Interstate highways are not intended to be military airfields in times of crisis

This story about a plane landing on a North Carolina highway reminded me of a myth about the U.S. Interstate system: the idea that they could be used by military aircraft in times of crisis.

Numerous folks swear Interstate highways in the United States must be designed so that one mile in every five is perfectly straight and flat. According to this whispered bit of facetious lore, if the U.S. ever comes under attack, those straight, flat stretches will be used as landing strips.

Belief in this crazy idea should fail anyone’s logic test. It makes no sense to render inoperable the Interstate highway system during times of domestic crisis — moving troops and supplies on the ground would be too important an activity to curtail just to land planes. The U.S. is riddled with any number of small, private airfields that could be pressed into service if the need arose, with that need being dependent on some foreign power having first knocked out an almost uncountable number of major airports plus those airstrips on military bases, not to mention the American fleet of aircraft carriers. Folks who commit to believing this crazy notion of highways doubling by design as airstrips are letting the romance of a “cool fact” blind them to what their common sense should be blinking at them in bright neon letters.

Richard Weingroff, information liaison specialist for the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Infrastructure and the FHA’s unofficial historian, says the closest any of this came to touching base with reality was in 1944, when Congress briefly considered the possibility of including funding for emergency landing strips in the Federal Highway-Aid Act (the law that authorized designation of a “National System of Interstate Highways”). At no point was the idea kited of using highways or other roads to land planes on; the proposed landing strips would have been built alongside major highways, with the highways serving to handle ground transportation access to and from these strips. The proposal was quickly dropped, and no more was ever heard of it. (A few countries do use some of their roads as military air strips, however.)

Some references to the one-mile-in-five assertion claim it’s part of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. This piece of legislation committed the federal government to build what became the 42,800-mile Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, which makes it the logical item to cite concerning regulations about how the interstate highway system was to be laid out. The act did not, however, contain any “one-in-five” requirement, nor did it even suggest the use of stretches of the interstate system as emergency landing strips. The one-out-of-five rule was not part of any later legislation either.

This myth could be countered without suggesting that this is such a crazy idea. Small, private airfields would not likely have the length for modern jets nor be able to stand the weight of larger aircraft, particularly bombers. Additionally, the federal government spent large sums of money on interstate highways; wouldn’t they have wanted to get more out of their outlay?

Another way to counter this myth would be to make a larger argument that yes, Americans considered driving so important that the government was willing to subsidize the construction of interstates. In other words, the highways are more about our love for and reliance on cars and trucks than a nefarious Eisenhowerian plan benefiting the military-industrial complex.

The Federal Highway Administration has an official myth-busting page. Here is their answer to two questions of whether interstates were built with defense purposes in mind:

President Eisenhower supported the Interstate System because he wanted a way of evacuating cities if the United States was attacked by an atomic bomb.

President Eisenhower’s support was based largely on civilian needs—support for economic development, improved highway safety, and congestion relief, as well as reduction of motor vehicle-related lawsuits.  He understood the military value of the Interstate System, as well as its use in evacuations, but they were only part of the reason for his support.

Defense was the primary reason for the Interstate System.

The primary justifications for the Interstate System were civilian in nature.  In the midst of the Cold War, the Department of Defense supported the Interstate System and Congress added the words “and Defense” to its official name in 1956 (“National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”).  However, the program was so popular for its civilian benefits that the legislation would have passed even if defense had not been a factor.

Interesting that the federal government hosts such a page…

Arguing over Frank Gehry’s plans for the Eisenhower Memorial illustrates the social construction of memorials

Architect Frank Gehry’s designs for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. are drawing criticism. Curbed sums it up:

Anyone who still believes that “any press is good press” doesn’t know a thing about Frank Gehry’s plans for D.C.’s Eisenhower Memorial, which, ever since renderings were released for public fodder well over two years ago, has attracted a publicity buzz not unlike flies swarming a dying animal. Indeed, the memorial’s most hyperbolic and outspoken critic, the National Civic Art Society, has called Gehry’s plans for an architectural memorial park—which, with 80-foot columns and woven steel tapestries, is as nonlinear and flourished as the rest of his oeuvre—”sentimental kitsch,” “a temple to nothingness,” and a “behemoth [that] commemorates Gehry’s ego, not Eisenhower’s greatness and humility.” President Eisenhower’s grandchildren have spoken out against the design, as well, most recently calling it “regretfully, unworkable.” Oh, and don’t even get them started on those tapestries, which have been likened to the stuff of Communist regimes, derided as an “Iron Curtain to Ike,” and described by the NCAS as “a rat’s nest of tangled steel, a true maintenance nightmare.”

This week, Congress joined the clamor: Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, has just introduced legislation that would officially halt all of Gehry’s efforts and start the whole process afresh. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) chimed in: “I want to know how we came up with this monstrosity.” This, of course, has ruffled a whole other set of feathers, namely those of the American Institute of Architects, which has said in a statement that the bill “is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the innovative thinking for which our profession is recognized at home and around the globe.”

This highlights the socially constructed nature of memorials. What are they supposed to look like? To know, we often look at genres. We have memorials that celebrate war victories and they look a certain way: perhaps a big arch, perhaps a leader on a horse. We have memorials to celebrate the loss of life and the ambiguous outcomes of war. See the Vietnam War Memorial or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe in Berlin. These public discussions can help ensure the public or leaders get what they want out of the memorial but might also stifle innovation.

In addition to this issue of genre, I see a few other issues in this criticism:

1. Why build a memorial for Eisenhower in the first place? Is it for his actions as president in being in charge during a time of prosperity or is it for his leadership in World War II (though we tend not to honor generals in these large ways anymore)? Here is the reasoning courtesy of the official website:

Why honor President Eisenhower with a Memorial?

Congress approved the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial in 1999 with the passage of Public Law 106-79, signed into law by President Clinton. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission is entrusted with the task of building an enduring memorial honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and the 34th President of the United States. Eisenhower understood war as only a soldier could and believed the possibility of a nuclear or thermonuclear, World War III, would be unwinnable for mankind.  He set in place a strategy for winning the Cold War, that was followed and implemented by future Presidents until the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Eisenhower’s prescience and his strategic understanding of science and technology in establishing the United States as a pre-eminent world power was essential to securing freedom for generations of Americans to come. Eisenhower was influential in bringing World War II to an end and his efforts throughout the War, especially with the planning and execution of D-Day, stopped the Nazi war machine. He also ended the Korean War and maintained active communications with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.This Memorial will not only tell the story of Eisenhower, the young man from Kansas who became a great soldier, a U.S. President, and a world leader, but will also reflect the story of America – humble, isolated beginnings, and a rapid ascension on the world stage.  His example is an inspiration that, through leadership, cooperation, and public service, we too can achieve the American dream and make a difference in the world.  Eisenhower, like America, rose to the occasion with courage and integrity.With the 60th Anniversary of his election to President and the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II, it is fitting to celebrate Eisenhower´s numerous accomplishments as a General, President, and world citizen. Dwight D. Eisenhower´s dedicated service to his country spanned 50 years. It is appropriate that the first national presidential memorial of the 21st century will honor President Eisenhower.  If there was ever a moment in our nation’s history to recognize a leader committed to both security and peace for the good of his nation and the world, now is that time.

How many presidents will receive memorials like this? How many should and who gets to decide?

2. I wonder how much of this is tied to Frank Gehry as architect. Gehry has a particular approach to structures. What if it was a lesser-known architect or even an unknown? Back to the official website:

How was Frank Gehry selected to design the Eisenhower Memorial?

Mr. Gehry was one of four finalists in a competitive process  managed by GSA under the guidelines of the General Services Administration Design Excellence Program.  The process consisted of three stages.  A notice was published in FedBizOpps announcing the opportunity for any designer with an existing portfolio to compete for the project.  Submissions were received from forty-four qualified design firms in 2008. Evaluation factors included previous work, ability to work within the constraints of an urban site, interviews, and responses to the memorial´s pre-design program. That program addressed Eisenhower´s accomplishments as well as the physical parameters of the memorial site. Mr. Gehry´s creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness demonstrated his understanding of Eisenhower as a General, President, and world citizen. An independent panel of reviewers, including Commissioner David Eisenhower, reviewed the presentations by the final four designers and recommended Frank Gehry.  The Eisenhower Commission unanimously accepted their recommendation.

3. How much should the family of the memorialized person be involved? Curbed cites the family’s dislike for the structure. But, isn’t the memorial more for the people of the United States? This is a matter of competing interests.

4. I wonder if there are any critics of Eisenhower’s presidency who might object loudly to the design of the memorial. The Eisenhower administration wasn’t perfect…

In the end, this memorial partly reflects something about Eisenhower himself but also strongly reflects our understanding of Eisenhower from the years 1999 when the Memorial process started to 2016 when the project is supposed to be done.

The history of the American Interstate before President Eisenhower

An excerpt from a new book, The Big Roads by Earl Swift, suggests the link between President Dwight Eisenhower and the American Interstate System is limited as the plans had been laid during the FDR administration and Eisenhower simply helped put together the Federal financing.

There is little doubt that the Interstate Act of 1956 was important as the Federal government promised a large percentage of the funding for new roads that would connect metropolitan areas. But students of American highways already know that highway planning and construction had already taken place before Eisenhower signed this bill:

-The Long Island Motor Parkway was a private highway opened in 1908 and later transferred to the State of New York.

-Robert Moses is renowned for his efforts to introduce highways to the New York City area.

-The Pennsylvania Turnpike was built across the state (with the first part opening in 1940) and other states, such as Ohio and Indiana, built roads to connect to this.

-In the Chicago area, highway planning had begun in the 1930s and several of the major highways, including the Congress Expressway (now I-290), the East-West Tollway (now I-88),  and the Tri-State Tollway (now I-294), were primarily built by the state and completed before 1960.

-There was a motorways commission formed in 1930 that that produced a framework for American highways.

Regarding highways, there was a lot that took place before Eisenhower became President and I may have to check out this book to see how it tells this story.

170 options for improving the Eisenhower

The Eisenhower expressway is a key artery for traffic entering and leaving Chicago. The public is now invited to look at plans, including 170 possible improvements, that have been developed and could be put into practice in the future:

In response, highway design engineers have come up with 170 different ideas to reduce gridlock and accidents on the Eisenhower. The plan also focuses on improving travel options for mass-transit riders and bicyclists and pedestrians using nearby arterial streets…

The possible solutions include widening the Eisenhower to four lanes in each direction for the entire length of the highway to make room for “managed lanes’’ that would handle car-poolers, express buses or drivers willing to pay tolls to commute more quickly during rush hours, according to IDOT planners.

An expansion of CTA Blue Line rail service, from its current terminus in Forest Park to DuPage County, and other new transit services are also on the table, officials said. They include a possible light-rail line and designating a bus-rapid transit corridor that would be open to express buses traveling between the suburbs and downtown at least part of the day…

Major improvements are needed because traffic volumes on the Eisenhower are up to 180,000 vehicles a day, making it one of the busiest and most congested expressways in the Chicago region, officials said.

It sounds like there are a lot of options on the table. As the article notes, this is now an issue because this road is handling much more traffic than was originally intended and the traffic is not just one-way (in to the city in the morning, out in the afternoon) but now goes both directions. I can also imagine that all of this will stir up some discussion: special toll lanes? Construction that will go on for years? More money spent on mass transit? It seems like multiple solutions are needed included getting more drivers off the road as well as improving the traffic flow along this stretch.

Of course, a lot of this is for down the road as the planning has to take place and the money has to be found:

So far funding is available only to continue preliminary engineering, which is expected to be wrapped up in the spring of 2013, officials said. Design would then take several more years.

“Part of our analysis is to examine the financing options,’’ Harmet said. “We are a ways away from construction.’’

While the discussion could just center on the Eisenhower, this could also lead to larger conversations about the role of highways and mass transit within metropolitan regions. If the Eisenhower, and other local highways, are continually issues, perhaps new things have to be tried and transportation has to be dealt with on a more comprehensive level within regions (see a study like this for a broader metropolitan approach).

54 years ago: Federal interstates are born

On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. This legislation, though immediately about infrastructure, had a tremendous impact on American life. Many of the interstate highways of today were built with this money.

These roads have produced a number of changes:

-Suburbanization. People could now easily travel from suburbs to the city center. By the 1960s, many businesses were also locating headquarters along suburban highway exits.

-The American love of the car. This already existed before Federal Interstates but it was enhanced by these well-maintained roads. Now, the average American could drive farther and more safely. From this point on, money for public transportation would always be limited compared to funds for roads.

-Shipping. Many goods today are carried by trucks. Cheap roads coupled with cheap gasoline helps keep Wal-Marts and McDonald’s stocked and cheap.

-Urban renewal. A number of big city neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for new highways. Recently, some cities have reversed these trends by removing highways and establishing parks and public spaces. Two notable and beautiful examples: the Big Dig in Boston and the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

-Aesthetics. Many of these roads are about brute efficiency: moving the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time. To many, these highways scar the landscape. But they can often take on a beauty of their own, particularly in complicated interchanges.

-Small town life all but disappeared. With the rise of suburbs and highways rerouting traffic around small communities, rural populations dwindled.

-A fast-food approach to life. Not only does food have to be obtained quickly so one can get back on the road, signs need to be larger to be legible at 65 MPH, cars need to be larger to survive the occasional highway accident, travelers need built-in DVD players to be entertained, and so on.

Prior to the signing of this act, local governments and states had begun to cobble together a highway system. The City of Chicago had been planning for a local highway system for years but did not begin construction until after World War II. Pennsylvania had a turnpike (now I-76) and Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois had started roads that would create an interstate toll road. Robert Moses had begun a system in New York City.

But this law helped build and codify a system that is still going strong today.