Joe Biden can forge successful infrastructure deal by following Dwight D. Eisenhower's interstate highway plan

By David Nichols
Special to Gannett Kansas
David Nichols

President Joe Biden has reached a tentative agreement with Republican leaders to submit an infrastructure renewal proposal, costing around a trillion dollars. Details are still being hammered out, especially how to finance the program.

This bipartisan proposal would address needed upgrades in transportation, roads and bridges, rail and public transit, broadband availability, and water/sewer systems. Biden has pledged to replace all the lead water pipes in the country to avoid drinking water contamination like what happened in Flint, Michigan.

This proposal would constitute the most significant infrastructure legislation since 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower persuaded Congress to approve building an interstate highway system. High drama about Eisenhower’s health accompanied the fight for this historic legislation, with the president recovering from a heart attack in September 1955. Ike signed the legislation on June 29, 1956, the day he left Walter Reed Hospital following intestinal surgery.

How did the Eisenhower proposal unfold and what can the Biden administration learn from it?

When Eisenhower took office in 1953, America’s three million miles of roads were primitive, with only 350,000 hard surfaced. Ike’s passion for highway improvement had been ignited at 28, when he led a military caravan from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. That 3,251-mile trip took 62 days, averaging 5 miles per hour, with frequent breakdowns.

Eisenhower never forgot that experience and concluded that good roads would create jobs, help prevent another depression and provide the means of evacuating cities in the event of a nuclear war.

Eisenhower created an advisory committee under the leadership of his trusted colleague, Gen. Lucius Clay. In January 1955, Clay’s committee proposed to build 41,000 miles of interconnected highways, costing $101 billion over 10 years.

The Clay proposal died in Congress in 1955, but Eisenhower didn't give up. In his 1956 State of the Union address, Eisenhower declared that “legislation to provide a modern, interstate highway system is even more urgent this year than last.”

The legislation Eisenhower signed in June 1956 provided $25 billion over a 12-year period, financed by a trust fund built on increased gas and diesel fuel taxes, and 90% of the costs borne by the federal government, 10% by the states.

Biden has run into trouble paying the bill for infrastructure reform. The president wants to repeal some of the Trump-era tax cuts for the wealthy, but conservatives prefer user fees, which many progressives perceive as burdensome on lower-income Americans. In Eisenhower’s era, tax rates on top incomes were significantly higher than present rates.

At 1:30 p.m. Nov. 14, 1956, 13 men cut the ribbon on a fresh 24-foot wide, 9-inch-thick slab of concrete for the first eight miles of the system (Interstate 70) west of Topeka, Kansas, just down the road from Eisenhower’s childhood home in Abilene. No public project has had a greater impact on American lives and culture than the interstate highway system.

What can be learned from Eisenhower’s leadership? Simply put, persist. If you fail at first, resubmit. Make minimal compromises essential to passage. Clarify the objectives and don’t burden it with separable issues like tax reform. Push inevitable maintenance and development costs into the future where they may be less controversial.

Above all, steadfastly court public support. Highlight dramatic stories of infrastructure failure around the country — unsafe bridges, dangerous highways, rickety rail systems and broadband deserts. Remind the public of what the interstate highway system, a Republican program, has meant to America.

Today, almost no one would argue that the interstate highway system shouldn't have been built. The interstate “open road” has become central to the American dream. Perhaps Joe Biden’s plan for “building back better” in 21st century infrastructure will become comparably celebrated.

David Nichols is a historian of the Eisenhower presidency and lives in Winfield.