Today in History: June 29

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower 60 years ago today. Its other title was the “National Interstate and Defense Highways Act,” and it authorized the construction of a 41,000-mile system of highways. The highways themselves ear signs identifying the roads as a part of the “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.”

A national network of highways is something that Congress had discussed and even voted into law several times before—in 1916 and in 1944—but authorizing highways does not pay for their construction. The 1956 bill changed all that: it also authorized a means of paying for Eisenhower’s imagined “ribbons across the land.” A federal gas tax of two cents a gallon (now three cents) was imposed to help the federal government fund 90% of the construction costs of the new highways.

The original budget authorized $25 billion over the following decade; the final “original” section was actually completed in 1992, and construction has never truly ceased. It is believed the highways cost more than $500 billion to build.

The word “defense” is in the title for two reasons: first, the highways were to link Air Force bases, and many bases are indeed near the highways; and second, it was thought at the time that “in case of atomic attack on our key cities, the road net [would] permit quick evacuation of target areas.”

These are the highways that most people think of when they think of America’s highways: roads that offer only themselves and no interaction with the world, except in place name on green signs (white lettering on Pantone green 342) that identify the cities or exits that one is approaching, and no four-way crossings (thus, no traffic lights), no intersections. Access to the highways is via ramps up or down, and the highways pass over or under existing local roads.

Because of the fuel tax, most of the highway miles are free (hence the term “freeways”), but several toll highways that were already constructed and in use were incorporated into the system and remain as toll roads: parts of I-95, I-94, I-90, I-88, I-87, I-80, I-77, I-76, I-64, I-44, I-294, I-355, and several others. In Connecticut, near where I live, the section of I-95 that passes through that state was declared paid for and tolls were removed. A rarity, but it happens.

In 2014, filmmaker Evan Mather produced a feature-length, time-lapse documentary (his term is “land-lapse”) of the Interstate Highway System. It is a portrait of the nation, a living map, hypnotic. Its title is “From Sea to Shining Sea,” and for any readers who have not been to the United States, well, here:

 
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Pope Pius XI published his anti-fascist encyclical, Non abbiamo bisogno, on this date in 1931. “Non abbiamo bisogno” is Latin for “We do not need.” In it, the Pope decried Mussolini’s fascist “revolution which snatches the young from the Church and from Jesus Christ, and which inculcates in its own young people hatred, violence and irreverence.” Benito Mussolini’s government had outlawed Catholic youth associations and took actions to close them.

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William Hickey died on this date in 1997. Katherine Hepburn died on this date in 2003.

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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born on this date in 1900. Ruth Warrick was born on this date in 1916. Slim Pickens was born in 1919 on this date. Ray Harryhausen was born on this date in 1920. The late John Bradshaw would be 83 today. (He died last month.) Harmon Killebrew was born 80 years ago today. Stokely Carmichael was born 75 years ago today.

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Robert Evans is 86. Roger Ruskin Spear is 73. “All by Yourself in the Moonlight,” from Spear’s 1972 album Electric Shocks:

 
Gary Busey is 72. Richard Lewis is 69. Representative Fred Grandy is 68. Colin Hay is 63. “Overkill”:

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