The important step taken toward American interstates on May 7, 1930

I am a few days behind in celebrating anniversaries in American transportation history but this post from The Infrastructurist highlights an important highway commission that was founded on May 7, 1930:

This past Saturday marked a little-known anniversary in the long-running contest between American highway and train establishments. On May 7, 1930, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to form the United States Motorways Commission, a twelve-person group — two Senators, two Congressmen, and eight presidential appointees — whose job was to consider a proposal for a national road network strikingly similar to the Interstate Highway System that emerged decades later.

The concept of a truly national road system was, at this point in American history, truly novel. The particular idea to be considered by the motorways commission sprang from the mercurial mind of an engineer named Lester Barlow. The Union Highway, as Barlow first called his system, would be a four-track expressway stretching from Boston to San Francisco. It would have fast lanes and slow lanes, access ramps to eliminate grade crossings, a partition between traffic flows to prevent U-turns, special sections devoted to gas stations and food stands — in short, all the definitive markers of expressways as we know them…

All seemed to be going well after the Senate voted to create the motorways commission on May 7, 1930. Then suddenly the legislation ran into problems. The House of Representatives trapped its version of the bill in a committee, and New York lawmakers did the same. Attempts to revive the plan in subsequent sessions, both federal and local, failed again and again, until the idea faded away.

Tilson later revealed to Barlow the real reason for legislative inaction on the proposal for a national highway system: it had been blocked by the mighty railroad lobby, which feared the loss of passengers and freight to road travel. This reason was confirmed to Barlow at a gathering of New Haven Railroad officials in the fall of 1930. As Barlow later recalled, John J. Pelley, then president of the New Haven, told those in attendance that a poor highway system was in the railroad’s best interest, and that it should do whatever it “practically” could to prevent the development of expressways in America.

This is an important story as it sounds like this commission laid the framework for the Federal Interstate system that began in the mid 1950s. As sociologists, historians, and others would tell you, this Federal shift toward highway construction had a profound impact on suburban development after World War II.

It would be interesting to hear more about the gap between this commission and the Federal Interstate Act of 1956. Of course, there was a Depression and a massive war. But during this time period, a number of government agencies started planning and building roads. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was built in this gap and the states of Ohio and Indiana started constructing connections to this Turnpike. In the Chicago region, a number of highways were under construction by the mid 1950s as the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago recognized the need for such roads. Beyond historical circumstances, was it primarily the railroad lobby that held up Federal support of interstate construction prior to 1956? If so, what was the state of the railroad industry in 1956 and was the Federal government actually behind the times in funding the Interstate system?

One thought on “The important step taken toward American interstates on May 7, 1930

  1. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #3: race and exclusion | Legally Sociable

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