baltimore against an interstate that in the end was never built. In the Twin Cities, the history of I-94 includes Rondo, a traditionally African-American neighborhood just outside downtown St. Paul that was severed when the highway came through.
For all the faults, Swift marvels at the engineering feat of the system. At nearly 47,000 miles long (every mile at least four lanes wide), it's considered the largest public works project in history.
So, could such a network be built today? Never, Swift said.
"I just don't think we have the political will to get behind something so expensive, for one thing," he said. "It cost more than $150 billion... Also, this required a certain buy-in by the public that its government knew best. And I just don't think we have a lot of that left, at this point."