Click photo to enlarge
State Highway Patrolmen lead the first traffic through Castro Valley on the new U.S. 50 freeway in November 1957.
Fifty years ago this month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation that would give the nation more than 40,000 miles of Interstate Highway System.

But the event that inspired that momentous act culminated in San Francisco 37 years earlier, when then-Army Lt. Col. Eisenhower completed a grueling, 62-day, cross-country trek through mud, across rickety bridges and with nary a rest stop to be found.

Tooling along at an average of

6 mph, the convoy of military test vehicles left the young officer a strong supporter of an improved network, both as an instrument of national defense, moving troops and equipment from one region to another, and as a

vital commercial web, according to an account on the 34th president's official library Web site, http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov.

At 9 a.m. Friday, a similar convoy of vehicles will depart from San Francisco's Lincoln Park and recreate that trip in reverse. This time, the convoy will feature a combination of modern and antique vehicles and will make the trip in only a third of the time along Eisenhower's system of freeways, even though it will be making promotional stops in 20 cities.

The convoy will include Andrew Firestone, known for being "The Bachelor" on television and for being the great-grandson of the tire magnate who accompanied Eisenhower on the historic trip. The convoy will also feature antiques lent by celebrities such as legendary Oakland Raiders coach and sports commentator John Madden.

The convoy is scheduled to reach the nation's capital June 29, the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower's signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that set up the funding mechanism for the Interstate Highway System.

The group will retrace, in reverse, the 3,250-mile route of the 1919 First Transcontinental Motor Train that Eisenhower rode from Frederick, Md., to San Francisco.

"We're trying to get people to think. We feel like most people have had the interstate highways fade into the background of their lives. It's part of the furniture these days," said Jennifer Gavin, spokeswoman for the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which is organizing the trip.

"There's a shrinking number of people who remember the days when there were only two-lane roads," and trips across several states were arduous, sometimes even scary undertakings, she said.

Transportation officials, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Caltrans Director Will Kempton and Sunne Wright McPeak, secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, will help see off the convoy.

One of the convoy's purposes will be to educate Americans about the impending funding crisis facing the half-century-old network.

"There is a real possibility that the federal Highway Trust Fund (supported by a federal gasoline tax) will run into the red in the year 2009," Gavin said. "It's not very far away."

A congressional panel is currently studying that possibility, along with new ways of surface transportation construction and upkeep. Under the current funding formula, states pick up 80 percent of interstate costs, while the federal government pays 20 percent.

The Interstate Highway System helped develop the world's strongest economy since 1956, said Ron Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose. But the system has nearly reached the limits of what it can do, especially in and around cities.

"The real crisis we're facing is that coming in and out of our metropolitan areas," he said. Interstates are "all built out to the sound walls," and solutions like double decking aren't viable after the deadly collapse of Interstate 880 in he 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

"We will need every bit of highway capacity that we can get our hands on ... but at the same time, the population is going to double by 2040 and we're never going to be able to sustain the trip requirements on available highways."

So after highway bottlenecks are eliminated and new technology improves the flow of traffic, mass transit will need to expand to meet continually growing transportation needs, Diridon said. 

Contact Erik Nelson at enelson@angnewspapers.com and read his Capricious Commuter blog at

www.ibabuzz.com/transportation.