The Interstate Highway System has its roots right here in Kansas. Its foremost advocate was President Dwight D. Eisenhower of Abilene. A portion of I-70 running through the state was the first to be completed under the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.
That was 60 years ago. There is no question that interstate highways have changed the face of the nation since then. We see some of its effects on a daily basis.
- Job creation. Building and maintaining interstates creates a wide range of jobs, from the planning phase to the actual completion of the road.
- Automotive technology. The rise of interstates coincided with the rise of automobile ownership. With more Americans wanting more cars, related technologies boomed rapidly.
- Delivering the goods. Interstates and semis have made fast delivery of both raw materials and manufactured products possible.
- Easy travel. When we want to get there fast, we hop onto the interstate. There is little doubt that the interstate highway system has made it easier to cross long stretches of countryside in a hurry.
- Tourism. If travel is easy, so is tourism, and tourism can give a tremendous economic boost to any given area. This boost is not only provided to the area of the final destination, however. Tourists may stop along the way to buy lunch, fill up the gas tank, or see another attraction.
- Down on the farm. People with city jobs no longer have to live in the city—an interstate provides an easy way to commute. This has put country living within the reach of many. It’s no accident that most of the small farms left in Kansas are clustered around Wichita and Kansas City.
- Eminent domain. The use of land for interstate highways has cost many people their homes and land.
- Railroad woes. With interstates providing a major means of transportation, many railroads have been abandoned, creating both the decline of an industry and the loss of part of history.
- The flyover effect. Would the popular conception of Kansas be different if I-70 didn’t exist? Many interstates bypassed scenic areas to keep costs down. No wonder, then, that to a hurried traveler a long stretch of road would seem flat and boring.
- Traffic congestion. While interstates are typically associated with faster travel, there are bottlenecks across the country where this is not true. (Kansas, fortunately, has escaped the worst of this problem.)
- Urban sprawl. Interstates and other highways made commuting to larger cities possible. Many Americans opted to live within driving distance of a city, but outside the limits. This spread the population out further into rural areas.
- The decline of small-town America. Now with larger cities readily available on major transportation routes, most people don’t think twice about bypassing small towns along the way. This has had a major negative impact on the economy of these towns.
The full effects of the interstate highway system may not become apparent for several decades more. History is generally clearer when viewed with the advantage of hindsight.
One thing does seem evident, however—the interstate highway system was neither an unmixed blessing nor an unmitigated curse.