Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Hoosier History Live

Mar 22, 2019

(March 9, 2019) It's the largest engineered structure humans have ever built, covering a land mass the size of the state of Delaware. Along with the Great Wall of China, it's one of the few human creations that can be seen from space. In its entire length, it stretches 46,876 miles.

And you probably use it on a regular, if not daily, basis.

Routing diagrams show alternate possibilities under consideration during the late 1950s planning phase of the urban freeway portion of the Interstate system in Indianapolis. Maps provided b Indiana Historical Society.It's the Interstate highway system, and Indiana, true to its "Crossroads of America" official motto, has its share of the nation's federal highways - over 12,000 miles of them, criss-crossing the state and converging at Indianapolis, where Interstates 65, 69, 70, and 74 intersect. I-465 connects them all, circling the Hoosier capital and traversing 53 miles as it does so.

And while the nation's extensive network of well-engineered Interstate highways, which took over four decades to build, has brought undeniable benefits in the form of greater road safety and efficiency for personal travel and commerce, there's a darker side to the story.

Often unacknowledged by lovers of the open road are the high costs that Interstate highway construction wrought upon urban centers, where tens of thousands of American citizens lost their property to eminent domain, saw their neighborhood houses, schools and businesses bulldozed, and found themselves living next to an endless stream of noisy traffic.

Hoosier History Live associate producer and guest host Mick Armbruster delves into the impact of Interstate construction on the city of Indianapolis, looking at how it disrupted the lives of urban residents during the building phase and had long-lasting, far-reaching impacts on the city's development. Joining Mick in studio to discuss Indianapolis highway history are:

  • Jordan Ryan, who serves as Architectural Archivist and Curator of the City Bicentennjal project at the Indiana Historical Society. Jordan has conducted archival research into routing decisions made during the Interstate planning process in the late 1950s that brought the combined 65/70 inner loop to downtown Indianapolis, examining how those choices affected urban neighborhoods.
  • Paula Brooks, who as a child experienced firsthand the impact of Interstate construction on her Indianapolis neighborhood, Ransom Place. She is involved in current advocacy efforts regarding environmental justice and also works with Rethink 65/70, which seeks to influence plans by the Indiana Department of Transportation to redesign the Interstate 65/70 inner loop.
  • And Garry Chillufo, founding member and current president of Historic Urban Neighborhoods of Indianapolis (HUNI), a coalition that supports older neighborhoods by working with local government and serving as a forum for urban residents. Garry is also involved with the work of Rethink 65/70.

The dream of a national highway system that would unite the sprawling territory of the United States goes back all the way to the founding fathers; it was President Thomas Jefferson who signed the act establishing a National Road in 1806, with the goal of connecting the Potomac River at Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia).

But it was the explosion of automobile ownership in the 1920s that spurred the massive growth in paved, graded highways that could accommodate high volumes of traffic traveling at ever increasing speeds.

Road building did not stall out during the Great Depression, thanks to billions provided by New Deal programs that put drought-stricken farmers to work constructing hundreds of miles of new highways. But it was during the era of post-war prosperity in the 1950s, with automobile ownership rising faster than the tail fins on Cadillacs, that highway construction got into high gear.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Father of the Interstate System," never envisioned his superhighways cutting through urban centers.President Eisenhower, impressed by his post-war travels on Germany's Autobahn, saw the need for a national system of roads that could be used not only for personal travel and commerce, but for military preparedness in an era of growing Cold-War tensions. When Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, he funded the Interstate highway system and set in motion a process that would revolutionize transportation in the United states.

But Eisenhower never envisioned the Interstate highways reaching into the inner urban core. Modeled on the Autobahn, his proposed system would have carried traffic only between and around cities, not through them.

Under pressure from members of Congress, however, who believed that urban freeway segments were essential to the needs of their constituents, Eisenhower relented and went forward with plans that brought major highways through the heart of America's cities - and left destruction and social upheaval in their wake.

Some Interstate history facts:

  • The Interstate highway system is the biggest public works project in the history of the United States.
  • Missouri was the first state to begin building a segment of Interstate highway, reconfiguring U.S. 40 into what was later designated the I-70 Mark Twain Expressway. The work began on on August 13, 1956.
  • In 2002, native Hoosier David Letterman launched a humorous campaign to rename I-465 in his honor. "Honest to God, would it kill ya to do this?" the comedian asked in reference to renaming the roadway the "David Letterman Expressway."