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Car Stuck on a muddy Tennessee road, ca. 1940

A Senate committee obtained this photograph in the 1940s. Congress studied the conditions of U.S. roads—like this muddy one in Tennessee—in the buildup to the interstate highway system.


Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

Car Stuck on a muddy Tennessee road

Federal Highway Act of 1956

In his 1956 State of the Union Address to Congress, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called for “legislation to provide a modern, interstate highway system.” Within months, after considerable debate, Congress passed the Federal Highway Act of 1956. It authorized the extension of highways nationwide in one of the largest public works projects in U.S. history. Interstate highways made travel and commerce more efficient. They also provided key routes for evacuating urban centers—a critical national defense issue in the Cold War era.

The interstate and defense highway system has been one of the best federal projects we have ever seen in terms of opening up commerce, industry, and opportunity and personal freedom for Americans.

Senator Steve Symms of Idaho, 1991