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highway route 66
Near Lebanon, MO. This photo, shot Dec. 4, 1957, near Phillipsburg, shows new Route 66/Interstate 44 on the left, and old Route 66 on the right. Note the railroad bridge in the distance. From the collection of Ramona Lehman.

Interstate highway system began in Missouri 65 years ago this month

As Missouri celebrates its bicentennial this year, another milestone also is taking place. Lebanon, Mo., is considered the birthplace of the interstate highway system, which began 65 years ago this month.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which called for the construction of a 41,000-mile system of interstate highways. Missouri was the first state in the country to award interstate construction contracts for portions of I-44 in Laclede County and a portion of I-70 in St. Charles County.

“This stretch of I-44 just outside Lebanon was actually the first contract let under Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act,” said Mark Spangler, curator of Lebanon’s Route 66 Museum. “When we finished our stretch out here it had a Route 66 sign on it. It had not been assigned as Interstate 44 yet.”

Eisenhower was from neighboring Kansas. Kansas opened the first section of Interstate in the nation, and eight-mile stretch of  I-70 just west of Topeka on November 14, 1956.

TRIP, a national transportation research nonprofit organization, just released its latest research on Missouri’s interstate system.

“At 65 years-old, when most people are considering retirement or a reduced workload, Missouri and the nation’s interstates are busier and working harder than ever,” said Carolyn Kelly, director of communications and research. “Missouri’s nearly 1,400 miles of interstate are the workhorse of the state’s transportation network. They carry 21.5 million vehicle-miles of travel each year. And since those shovels first hit the dirt in 1956, the number of vehicles in Missouri has increased more than three-and-a-half times and the state’s population has increased by more than two million residents.”

Photo Courtesy of the Federal Highway Administration

The interstate system is showing signs of advancing age and deterioration.

“Five percent of the state’s interstate bridges are rated in poor or structurally deficient condition,” Kelly said. “That’s the 10th highest rate in the nation. About half of Missouri’s interstate bridges are more than 50 years old, which is an age at which many bridges need significant repairs or even replacement.”

Gov. Mike Parson has made fixing bridges and highways one of his main priorities, and the TRIP report pointed out that just last month Parson signed into law a critical first step in funding highway projects that is expected to provide an additional $450 million annually.

–Alan Goforth | Metro Voice