Interstate system ‘firsts’ are entirely subjective

A strip of Interstate 80 in Nevada, on the way to Kansas.
A strip of Interstate 80 in Nevada, on the way to Kansas.

INTERSTATE I80, Kan. – Near the end of an epic month-long road trip, which would span 19 states and two provinces, trusty Joe the truck rolled along what is billed with typical Kansas enthusiasm as The First Completed Section of The Interstate System.

We were by then jaded by roadside signs, but this drew contented smiles all around. The interstate system has led us to Louisiana, Texas, California, Colorado—dozens upon dozens of spectacular places. And while country roads offer charm and adventure pivotal to any successful road trip, the interstates veining across the country are crucial to vagabonds like us.

The first section of interstate! And we were on it! But the word “first,” when it comes to the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, is subjective.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt got the interstate wheels turning in 1941 by commissioning a report on the feasibility of a trans-American highway. Three years later, 40,000 miles of highway were approved, on the understanding that they would link not only major American cities, but also provide access to Canada and Mexico. Routes were chosen, dreams were dreamed, but no money was earmarked for the ambitious project until the 1950s, and even then the cash came in trickles.

Enter Eisenhower, who moved into the Oval Office in 1953. He wanted this road, and he wanted it bad. With his prodding, the project grew to 41,000 miles (as of 2002, it was nearly 47,000) and became a reality across the nation.

On June 29, 1956, he put his presidential John Hancock on the Federal-Aid Highway Act.

On August 2, Missouri signed two contracts under the act—for what would become the trailhead of the storied Route 66 and for the future Mark Twain Expressway, I70. It proudly boasts that it’s “the first project in the United States on which actual construction was started under the provisions of the new Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.” Not too sexy on a road sign, but it sounds legitimate.

So what of Kansas? That state signed a contract under the act on August 31, but work had already begun on the strip of blacktop I’d be driving over 57 years later. Thanks to the head start, that section was finished first and got its ribbon-cutting ceremony before Missouri, making it the first completed project under the act.

We got our thrill in Kansas, but we’ve driven on both “firsts.” In fact, we’ve driven more than 13,000 miles of the Eisenhower Interstate System. Just 33,000 to go.

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