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You are here -> HOME - RETROVILLE - 1956 - In The News -Interstate Highway Act
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Welcome to Retroville! It's 1956!
In 1956, the United States was without a strategic plan for creating and maintaining a highway system to keep Americans safely motoring in their ever-increasing number of automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles.

President Eisenhower had been impressed by the German highway system--The Autobahn--while he was in Europe during WWII. He felt that the nation's existing highways were inadequate and that a strong national defense and increased economic benefits from nationwide travel would be a boon to the US.

Even before the 1952 election, he told Hearst Newspapers, "The obsolescence of the nation's highways presents an appalling problem of waste, danger and death." Eisenhower also said that a modern network of roads is "as necessary to defense as it is to our national economy and personal safety." He never wavered from these views.

By early 1954, Eisenhower was frustrated by the bickering among his advisors about how to finance and construct the interstate system. In April 1954, he told his staff he wanted a "dramatic" plan to get $50 billion worth of "self-liquidating highways" - highways that would not add to the national debt - under construction.

In July 1954, Eisenhower decided to announce the electrifying "Grand Plan" for an articulated highway network. He chose an old friend, retired General Lucius Clay, to head the main advisory committee on the proposed interstate program.

In early 1955, he met with members of Congress to promote his new concept for an interstate highway system. When the House defeated all the highway bills before it in July because of financing issues, the President expressed his frustration.

Rep. George H. Fallon of Baltimore, Md., chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads in the House Committee on Public Works, knew that even if the House approved the Clay Committee plan, it would stand little chance of surviving a House-Senate conference. He, therefore, drafted a new bill with the help of data supplied by Frank Turner.

Through a cooperative arrangement with the Ways and Means Committee, Fallon's bill included highway user tax increases with the revenue informally committed to the program. The interstate system would be funded through FY 1968 with a federal share of 90 percent. Because of the significance of the interstate system to national defense, Fallon changed the official name to the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways." This new name remained in all future House versions and was adopted in 1956.

By a vote of 221 to 193, the House defeated the Clay Committee's plan on July 27, 1955. That was not a surprise. What was a surprise was that Fallon's bill, as modified in committee, was defeated also. It lost by an even more lopsided vote of 292 to 123. Most observers blamed the defeat of the Fallon bill on an intense lobbying campaign by trucking, petroleum, and tire interests. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn told reporters, "The people who were going to have to pay for these roads put on a propaganda campaign that killed the bill."

Eisenhower began 1956 with message after message stressing the urgent need for better highways--the State of the Union Address, in separate remarks that same day, in his annual budget message, in his annual economic report.

On January 31, 1956, at a meeting with Republican legislative leaders, Eisenhower announced a key change by breaking with the Clay Committee and endorsing the pay-as-you-go method of financing. One participant explained why: "We want the roads as fast as we can get them."

On March 19, the House Ways and Means Committee reported out a bill, developed by Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana, that contained the financing mechanism. The Highway Revenue Act of 1956 proposed to increase the gas tax from two to three cents per gallon and to impose a series of other highway user tax changes. Acting on a suggestion by Secretary of Treasury George Humphrey, Rep. Boggs included a provision that credited a revenue from highway user taxes to a Highway Trust Fund to be used for the highway program.

The Committee on Public Works combined the Fallon and Boggs bills as Title I and Title II, respectively, of a single bill that was introduced on April 21. On April 27, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 passed the House by a vote of 388 to 19.

The bill was sent to the Senate, which referred the two titles to different committees for consideration. The Public Works Committee removed the program portion of the House bill and substituted the Gore bill with some changes.

Two major changes were that, like the Fallon bill, the new version established a 13-year program for completing the interstate system and the 1956 version adopted the funding level and the 90-10 matching ratio approved by the House. A key difference with the House bill was the method of apportioning interstate funds; the Gore bill would apportion two-thirds of the funds based on population, one-sixth on land area, and one-sixth on roadway distance.

Byrd's Committee on Finance largely accepted the Boggs bill as the financing mechanism for the interstate system and the federal-aid highway program. Byrd responded to a concern expressed by the secretary of the treasury that funding levels might exceed revenue by inserting what has since become known as the Byrd Amendment. It provided that if the secretary of the treasury determines that the balance in the Highway Trust Fund will not be enough to meet required highway expenditures, the secretary of commerce is to reduce the apportionments to each of the states on a pro rata basis to eliminate this estimated deficiency.

On May 28 and 29, the Senate debated the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 before approving it by a voice vote. The House and Senate versions now went to a House-Senate conference to resolve the differences. The conference was difficult as participants attempted to preserve as much of their own bill as possible. On June 25, the conferees completed their work.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that emerged from the House-Senate conference committee included features of the Gore and Fallon bills, as well as compromises on other provisions from both.

Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks immediately announced the allocation of $1.1 billion to the states for the first year of what he called "the greatest public works program in the history of the world."

To manage the program, Eisenhower chose Bertram D. Tallamy to head BPR, with the newly authorized title "Federal Highway Administrator." Tallamy, who was New York's superintendent of public works and chairman of the New York State Thruway Authority, would not be available until early 1957. John A. Volpe, who had been the commissioner of public works in Massachusetts for four years, served as interim administrator from Oct. 22 until Tallamy could take office in February 1957.

In August 1957, AASHO announced the numbering scheme for the interstate highways and unveiled the red, white, and blue interstate shield. Many of the states had submitted proposals for the shield, but the final version was a combination of designs submitted by Missouri and Texas. Administrator Tallamy approved the route marker and the numbering plan in September.
And so, construction of the interstate system was under way.

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