The Controversial Story Of The US Highway System, The Largest Construction Project In Human History
Photo: ARLittleRock / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Controversial Story Of The US Highway System, The Largest Construction Project In Human History

Standing before any truly great feat of human engineering like the Great Wall of China or the Egyptian pyramids is awe-inspiring. If we based our sense of awe on pure physical scale, however, we would all be blown away every time we drove on a United States highway. The US highway system is the single largest engineering and construction project ever created by human beings. It consists of 47,856 miles of road, which is roughly double the circumference of Earth.

For many US citizens, the highway system is simply a given, an almost invisible piece of infrastructure that seems as though it must have always been there. The history of our highways isn't a triumphant one like the moon landings. It just happened.

Or so many Americans think. Construction of the highway system was anything but a smooth process, fraught with misconduct, controversy, delays, and even riots. The problems the project faced were all uniquely American, touching on issues of race, faith, and inequality.

  • It Is The Most Expensive Construction Project In Human History
    Photo: Bill Shrout / Wikipedia / Public Domain

    It Is The Most Expensive Construction Project In Human History

    The United States highway system has cost the federal government roughly $528 billion, adjusted for inflation. That's almost three times the cost of the International Space Station, and almost five times the cost of the Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea, the third most expensive construction project in the world. This cost was originally meant to be paid by tolls, but tolls provide a miniscule portion of highways' maintenance, much less their construction.

    The only projects in US history that exceed the highway system's cost are military conflicts and health care. By 2013, the Iraq conflict had already cost the US government $2 trillion, and that number is expected to rise as benefits are paid out to veterans. The Affordable Care Act costs around $600 billion a year.

  • It's A Myth That 1 Mile In Every 5 Must Be Straight To Provide An Emergency Airstrip
    Photo: Arthur M. Prentiss / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    It's A Myth That 1 Mile In Every 5 Must Be Straight To Provide An Emergency Airstrip

    The National Highway System attracts all sorts of myths and urban legends. Executed by a huge group of engineers, city planners, and construction workers from all over the country, the project's internal documents are contradictory. As a result, myths can go uncorrected for years.

    One of the most pervasive myths is that 1 mile in every 5 must be straight so that planes can land in the event of an emergency. It's unclear where this myth originated, although the Federal Highway Administration did operate a flight strip program, so it may have been a simple matter of confusion. Regardless, the myth has been so widespread that the Federal Highway Administration released an article debunking it.

  • Numerous Ghost Stories Are Attached To Interstate Highways
    Video: YouTube

    Numerous Ghost Stories Are Attached To Interstate Highways

    Many federal highways are fodder for ghost stories and urban legends. One of the most interesting is a legend related to a stretch of Interstate 4 in Florida.

    According to the legend, the highway's construction disrupted the grave sites of a small group of Swedish settlers who perished from yellow fever. Accounts of ghostly occurrences are commonplace along the highway. Travelers have reported "pioneer ghosts standing by the busy highway at night, ghostly voices coming over radios, [and] CBs, cell phones and radio stations [not working] while crossing the gravesite..."

  • A 10-Lane Highway In Manhattan Was Highly Controversial

    The Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX, was a 10-lane highway proposed in 1939 that would have run right through New York City's Little Italy and SoHo. It was the brainchild of Robert Moses, one of the most influential public planners in American history, and an unparalleled power broker in the middle of the 20th century. Even Moses didn't get his way all the time, however, and on this project, he was opposed by the equally fierce activist Jane Jacobs.

    Their struggle has filled entire books (and, oddly enough, an opera). Moses, one of the automobile's greatest advocates, held numerous city positions that enabled him to act with little oversight. However, even he was outfoxed by Jacobs, who used innovative grassroots tactics and publicity stunts to turn public opinion against the enormous highway. She turned the likely impact of the highway (displacement of over 2,000 families and an estimated cost of $72 million) against Moses, and even recruited Bob Dylan to write a protest song called "Listen, Robert Moses."

    Ultimately, Jacobs was detained during a protest. The public outcry was fierce enough that the mayor's office withdrew support for LOMEX over Moses's objections. In 1972, the project was officially de-mapped.

  • The Original Federal Plan Was For Just Six Massive Roads

    While the highway system is most closely identified with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first proposals came out in the late 1930s under President Franklin Roosevelt. One early plan was for a series of just six massive highways. Three would run from north to south, and three from east to west. Financed by tolls, the highways would be entirely self-sustaining.

    This plan never came to fruition, however, and wouldn't have sustained the kind of traffic and number of major communities that exist today in the United States. In its place came the plan as we know it: a mix of federal, state, and county roads. Because tolls are insufficient to provide for road maintenance, taxpayers foot the bill.

  • Some Highways Were Zoned To Replace 'Undesirable Slums'
    Photo: ARLittleRock / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Some Highways Were Zoned To Replace 'Undesirable Slums'

    When the highway project moved into major cities, city planners used a seemingly innocuous phrase, "urban blight." This catch-all term referred to anything considered "undesirable" for city growth and property values, including low-income housing, slums, and sometimes, ethnic communities.

    In many cities, historically important black neighborhoods were wiped out by the highways, or cut off from the rest of the city. In Detroit, the neighborhoods of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom simply ceased to exist.

    While protests stopped some highways in San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Manhattan, historian Peter Norton pointed out that these protests were effective only in wealthy, white neighborhoods:

    The explanation, in almost every case, is that the relatively well-off, influential people in those cities were able to stop the urban highways that would have gone through their neighborhoods... The destruction mostly happened in the most disenfranchised neighborhoods. It's astounding how selective it was.