In the mid-to-late 1800's, roads were mostly considered the responsibility of the municipalities through which they ran. Taxes were collected to support them, but monies were poorly spent, and roads lacked proper maintenance. The rise of the bicycle as a popular mode of transportation brought about public interest in roads, and the Good Roads movement was started in various states. In 1891, New Jersey became the first state to offer state aid to municipalities for the upkeep of their thoroughfares. It was not until the turn of the 20th century, however, that the federal government began to take an interest.

With the advent of the automobile, Americans found themselves blessed with an opportunity and an option they had never before considered -- interstate travel for tourism and pleasure without extensive time or money commitments. The first interstate "roads", however, were woefully unequipped for any sort of regular travel; most roads consisted of poorly paved, painfully undermaintained old wagon trails that ran unsafely through major cities and often found themselves subject to "relocation" by other cities attempting to bolster their own tourism. Adding to the poor-road issue was the rise of Rural Free Delivery from the United States Postal Service, which required passable roads to residents of the most remote locations.

The late 1910s and early 1920s saw the first attempts at organization of state and interstate highway maintenance. The American Automobile Association and the Automobile Club of Southern California were formed to advocate better roads in California and across the United States; "trail associations" attempted to maintain individual roads and begin the process of marking interstate highways. However, the lack of integration of these movements, as well as the lack of standardization of needs for individual roads, left many problems still unsolved across the country. The federal government established the American Association of State Highway Officials in 1924 to alleviate some of these problems. The AASHO was responsible for many of the standardizations we take for granted today: stable road paving, highway numbering, and suchlike.

At the end of the 1920s, though, with the country in a massive depression, thoughts turned from tourism to the need for money and food, and highway projects were all but set aside for a few years. In the 30s, though, a stroke of luck befell the concept of highway construction as President Franklin Roosevelt saw the advantages and job opportunities provided by a federal highway construction project. His idea was to build three north-south and three east-west toll superhighways to provide major thoroughfares for country-wide travel. A study conducted under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 determined that travel would not be sufficient to support the construction and maintenance of these massive highway undertakings; however, it was proposed to expand existing roads into a 43000-kilometer interregional highway network, incorporating city beltways and bypasses into larger cities to alleviate potential congestion. This proposal was sent to Congress in 1939, but was held back by the threat of war; the president reserved the proposal for post-war economic boosting possibilities.

During World War II, the proposal was expanded several times, ultimately to include a total of 65000 kilometers of highway and numerous other considerations. This proposal was hotly debated among the states, with appropriate funding allocations and lack of state jurisdiction over the projects being major issues; funds were scarce to begin with, and most states felt that federalization of the project would impugn their own individual authorities. Finally, in 1944, the plan was passed with few of the proposed changes, save the actual mileage expansion.

By 1947, 60000 of the 65000 kilometers of highway had already been designated by the Public Roads Administration (sometimes called the Bureau of Public Roads - this designation bounced back and forth through the '40s and '50s), who were responsible for the implementation of the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Progress of actual construction, however, was exceedingly slow; funding was choked by states unwilling to divert monies from other needs, and many had trouble complying with the standards set by the act. The Korean War diverted more money from the project until, in 1952, Congress authorized a meager $25 million in matched funds for the entire nationwide project. By the time Eisenhower took office in 1953, a total of $955 million had been spent to complete a mere 10000 kilometers of highway.

Eisenhower's experiences with the German autobahn during World War II would influence him heavily during his foray as United States President. Although his first year in office was spent cleaning up the Korean War, he dove into 1954 with a massive fiscal overhaul of the highway program, throwing $175 million at the states in a 60/40 matching system. Funding was distributed based more heavily on population, potentially allowing the more-needed stretches of highway to be completed first. Believing this to be only the first step in a long, er, road to success, the president then planned address a conference of state governors, promoting a plan to spend $50 billion over the next 10 years on the interstate highway system. (Vice President Nixon actually gave the speech due to a death in Eisenhower's family.) His arguments included five major flaws in the outdated highway system that was currently in place: lack of safety, financial loss due to poor traffic handling, legal backups stemming from highway-related lawsuits, inefficient transportation of goods, and defensive inadequacies in the event of war (a hot topic with all the battles the US threw itself into in the surrounding decades). This speech managed to completely sell the governors attending the convention, who had originally intended to completely remove the federal government from highway building.

The president nominated a committee to develop a financial plan for the highway system, naming General Lucius Clay as the head of the new President's Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program. The committee yielded a plan to self-finance the program with issued bonds and an additional federal gas tax to pay off the plan over the course of 30 years. Most of the members of Congress objected to this deal, and the Senator Albert Gore, Sr., proposed a new plan which contained a method for spending the allotted money but deliberately lacked a financing method (the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives was the only committee allowed to propose financial legislation). Both proposals failed miserably in the House and the Senate.

Representative George Fallon took over the proposal in the Ways and Means Committee in 1955, drafting a new proposal for minor tax increases to support the federal funding of the plan. He also renamed the highway system the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways", which was officially adopted in 1956. Fallon's bill was ultimately defeated as well; however, his bill was revised and partnered with a proposal authored by Representative Hale Boggs, which was passed by the House and sent to the Senate. The Senate re-inserted much of the Gore-proposed funding program, leaving the 13-year timeline and the plan for distribution of funds set forth by the original Fallon bill; the financing mechanism set forth by the Boggs bill was left largely intact. The revised bill was passed in the Senate by a voice vote; House-Senate committee hearings resolved differences between the two passages of the bill, and was finally passed by the House and Senate and unceremoniously signed by the President at the end of June, 1956.

The final draft of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 allowed for 90% of all funding for the highway system to come from federal monies; it allowed for 66000 kilometers of roads to be built by 1975; it required any roads previously built to conform to a series of standards for interchanges, lane widths, and whatnot; and it set a standard numbering system for all roads within the system. Toll roads were accepted into the system if they met the standards set forth by the bill, and if bypassing those roads disrupted the continuity of the network. The numbering scheme and the new red, white and blue shields were unveiled in 1957.

In 1990, the Interstate Highway System was officially renamed the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, in honor of the president who played such a vital role in the planning and execution of the system.

Thank you to Ikura for mentioning the Good Roads movement.