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Oklahoma ties together America’s crossroads

By Penny Cockerell Published: June 29, 2006
In the 1950s, the idea of a whole new grid of fast-moving highways was as radical and expensive as sending a man to Mars is today. But Americans had big cars, cheap gas and a hunger to move.

Interstates spurred metro growth
The Interstate system

To President Eisenhower, a national interstate system made sense. As a young military officer in 1919, it took him 62 days to travel cross-country. And while in Europe, he saw how efficiently Germany’s Autobahn moved traffic. He wanted this country to have the same thing, only better.

On June 29, 1956, 50 years ago today, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, enacting the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

“Being a conservative Republican, you wouldn’t think he would’ve been a proponent of such a massive system,” said Dan McNichol, author of “The Roads that Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System.”

“But he truly understood the impact that was coming and he even grossly underestimated its growth,” McNichol said.

A highway with exits sometimes just a mile apart was an extreme concept then, even to the most innovative dreamer. Most two-lane highways passed through every town.

Some people scoffed at a strict interstate numbering system, for which north-south routes, such as I-35, were given odd numbers, and east-west routes, such as I-40, were given even numbers. McNichol said one critic suggested numbering the nation’s mountains and presidents, as well.

Some towns worried that they might wither away if the new interstates bypassed them - and indeed some did.

Governors used interstates to towns’ advantages
Getting states to agree on funding this massive project was no small feat.

Gary Ridley, Oklahoma Transportation Department director, led the planning committee for a convoy that has crossed the county to celebrate this anniversary. Ridley said Eisenhower’s brilliance came when he gave each state a working grid and told them to make it work in their states.

Oklahoma Gov. Raymond Gary, during his term from 1955 to 1959, calmed some critics by selling I-40 as a safety tool, said Rodger Harris, an oral historian for the Oklahoma Historical Society. To placate towns affected by the interstate, he ordered construction of what are now known as business routes.

Gov. Henry Bellmon, during his term from 1963 to 1967, moved I-35 eastward to pass near towns such as Purcell, Pauls Valley and Ardmore, Ridley said.

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By the numbers

26 million
Miles driven daily on Oklahoma’s interstates.

33 percent
Projected growth in car traffic on Oklahoma interstates over the next 20 years. Truck traffic is expected to rise 70 percent.

Vehicle-miles driven per capita. Oklahoma is fourth in the nation behind Wyoming, Vermont and Alabama.

6 percent
Percentage of Oklahoma’s interstate miles in “unacceptable” condition.

State’s ranking in both percentage of drivers using seat belts and traffic deaths.

Interstate construction

Interstate 35: Parts of I-35 were built in Oklahoma City as early as 1953, three years before legislation enacted the national system. I-35 was completed in Oklahoma when stretches of Carter and Murray counties opened in 1971.

Interstate 40: The first stretch of I-40 completed was west of Clinton in 1959. Stretches of I-40 in Oklahoma County opened from 1959 through 1967. The final stretch to open was in Beckham County in 1971.

Interstate 44: The Turner Turnpike from Oklahoma City to Tulsa opened in 1953; the Will Rogers Turnpike from Tulsa to the Missouri state line opened in 1958, and the H.E. Bailey Turnpike from Oklahoma City to the Texas state line was opened in the 1960s. They were later connected under the I-44 designation.


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