Manual. Crews building the early Interstate system worked six days, and were hired locally. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Transportation)

Administering the early years of the Interstate highway program  required the cooperation of officials at the federal, state and local levels. It began as something of a patchwork job but was probably more democratic than a top-down setup.

Although the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 that launched the program established the Highway Trust Fund, administered by the Bureau of Public Roads, the program was executed by the 48 states. Many were not ready to leave the starting gate. By late 1957, only 23 states had “quick-take” laws permitting them immediate access to property they wanted to use for roads. The remaining 25 states faced legal delays ranging from 30 days to several years.

Following the act’s passage by Congress, BPR apportioned funds for the first three years to each state, notifying them that a certain line of credit was available.  But before writing any checks, however, the state’s engineers had to first “program” their work—decide on an orderly plan of development, general road locaations, and approximate costs.  Costs were then marked “programmed,” or earmarked for specific projects. 

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  • The next, critical phase required state highway departments to produce necessary engineering for exact route locations, interchanges, design and placement of structures. Then, the state would get approval from BPR to “obligate” a fixed amount for design work. Later, another sum would be obligated for purchase of the right-of-way. Finally, the remainder of the earmarked fund would be obligated when contract letting was  to begin.

    By late 1957, nine states that were better positioned than others to tap into the program had obligated over 90% of their first-year allotment of funds. Nationwide, $2.3 billion in funding was obligated, 37% of it for engineering and right-of-way costs. By Nov. 1, 1957 there were 2,576 “project miles” under contract or under construction.

    Some of the early contractors have vivid memories of those projects. Don Burline, his father and three uncles spent their careers with Koss Construction, a large Midwest paving contractor, where his dad ran the Missouri division and one uncle ran the Kansas division. “My dad would live in a trailer on the jobsite from March until Thanksgiving,” says Burline. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Don worked on the “basket crew,” placing wire baskets to set the dowels for joints. “Our nickname was hardroaders,” he says. “It was not an easy life.”

    The sequence called for a four-man form crew to set up 250-lb forms, followed by the basket crew, then the paving crew’s first pour.  They were followed by the four man mesh crew, and the final pour and finishing. “We’d do as much as 4,000 ft per day,” Burline recalls.

    D.B. Hill Contractors was an Arkansas-based earthwork and grading contractor.  D.B. Hill III started work in the firm in summers after high school, checking grades with a transit and hand level. Within a few years he was a foreman directing a 20 to 25-person crew, working six-day weeks and staying in motels.

    “There was no stormwater pollution regulations then, no silt fences, sand bags or ditch fences,” Hill says. “The only erosion control that was done was permanent seeding.”

    Another difference was the payroll.  Doing all calculations by hand, driving the records back to the office and delivering checks took an entire week. Mostly they hired local people. “They would just walk up to you [and ask for work],” Hill remembers. “No drug testing, no checking of references.”