Traveling down a road of history

Fifty years ago this week, an old-time Baltimore machine politician who hated freeway driving rose on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and moved to accept a compromise with the Senate on what he called "the greatest governmental construction program in the history of the world."

"Through the provisions of this bill, the American people will ride safely upon many thousands of miles of broad, straight, trouble-free roads, four to eight lines wide, criss-crossing America from coast to coast and border to border," said Maryland Rep. George H. Fallon.


Three days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, without ceremony, a hospitalized President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill that created the Interstate Highway System and launched an initiative that would change the face of the city, the state and the nation.

With the exception of "trouble-free," the system Fallon described - a 46,876-mile network without a single stoplight or stop sign - has largely lived up to its billing.


It has been glorified for helping to unite and enrich a nation and vilified for helping to pollute air and water, homogenize culture and blight cities such as Baltimore. It has given the American public a vastly safer and more efficient means of travel - but at the cost of promoting a dependence on automobiles and the imported oil it takes to fuel them.

"It does all these great things and all these terrible things," said Dan McNichol, author of The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System.

Locally, the system nearly devastated Baltimore before wiser heads prevailed. Had one early expressway proposal come to fruition, elevated highways and bridges would have slashed through Federal Hill, cut off the Inner Harbor from tall ships, grabbed the land now occupied by Harborplace and continued their way to Fells Point and Canton.

"It would have been a disaster," said Walter Sondheim, the 97-year-old civic leader and senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee.

The highway-building frenzy of the Interstate Era did take a severe toll on parts of West Baltimore, where hundreds of homes owned by middle-class African-Americans were seized and demolished with meager compensation. But community opposition put a stop to highway plans that would have leveled other communities.

The interstates have in many ways rewritten the political and economic history of Baltimore and Maryland.

Fallon saw his congressional career end in the 1970 Democratic primary at the hands of a young critic of his road-building zeal - Paul S. Sarbanes. A successful fight against a proposed extension of Interstate 83 through Fells Point propelled the political career of a community activist named Barbara A. Mikulski. Together she and Sarbanes have represented Maryland in the U.S. Senate for a combined 50 years.

With the mobility of interstates has come urban sprawl and daily commuting that would have been unthinkable. Interstates 83 and 795 have turned small Pennsylvania towns into bedroom communities for Baltimore and Washington. The once-depressed industrial city of Hagerstown, following in the steps of Frederick, is taking on a new life as an affordable haven for commuters along Interstates 70, 270 and 81.


The leg of I-95 between Baltimore and Washington, completed in 1971, has helped fuse the two urban areas as housing developments and warehouses have replaced the farms that once lined the highway.

Regions that once existed in rural isolation are now accessible. Interstate 68, a late addition to the system that fully opened in 1991, makes it possible for Baltimoreans to get to luxury homes at Deep Creek Lake in three hours - a journey that previously took most of a day.

"The world just bypassed us before we got 68," says former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Cumberland. After decades of economic decline, he says, his hometown is beginning to see growth and rising real estate prices thanks to the highway.

Even the Eastern Shore, though nominally free of interstates, feels the system's impact because travel time to the Bay Bridge has been reduced by the construction of Interstates 97 and 595 (the latter an "unsigned" part of the system known to motorists as U.S. 50/301 from Washington to Annapolis).

In retrospect, construction of the system would seem to have been inevitable. The nation emerged from World War II with a consensus that a national road network was needed. But for a decade after the war, most of the action in building expressways was at the state level in the form of toll-financed turnpikes.

A sticking point was how to finance what was then the largest peacetime project in American history - with a 1956 cost estimate of a then-staggering $33 billion over 13 years (roughly $229 billion in 2004 dollars).


In 1955, a bill sponsored by Fallon - a powerful subcommittee chairman who served 26 years in Congress and died in 1980 - was crushed in the House under the combined lobbying weight of industries wary of its proposed increase in the gasoline tax.

Passage of the bill in 1956 required a powerful push from Eisenhower, who issued a call in his State of the Union Address for a "modern, interstate highway system."

The legislation Congress finally approved included a gas tax increase and imposed other road-user taxes while creating a highway trust fund to finance construction and maintenance. The federal share of building the system was set at 90 percent.

Eisenhower's devotion to the idea of a national highway system was rooted in his experiences. In 1919, as a young lieutenant colonel, the future president participated in the U.S. Army's first transcontinental truck convoy, which traveled from Washington to San Francisco using the rudimentary roads of that era.

As commander of Allied forces in Europe in 1945, General Eisenhower got a firsthand look at Germany's system of autobahns, which allowed Hitler to rapidly redeploy forces. National defense would become a leading argument for creation of the system.

Eisenhower's concept of an interstate highway system did not call for roads into or through cities. Like the autobahns, Eisenhower's interstates were to allow vehicles to quickly traverse the miles between urban centers, not to go into the urban core the way the Jones Falls Expressway (I-83) does. One of Eisenhower's concerns was the cost of building highways into cities.


But mayors and other urban interests, who did not want to be left out of the biggest pork barrel project in the nation's history, provided much of the support for the legislation. Eisenhower reluctantly conceded the point.

McNichol said Eisenhower's cost concerns have proved prescient. The roughly 12 percent of the system classified as urban has accounted for 50 percent of its cost, the author said.

In the early years of the system's construction, highway planners showed little sensitivity toward cities - often running the roads through long-established communities.

"The interstate system was seen as a federal program for the cleanup of slums," McNichol said. "They would plot the highways right through the cheapest neighborhoods."

Ambitious plans to run expressways through historic communities led to a series of "freeway revolts" in the 1960s and 1970s in cities throughout the country - including the Baltimore battle that launched Mikulski's political career and preserved Fells Point and Canton for their eventual revitalization. But other parts of Baltimore did not emerge unscathed.

Art Cohen, a neighborhood activist who fought in Baltimore's expressway wars, said other early highway plans left a trail of damage - although they were eventually thwarted.


Those plans included a proposal to drive Interstate 70 eastward through Leakin Park to link up with I-95 in Southwest Baltimore. A remnant of that plan still exists in the form of a 1.4-mile section of U.S. 40 west of Greene Street - a spur once known as Interstate 170 - for which hundreds of homes in the Franklin and Mulberry street corridors were condemned.

"What they planned did a lot of destruction that we're still seeing today, particularly on the West Side," Cohen said. "If 15 miles of it hadn't been stopped, it could have been much worse."

Sondheim said the eventual solution for connecting downtown to I-95 - a spur called Interstate 395 that gradually descends to street level at Camden Yards - has been a big success for the city. His one complaint about the city's interstates is that I-83 remains elevated east of downtown. "Now it ought to be cut down and turned into a boulevard because it divides the city," he said.

McNichol says the interstate system was an "accomplice" but not the driving force in the decline of cities and the rise of sprawl. He notes that Americans began leaving cities for the suburbs in droves in the decade before passage of the interstate bill.

That dream has come at a cost to the environment, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay watershed - which extends roughly from Interstate 88 in New York to Interstate 64 in Virginia.

Lee Epstein, director of land programs for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says the interstate system has encouraged growth by making previously remote farmland accessible for development. "It isn't a good thing for the watershed or a good thing for the bay," he said.


But Epstein, who lives in the Washington suburbs and works in Annapolis, commutes on interstates several times a week.

"I take full advantage of the system, and as an American I can see its advantages," he said. "I don't know what it would be like to be without it."