It has often been called the greatest public works project in history, and many VDOT employees and retirees helped build it.
It’s the Interstate Highway System, and it turns 50 years old in 2006. Interstates have become the transportation arteries vital to a strong economy. It’s hard to overestimate the impact they have on our lives.
They help us get to school and work more quickly. They give us more free time and allow for more efficient travel. Interstates are truly a symbol of freedom.
Vehicles travel about 215 million miles each day in Virginia. About 65 million those are on an interstate.
Virginia was often a leader in building a road system that couldn’t have been imagined a generation earlier.
In fact, Henry G. Shirley, then secretary of the Federal Highway Council and later Virginia’s commissioner of highways, submitted an extensive proposal for the nation’s roads in 1919. That was the same year Dwight D. Eisenhower was crossing the country and formulating his own ideas for an interstate system.
But it wasn’t until 1956, when President Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, that the system’s development was authorized.
Gene Hull, deputy administrator for VDOT’s Northern Virginia District, remembers those nascent years.
“When I began working for VDOT, it was just about to celebrate its 50th birthday, and here I am five decades later celebrating our agency’s centennial,” he said.
“I’ve seen the birth of the interstate system – quite possibly the single greatest transportation achievement of all time – and I‘ve had the honor and privilege to help build one of Virginia’s first interstate highways, I-81,” Hull said.
It’s hard to imagine the excitement 50 years ago when employees learned about plans for the interstates.
The outline originally called for 1,012 miles of four-lane, divided highway running across the commonwealth. It was the equivalent of a superhighway from Richmond to Des Moines, Iowa.
“We were asked to think in enormous quantities of everything – asphalt, concrete, stone, earth, rights of way. And everything was new,” said Joe Ripley in a 1991 special interstate edition of the Bulletin. Ripley was then director of planning and programming. He has since retired.
“New construction standards, new safety features, new personnel – many more personnel, as well as training programs for them,” he said.
Fifty years ago it was also difficult for employees to imagine there being enough traffic on the roads to justify the massive construction program the country was undertaking.
Gene Hull worked on the first Springfield Interchange. “When this project was originally constructed, it carried approximately 25,000 vehicles a day,” Hull said. “Today’s traffic volume is approaching 450,000 vehicles, a feat I could not have ever imagined.”
“It makes you think how important it is to come up with meaningful solutions to keep our system moving,” he said. “It makes you wonder where we would be today if we didn’t have the interstate system.”
The state's first interstate segment opens – the I-95 bypass of Emporia.
Interstate 495 opens. It’s Virginia’s portion of the beltway circling Washington, D.C., and was the first major interstate completed.
Some Interstate 395 lanes in northern Virginia are reserved for express buses, encouraging use of mass transit and setting a national precedent. Later, bus lanes open to carpools, creating some of the first high occupancy vehicle lanes in the country.
The 4,200-foot-long Big Walker Mountain Tunnel opens on Interstate 77, reducing the trip from Wytheville to Bland County by 30 minutes.
The second Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel crossing opens up to traffic on Interstate 64. The first crossing was completed in 1957.
The last segment of Virginia's interstate system opens. It was a section of Interstate 295 bypassing Richmond and Petersburg.