June 29 marks the 55th anniversary of President Eisenhower's signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, popularly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. The statute created the Highway Trust Fund, which was designed to pay for 90 percent of highway-construction costs. States were required to pay the remaining 10 percent of the costs. Eisenhower considered the project to be one of his most important accomplishments. "More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America.... Its impact on the American economy--the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up--was beyond calculation," he said in his memoir.
Today, the surface-transportation funding system waits in limbo for a congressional reauthorization; revenue from the gas tax is slowly declining, and transportation industry participants grouse about unmet infrastructure preservation and maintenance needs. The federal portion of the cost of the Interstate highway system has been paid for in part by taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. The taxes haven't always met the need for highway construction. Congress has appropriated almost $35 billion from general Treasury funds to the Highway Trust Fund since 2008.
How far have we come since this first highway bill? Is the highway system now true to Eisenhower's vision of a workable, free, transcontinental roadway? Are there new technological or demographic changes since 1955 that should be incorporated into the surface-transportation goals? If Eisenhower was alive now, what would you tell him about his proudest domestic accomplishment?