Happy Birthday I-40

This year some people are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Interstate system. In June of 1956 President Eisenhower signed a bill into law which created the Interstate system and authorized the building of 41,000 miles and authorized a nationwide standard of design. It also set the funding as 90% federal with a 10% matching requirement from states. A separate at that same year set up the Highway Trust Fund as a user funded way of building highways on a pay as you go system. So 2006 has been designated the Year of the Interstate.

In honor of I-40’s birthday, and in my never ending quest to educate all you imaginary readers on engineering matters, I present a few facts about our interstates.

  • It was Tennessee's own Al, Jr. his dad is is “the reason that I-40, I-65 and I-24 all meet at Nashville”. Nashville is one of only four cities that actually has three interstates converge inside the city boundaries. I suppose this is good for Nashville’s growth as a city, but all of you who commute downtown every day please join with me in saying “Thanks Al”.
  • The total Interstate system is now 46,733 miles long. Routes with odd numbers travel north and south while routes with even numbers travel east-west. Three digit routes are loops or spurs, and are generally named according to their parent routes like I-640 in Knoxville, and I-440 and the now defunct I-265 in Nashville.
  • I-40 is the longest route in the country, and Tennessee has more miles of it than any other state. Tennessee also has two routes which cross the entire width of the country, I-65 and I-75.
  • I-40 actually has a missing link in Memphis. If you I-40 takes a big loop around the outside of downtown Memphis. It was originally planned to go right through the center of the city as it does in Nashville. The Federal Highway Administration approved the route, and TDOT bought the property from the city of Memphis, but a citizens group filed suit and stopped construction in order to save Overton Park. So since 1967 there’s been a green swath through a heavily urbanized portion of Memphis because the state owns the property, but has never been able to construct the through route. In the last 10 years or so TDOT has actually been constructing a spur road on this property called Sam Cooper Boulevard. Driving on it would cause you to think it’s an Interstate, until it suddenly ends before it gets to the park. Your illustrious blogging host actually worked on that project a little.
  • Memphis will finally get its very own Interstate right through town. Despite the misgivings of this blogger, the future route of I-69 will most likely go right through downtown Memphis. The exact alignment is undecided, but due to pressure from the city of Memphis, it looks like they’ll get it. I think most of the city will regret it when all that intercontinental NAFTA inspired truck and drug running traffic starts passing through. Not to mention construction.

It turns out that Tennessee has its very own webpage to celebrate the Year of the Interstate. Most of my facts above are from there, though they are influenced by my own experiences working and living in Tennessee. The website even has what they’re calling an Interstate Blog. It’s not technically a blog, but TDOT is collecting stories about the early days of the Interstates and posting them. So far it’s mostly TDOT employees, politicians, and a few local celebrities. But they’re willing to post stories from ‘the traveling public’. I haven’t seen any press on this outside of the TDOT newsletter yet, so go see it and send in your own stories.

The original reasoning for the Interstate system was two fold. The first major reason was for purposes of defense. A good network of highways means we can rush troops where we need them to keep out invading Mexicans, or those dang Canucks. Okay, so that means less now, but when the Interstate system was originally envisioned the country was recovering from World War 2 and some very honest fears that the Japanese might invade the west coast.

The other major reason was the all encompassing economic growth. Personally, I think we’ve become a victim of our own success in that regard. A lot of things were sacrificed for urban renewal and economic growth and the legacy has been a ginormous amount of urban sprawl which was enabled by these wonderful highways.

Not to mention the tremendous amounts of traffic which seems to be self generating. It’s a never ending cycle of new lanes drawing more traffic, which then requires new lanes. I think the simplicity of Interstate travel has caused the slow death of most other forms of shipping cargo. You see more and more trucks on the road these days replacing barge and rail shipping. They’ll never die out because you can just ship a lot more by rail or barge, but they definitely seem to be suffering the slow death. And no, I have no numbers to back that up, though I could probably find some if I felt like looking.

So in short, I’d say the Interstate system has made us what we are today. Overall it’s definitely brought more bad than good just by connecting people and making it possible for me to visit Death Valley. Don’t believe what I say when I’m on the death mile of I-40 between I-24 and I-65.


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