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A need for speed(ways)

Colorado's long and winding road before joining Eisenhower's interstate plan

Published June 29, 2006 at midnight

The year was 1919, and the young Army lieutenant colonel joined a military convoy from Washington, D.C., on a grueling 62-day cross-country journey to San Francisco.

The assignment: Identify a route for quick movement of war supplies.

The result: dismal.

The convoy often found itself on primitive dirt roads, fording streams and gouging ruts across virgin prairie. It averaged 58 miles a day, its heavy trucks destroying 88 bridges along the way. There were 230 recorded breakdowns.

The Army officer never forgot the arduous expedition. Fifty years ago today, he finally got to do something about it.

The officer, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been elected president of the United States.

On June 29, 1956, he signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, giving birth to the Interstate Highway System that now bears his name. The act established the Highway Trust Fund and dedicated the federal gas tax to a massive pay-as-you-go public works project.

His interstates irrevocably changed the face of modern America.

Yet Colorado was the only one of the 48 states to initially oppose the interstate system. The reason: From the earliest days of planning in the 1930s, the coast-to-coast segments of the system bypassed Colorado.

The highway that would become Interstate 70 was supposed to dead-end in Denver from the east and not attempt to cross the rugged Rockies into Utah. Only a decade and a half of sustained arm-twisting by state politicians succeeded in having I-70 in Colorado added a year after Eisenhower signed the act.

"Terrain would be the main challenge," said Matt Salek, an Aurora engineer who maintains a comprehensive Web site on the history of all of Colorado's highways at . "Since they had the feds throwing money at (the interstate system) back in the '60s and '70s, that wasn't the issue. It was figuring out the terrain and where to put the highway."

Once it was figured out, I-70, companion Interstate 25 and the rest of the network helped to shrink the vast expanses of the rugged West and made driving a convenience rather than a burden.

Eisenhower returned from victory in Europe impressed with Hitler's autobahns. He envisioned a nation in which trips could be counted in hours rather than days.

System: 46,827 miles

The system he propelled was originally to be 40,000 miles across cities, deserts, forests, mountain passes, and over bays and rivers. It now stands at 46,827 miles.

The network made possible the great migration of American families to suburbs and rural tracts; for kids to move to California and still be able to drive back to visit the parents; for retirees to meander between Arizona in the winter and Minnesota in the summer.

More so than earlier roads, interstates were nonstop, four-lane speedways. They fertilized suburban growth, extending the reach of the ordinary commute so that people didn't need to live so close to where they worked.

Some of the grandest stretches of the highway system in the U.S. are in Colorado.

The award-winning Glenwood Canyon segment's graceful viaducts and tunnels spared much of the scenic and fragile cliff sides from blasting and leveling. The Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, the original westbound bore of I-70 under the Continental Divide, is the highest point on the entire national system, topping out at 11,158 feet above sea level.

But both feats of engineering and construction almost never happened, and that's a big part of the story of Colorado's interstate highways.

FDR drew some lines

The original U.S. highway system was substantially completed in 1938. But a growing nation felt a need for speed. So, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took a U.S. map and drew some lines crisscrossing it. Three went east-west, four went north-south. He asked for a study of toll roads on those lines.

The report to Congress a year later rejected toll roads because they wouldn't pay for themselves. Instead, it recommended a much larger system of freeways - an interstate that would connect almost all of America's major cities.

On the map with that report, what is now Interstate 25 in Colorado ran from Raton Pass to the Wyoming line. But there was no Interstate 76 to Nebraska, and the road that would become I-70 came west from Kansas and stopped at the junction with I-25, today's Mousetrap interchange.

No one in Washington wanted to include a costly westward extension and no one in Utah showed interest in picking it up there and continuing it. Salt Lake City would be well-served by Interstate 80, connecting it with New York, Chicago and San Francisco, and by Intestate 15 to Southern California.

In 1941, FDR appointed a commission to come up with a firmer plan. It published its map in 1944, showing a 40,000-mile network - again with no I-70 west of Denver and no I-76.

That's when Colorado's highway engineer, Charles Vail, told Congress that the state opposed the system because Colorado was isolated on the network. There was no direct link to any major destination north, south or west from the state.

A little help from Al Gore Sr.

Congress had appropriated small amounts of money over the years for interstates, but backers knew it would take a big investment from a reliable source to jump-start construction.

When Eisenhower took office in 1953, the nation's governors already had been lobbying to have Washington get out of the gas tax business. The day after Ike's inauguration, Colorado Gov. Dan Thornton was among his first visitors, pressuring the president on behalf of his fellow governors for a return of gas taxes to the states.

That didn't sit well with Eisenhower.

Despite his general opposition to federal intervention in state matters, he didn't see a national freeway network developing without heavy federal involvement.

His plan to fund highways with gas taxes was defeated in the House of Representatives in 1955. In a congressional hearing on the interstate bill, Colorado Gov. Edwin C. Johnson echoed what Vail had said a decade earlier - it was unfair to build two cross-country interstates through Arizona and Wyoming, but none through Colorado.

Competition among states for growth was like fighting with a bear, Johnson told Congress. If Washington wasn't going to help Colorado, at least it shouldn't help the bear.

Part of the problem was that the system was capped at 40,000 miles. Adding 500 more miles west from Denver wasn't in the plans.

In 1956, Ike got what he wanted. Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act with gas tax funding. Eisenhower, recovering from surgery, signed it without ceremony from a hospital bed June 29 among a stack of other bills.

Besides Interstate 25, the highways in Colorado now included I-76 into Denver from the northeast - at the time, it was numbered as Interstate 80S.

But I-70 still ended in Denver.

With the help of Sen. Al Gore Sr., of Tennessee, Colorado had hope. Gore added a provision to the act that increased the authorized length of the system by 1,000 miles, to 41,000. In addition, straighter routings on other routes had shortened distances. That recouped 1,102 miles that could be reassigned elsewhere.

So Colorado persuaded Utah to build its portion of I-70. After some disagreement between Salt Lake City and Washington over the route, the new highway was mapped to connect for a direct shot between Denver and Los Angeles. The first freeway section of I-70 in Colorado was the Idaho Springs bypass, in 1961. I-70 wasn't completed border-to-border in Colorado until the 1992 opening of the Glenwood Canyon stretch.

I-25's development was much simpler. Crucial segments of it already were freeway in 1956. I-25 was continuous from New Mexico to Wyoming by 1969, when the final 21-mile freeway segment opened between Trinidad and Walsenburg. The state's network also includes urban beltways, I-225 and I-270.

In 1993, Colorado's interstates were completed when the final segment of I-76 opened between I-25 and Pecos Street in Adams County.

Freeway facts

Opening act: The first piece of freeway in Colorado was a 2-mile segment of the Valley Highway in Denver through the Mousetrap interchange, opening in 1950.

Try, try again: In the late 1960s, Interstate 470 was planned for Denver's south and west suburbs. But environmental concerns killed it and the money went into the 16th Street Mall. A highway was built there later as C-470.

No. 5: I-70 is the fifth-longest interstate in the nation, running more than 2,153 miles through 10 states between Cove Fort, Utah, and Baltimore.

Tunnel time: I-70's westbound tunnel under the Continental Divide is named for Dwight Eisenhower. It includes the highest point on the national interstate system, at 11,158 feet. The eastbound tunnel is named for "Big Ed" Johnson, longtime U.S. senator and Colorado governor. It reaches 11,012 feet.

Down it goes: The lowest point on the interstate system is on I-93 in Boston, in the Tip O'Neill Tunnel, at 120 feet below sea level.

End to end: I-25 ends in Buffalo, Wyo., where it runs into I-90. On the south, it terminates at Las Cruces, N.M., at I-10, a distance of 1,063 miles.

Quite a stretch: I-95 along the East Coast is the longest north-south interstate at nearly 1,920 miles. From Miami to Houlton, Maine, it traverses 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Here's the key: Interstate numbering is simple: North-south routes have odd numbers and east-west highways have even numbers.

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