Underrated in America: Interstate highways

When I was seven, my family took a summer vacation to Florida. From Ohio, it took us three days, weaving up and down two-lane roads through the Appalachians and the pine forests of Georgia to reach our destination, Ft. Lauderdale.

While you might imagine this as a blue highway idyll, it was anything but. The mountains were lined with abandoned cars which had died on the steep grades. Pavement was often so abused by truck traffic that potholes kept local tire shops in tourist-gouging bliss. In the days before Dramamine, riding in the backward-facing seat of our Ford Galaxy wagon on a mountain road was a bulimic's dream.

The interstate highway system changed such travel forever. Now, I can reach the East Coast in ten hours, Florida in twenty, the Pacific in seventy-two. The driving is much easier, cheaper, and dramatically safer. As air travel becomes more unpleasant, car travel is increasingly appealing. Yet none of this was the reason that Eisenhower pushed for the roads to be built.

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Detroit had been lobbying for such a system to make the most of their overpowered behemoths, of course, but Ike was more swayed by his military experience, and the value of mobility to national defense. The plan actually began with a list provided by the Army to the Bureau of Public Roads of routes that would best serve the military.

The system began with the Federal-Aid Highway act of 1956. The first highway opened was either part of I-70 in Kansas or a section of the Pennsylvania turnpike, depending on whose claim you believe.

The freeways have carried a heavy public price tag, however. The stretch of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon, Colorado alone took 35 years and $114 billion to complete. With government focus on motor vehicle transportation, some would argue our nation's rail system received less attention and considerably less support than it warranted.

The main benefit that the freeway system has provided to most of us, however, is time. How can you calculate the value of the hours saved by our freeway system? Of all our possessions, time is the most precious. The freeway system has saved us a huge amount of time.

And less vomiting, which is also a good thing.

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