The Largest Public Works Project in History

Americans love road trips, and taking a cross-country trip is one of the best ways to experience the incredible beauty of the United States. Today, due to the interstate highway system, it takes about five days to travel from one end of the country to the other. However, in the days before the Interstate was built, the same trip was considerably different and took much longer. In the early part of the 20th century, many roads were still made out of packed dirt, which often became muddy and made driving a very difficult experience. In addition, finding a gas station was not always easy.

German Engineering

In 1919, a young army officer named Dwight Eisenhower was part of a military convoy that was ordered to make a cross-country trip to test the durability of military vehicles. Using the Lincoln Highway, which stretched from New York City to San Francisco, the convoy took 62 days to reach its destination. Years later, Eisenhower went on to become the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, and he marveled at the superbly engineered German autobahns. These superhighways were constructed from concrete and were extremely durable. Also, unlike railroads, the highways were still usable after suffering a considerable amount of damage from bombs. They also made it significantly easier for the Allies to transport supplies and troops during and after the war.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

General Eisenhower remembered the length of time it took to drive across the country in 1919, and he vowed to someday institute a similar highway system in the United States. After he became president in 1953, Eisenhower began calling for the construction of an interstate highway system. With escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the president also felt that a good highway system was essential for efficiently transporting troops and safely evacuating citizens in the event of another war. In what was to become the largest public works project in history, the U.S. Congress authorized the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, and the beginning of the modern highway system was born.

The Highway Act called for the government to finance 90 percent of the project and allowed for a 41,000-mile network of roads. Designed to accommodate high-speed traffic, the new Interstate contained no intersections and stretched from one end of the nation to the other. Like the German autobahns, the American highways were designed to be constructed out of concrete.

Concrete Contractors in Demand

In the years following World War II, concrete was readily available. It was also extremely durable, easily maintained and very cost effective. Unlike other materials, concrete could also withstand heavy traffic, and this made it the ideal choice for building the new highway system. With the housing boom that occurred after the war, concrete was also used for building foundation slabs, and a foundation contractor was in high demand. In general, it was a terrific time to be a concrete contractor because World War II was responsible for the development and use of concrete for the war effort and was ideal for building new homes for returning servicemen.

Each state was responsible for hiring their own concrete contractors to build their own parts of the Interstate. After the land was graded, the base was put down, each city like Houston made sure their Houston paving contractor roadways were installed correctly. Once the stripes were added and the signs completed, the road was ready for use. The first part of the system to be completed under the Highway Act was in Kansas. Originally, the planners estimated that it would take 16 years to complete the entire project, and the projected completion date was 1972. In reality, the construction of the highway system spanned a total period of 27 years, and the final part, which was part of I-105 in Los Angeles, was completed in 1993.