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Missouri's Interstate System: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Missouri Roads Before the Interstate System

I-44 before opening

When the Missouri State Highway Department was created in 1921, the state’s roads were in poor condition.  Each county built and maintained its own road system, leading to a jumbled, uncoordinated tangle of highways that made it extremely difficult to drive across the state.  The highway department immediately set out to improve this situation by paving as many roads as possible and by constructing highways to link all of Missouri’s county seats.  Some of these early roads became part of America’s first cross-country highway system.  In 1926, the federal government laid out a grid of highways that ran between the individual states.  These roads were designated as United States highways, but no federal funding was included for their construction or improvement. 

In Missouri, several routes were given new names as part of this program. For example, Missouri State Highway Number 2 was renamed U.S. Route 40, and Missouri State Highway Number 14 became U.S. Route 66.  These roads allowed drivers to travel beyond the state’s borders, but they were not modern superhighways.  Instead, these early “interstate” roads were usually 18-feet wide with minimal shoulders.  These roads also followed local topography, making them a hilly, winding challenge for Missouri drivers.  Deadly accidents were common on these roads.  For example, some stretches of Route 66 within Missouri were referred to locally as “Bloody 66” for the large number of fatalities that occurred.  Clearly Missouri needed to improve its highways to carry increasing loads of traffic.  In the late 1950s, the federal government stepped forward to help build a national system of superhighways that offered hope for quicker, safer travel.

 

Origins of the Federal Aid-Highway Act

 

The origins of the modern interstate highway system can be traced to a 1938 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas MacDonald, chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, the federal agency responsible for promoting the construction of new highways in America.  According to legend, Roosevelt called MacDonald to the White House and handed him a map of the United States with six lines drawn across it, three running north-south and three running east-west.  Roosevelt then ordered MacDonald to figure out a way to build three interstate highways across the nation.
Crowd at I-29

Roosevelt’s challenge to MacDonald grew throughout the 1940s and early 1950s into a call for a comprehensive system of controlled-access highways throughout the nation.  When Dwight David Eisenhower became president in 1953, he realized that America needed an improved highway system.  Americans were purchasing approximately 16,000 cars each day in 1953, but the nation’s highways were antiquated facilities designed to handle low levels of slow-moving traffic.  In addition, the condition of roads varied wildly from state to state, with some U.S. highways in great condition and others little more than graveled horse paths.  Eisenhower believed that the federal government needed to build a viable national road system to provide for easy travel across the nation and also to help evacuate major cities in case of nuclear attack.  With the help of key legislators such as Sen. Albert Gore, Sr. and Rep. George Fallon, Eisenhower’s dream of a national highway system soon became a reality.

 

The Federal-Aid Highway Act

 

On June 29, 1956, President Dwight David Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid-Highway Act into law from his bed at Walter Reed Hospital where he was recuperating from an intestinal infection.  This new law called upon the states to build a 41,000-mile system of interstate highways linking America’s major cities.  The new roads were to be built to uniform standards that would accommodate both military and civilian traffic, and the roads were to feature controlled access and gentle curves and slopes, allowing travelers to drive quickly and safely across the nation.  The Federal Aid-Highway Act also created a unique funding mechanism for the new road system.   The federal government would reimburse 90 percent of the costs incurred by the states while building the interstate system, while each individual state would be responsible for providing the remaining 10 percent and supervising the actual construction of new highways.  Fuel taxes and other user fees paid into a highway trust fund would finance federal costs for this massive construction project.  Finally, the Federal-Aid Highway Act called for construction of the interstate system to be completed by 1972.   The stage was set for the largest construction project in the history of the world to begin, and Missouri was ready to respond to Eisenhower’s challenge.

 

Missouri’s Initial Response to the Federal-Aid Highway Act

 

When the Federal Aid-Highway Act was signed in 1956, the Missouri State Highway Department was ready to spring into action and build its portion of the interstate system.  In the mid-1940s, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads asked each state to draw up plans showing where major interstate routes could be built.  The Missouri State Highway Department quickly responded to this request, and in June 1945, Chief Engineer C.W. Brown made a presentation to the Highway Commission regarding where Missouri’s interstates would be built once federal funding became available.  Brown identified four major routes in his interstate plan.  Interstates would be built between St. Louis and Kansas City, between Joplin and St. Louis, between St. Louis and the Arkansas border, and between Kansas City and the Iowa border. In addition, several smaller interstate spurs would be built in urban areas such as Kansas City, St. Joseph and St. Louis.  The department sent maps of these planned interstate routes to the United States Bureau of Public Roads, and they received federal approval as the blueprints that would be used to build the interstate highway system in Missouri.

Aerial shot of I 44

Immediately after the Federal-Aid Highway Act became law, the department started working on the construction of its portion of the interstate system.  The department had already made plans to improve portions of U.S. Highways 40 and 66 by upgrading them to four-lane, controlled-access facilities, so it was easy to relabel these projects and include them in the new interstate program.  Thus, on August 2, 1956, the Missouri State Highway Commission approved contracts for three first interstate projects in America:  a stretch of Interstate 44 in Laclede County, a portion of Interstate 70 in St. Charles County and a segment of Interstate 70 within the city of St. Louis.  Within a few weeks of these contracts being let, a concrete roadway was poured along Interstate 70 in St. Charles, allowing the city to lay claim to being the home of the first interstate highway in America.

 

Building the Rural Interstates

 

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Missouri State Highway Department began to build interstate highways throughout rural Missouri.  The initial projects chosen by the department for interstate upgrades were the major highways between Missouri’s three largest urban centers - St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield.  Although U.S. Highways 40 and 66 already connected these cities, the older roadways did not meet the standards of the interstate system.  The interstate system called for fully controlled access, meaning that vehicles could enter the road only at designated interchanges.  In addition, federal rules called for the interstate highways to feature two 12-foot driving lanes in each direction divided by a median at least 36-feet wide.  Route 66 and Route 40 needed to be expanded to meet these new standards, and the work proved to be challenging for Missouri’s highway designers and engineers.

When the interstate system was built, the project reflected a new road building philosophy.  Highways built in the first half of the 20th century usually followed the lay of the land, and roadways were often curvy, hilly challenges for drivers attempting to cross the nation.  Interstate highways, in contrast, were to be smooth, straight expressways designed for unimpeded high-speed travel. 

To meet the need for high-speed traffic movement, highway builders had to overcome the challenges of Missouri’s varied topography.  Constructing a divided highway to rigid federal standards through rough Ozarkian terrain meant that hills had to be leveled, valleys filled in and scores of bridges and culverts built across Missouri’s numerous waterways.  Fortunately, Missouri’s road builders were ready to face this construction challenge.  The department had already built a divided highway through a mountain in the early 1940s when it constructed Hooker Cut along Route 66 in Pulaski County.  New equipment developed just for the construction of interstate highways, such as huge scrapers, and earthmovers were turned loose, and soon the path was clear for concrete to be laid across the countryside.  Construction of rural interstates ultimately proved to be the largest earthmoving project ever, with more than 42 billion cubic yards of earth moved to make way for the interstate system.

Although Missouri’s drivers were excited about having high-speed interstate highways link their largest cities, many rural Missourians were less enthusiastic about the impacts that the interstate system would have upon their lives.  Missouri’s rural interstates were built right through the countryside, often taking land from farms that had been in families for generations.  Farmers were not happy to have a ribbon of concrete cut through their property, and many refused to sell right of way for interstate projects.  In addition, rural residents objected to losing immediate access to Missouri’s highway systems.  Farmers were used to being able to drive onto highways at any point along the road, and they disliked having to drive on frontage roads or side roads to access the interstate system.  The interstates were designed to carry traffic across the state quickly and efficiently, and the farmers’ needs for easy highway access did not enter into the equation. 

Finally, many rural residents saw the interstates as a threat to the economic survival of Missouri’s small towns.  U.S. highways often passed directly through such towns, and many service industries sprang up to serve travelers.  The interstate system, however, usually bypassed small towns, carrying traffic away from them.  Businesses in small towns lost a significant portion of their potential customer base, leading to widespread economic decline.  In the long run, all Missourians benefited from the interstate system, but when it was built, many rural residents saw it as a disaster for their local community and a threat to their survival.

 

Building the Urban Interstates

Overpasses in Kansas City

By the late 1960s, work was almost complete on Missouri’s primary rural interstates, I-70 and I-44.  Additional rural interstate work would continue up into the 1980s on other key routes such as I-29, I-35, I-55 and I-57.  However, in the early 1960s the highway department turned its attention to accomplishing another task, building interstate beltways to ease traffic in Missouri’s major urban centers.  Although the interstate system was officially created as a way to promote quick, efficient cross-country travel, the system was also to feature beltways and loops around and through America’s major cities to help ease traffic conditions for commuters in urban and suburban areas.  Even before the highway department began to build the interstates, local governments in St. Louis and Kansas City had constructed several urban expressways, and these expressways were often integrated into the interstate system.

Work on Missouri’s urban interstates continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and many suburban residents welcomed these new roads with open arms as they made it easier to commute between their homes and their jobs.  City planners also welcomed the interstates in St. Louis and Kansas City, believing that they would spark the renewal of depressed downtown and central city neighborhoods.  However, construction of the interstates through Missouri’s cities often led to the demolition of historic buildings.  One example of this occurred in St. Joseph when construction of I-229 destroyed several historic buildings and districts, including segments of the historic Robidoux Row.  Historic buildings were also leveled in Kansas City’s Quality Hill neighborhood to make way for new interstate highways, becoming part of Missouri’s history that had to be sacrificed to make way for the interstate system.

In addition, the construction of urban interstate highways frequently led to the destruction of vibrant, working-class neighborhoods in both St. Louis and Kansas City.  Interstate construction disproportionately affected poor, ethnic residents in urban areas.  Highway planners wanted to keep costs low, so they designed roads that went through depressed neighborhoods where property values were low and right of way could be acquired cheaply.  Thus, minority neighborhoods were often split by interstate highway projects, and many local residents lost their homes to highway construction.  Urban residents complained as new highways ripped apart their neighborhoods, leading some to conclude that interstates were the “white men’s roads through black men’s homes.”  Anger over the destruction of local neighborhoods eventually led to a lawsuit against the Missouri State Highway Department claiming that department officials deliberately built highways in Kansas City to guarantee racial segregation in local schools and to ensure that the economic burdens would fall primarily on black residents.  Although the lawsuit was dismissed, racial and economic justice issues continued to haunt the department throughout construction.

Missouri's Interstate System Today

Although major construction on Missouri’s interstate highways was completed by the early 1980s, the job will never truly be finished.  Interstate highways are constantly upgraded to improve safety and driving experiences.  Today, the Missouri Department of Transportation maintains more than 1,100 miles of interstate highways, and plans are under way to expand several critical stretches of interstate including Interstate 64 in suburban St. Louis and Interstate 44 in Crawford County.

On Oct. 15, 1990, President George Bush signed a law renaming America’s Interstate system “The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways,” giving the system its current official name.  This amazing road project brought immeasurable benefits to all Missourians.  Millions of dollars were invested in this massive project, creating thousands of jobs for Missourians.  The interstates also created a fast, efficient transportation system that allowed for the incredible growth of the trucking industry.  Missouri’s agricultural goods and manufactured products in Missouri can be shipped via the interstates to any city in America.  Interstate highways also allow Missourians to live wherever they choose throughout the state.  Thanks to Missouri’s interstates, communities such as Blue Springs and St. Charles have grown from small hamlets into major commercial and industrial centers.  Finally, interstate highways allow Missourians to travel safely, as well as bring visitors to the Show Me State.  Clearly, the interstate highways have made life better for Missourians, and hopefully will continue to do so.

 

The Road Ahead

When the interstate system was first built, its designers planned to build roads that would have a 20-25 year lifespan.  The interstates were designed to be evolving transportation facilities that would need regular replacement and expansion if they were to continue to serve the economic and military needs they were created to fulfill.  Unfortunately, Missouri has been unable to keep pace with the improvements needed to maintain our interstates in good condition.  Many of Missouri’s interstate highways - especially those built in the late 1950s and early 1960s – are aging and in need or reconstruction, but unfortunately, MoDOT is hampered by a lack of funding. 

Take I-70, for example.  This interstate connects the state’s two largest cities and carries more rural daily traffic than any other route. Fifty-eight percent of Missouri’s population lives within 25 miles of I-70.  But I-70 is in a crisis.  The interstate, now almost 50 years old, was designed for a 20-year lifespan.  Many portions of the facility are strained beyond capacity, with deteriorating pavement and poorly functioning interchanges compounding the problem. Traffic is expected to double by the year 2030, when all segments of I-70 are expected to operate at failing levels of service.  Some areas will reach the failing point before then, and others are already there. 

We have developed a plan for the future of I-70 that would widen the facility to six lanes, rebuild its interchanges and correct design deficiencies.  Additional capacity and an upgrade to today’s design standards will improve safety and reduce congestion.  However, because no funds currently exist for us to tackle this ambitious project – estimated to cost $3 billion if fully implemented - we must start thinking outside the box to make any progress.

 

Conclusion

 

Roll Call newspaper, a publication containing Congressional news and information, recently printed an article listing the 10 most important pieces of legislation during the past half-century.  Fourth on the list was the Federal-Aid Highway Act passed in 1956.

In listing the bill among the top 10, the newspaper said, “Its title is obscure, but its impact is not: The act created the Interstate Highway System, which touched virtually every aspect of American life in the past 50 years. Faster roads intensified economic growth, boosted domestic tourism and made possible just-in-time manufacturing processes. Interstates also produced suburbanization, which dramatically changed lifestyles (more space, but longer commutes), drove downtowns into decline and led to the development of previously empty land. Population shifted to the Sun Belt, changing the nation’s political balance. And the Interstates irreversibly solidified the primacy of the automobile, worsening air pollution and climate change and cementing the strategic importance of the Middle East.”

Missouri’s interstate system has been a significant player in the transportation arena and an important contributor to the nation’s technological, economical and social advances.  While the interstates have been both a boon and a bust for business, they continue to be an important facet of Missouri’s economy, social well-being and recreation and tourism industries.

But problems loom.  We have not provided the necessary resources to keep our interstate infrastructure in optimum condition, causing congestion, injuries and fatalities and economic loss.  We’re at a crossroads, requiring critical decisions to be made.  Do we continue with the status quo and risk losing the benefits generated by our interstates or do we step up to the plate to invest in a system that will keep Missouri and the nation growing in a positive direction for years to come?

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