04 September 2008

One Mile In Five?

This story "Plane from Toronto College Lands on N.Y. Interstate" reminded me of this:

One Mile In Five: Debunking the Myth

I had a very vivid dream once that I was on a plane that was forced to make an emergency landing on the BQE heading East. We didn't crash or anything, we were just stuck in traffic and people were cutting us off, like any normal day on the BQE. No one even batted an eye that this giant 757 was sharing the road. I can't recall the rest of the dream but I know it ended with me eating a hunk of cornbread on one of those concrete crossing islands in the middle of Bowery near East 3rd trying to call my mum to tell her what hath happened.

So, anyway, a widespread urban legend tells of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System and that it requires one in every five miles of highway to be straight so it can be used as an airstrip in times of war or other emergencies.

Contrary to popular lore, this is false.

For a selective guerrilla historian, even an unofficial one, who believes that a fact should be, by definition, factual, what is particularly frustrating is that a lot people seem to know this "fact." This and the Pop Rocks and Pepsi one.

People — including those whose eyes glaze over if I even mention General Roy Stone or the vitally important statewide highway surveys of the mid-1930's — get a twinkle in their eye when I mention the Interstate Highway System as I oft do at dinner parties and charity boxing events.

"Did you know," they say to me cheerily as I grit my teeth, "that one in every five miles ..."

When that happens, I feel like the staffer at the information desk of the Smithsonian who told me the most frequently asked question she receives is, "Where's the rest room?"

Like her, I try to reply patiently without rolling my eyes or groaning, and I try not to give the impression I've heard this "fact" once or twice or maybe a hundred times before.

As with Dracula, it is very difficult to put a stake through the heart of this "fact." It's like the "urban myths" we have all heard — untrue things that people nevertheless believe.

I have no idea where the one-out-of-five claim originated. Perhaps it is giving too much credit to whoever originated this "fact" to suggest that it began with a simple misreading of history.

Under a provision of the Defense Highway Act of 1941, the Army Air Force and the Public Roads Administration, now the Federal Highway Administration, operated a flight strip program.

In a 1943 presentation to the American Association of State Highway Officials, Commissioner of Public Roads Thomas H. MacDonald explained how it worked:

"A flight strip consists of one runway, laid down in the direction of the prevailing wind, and a shelter with telephone for the custodians at the site and for itinerant flyers in an emergency. Fuel storage facilities are not provided unless airplanes are based there permanently. Instead, oil companies will keep stocks of aviation gasoline at gas stations along the highway and truck it to the flight strip as it is needed."

The flight strips were designed for easy access to public highways and to provide unmistakable landmarks that could be followed easily by a pilot and designed for tactical aircraft such as medium-sized bombers. A larger flight strip could accommodate heavy bombers such as the ol' B-17 and B-24, while still larger strips were designed for heavier classes of aircraft.

The benefits weren't expected to be entirely military. As MacDonald explained, "The close coordination of our highways and airways is becoming a vital necessity to assist the economic growth of this country." Yeah, what he said.

In that spirit, Congress considered including a flight strip program in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 — the law that authorised designation of a "National System of Interstate Highways." However, the 1944 act did not include the flight strip program. Foiled again!

Some references to the one-out-of-five "law" attribute it to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The 1956 act launched the Interstate Highway Program by creating the Highway Trust Fund as a funding mechanism and by committing the federal government to build what became the 42,800-mile Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.

Eisenhower fully supported the Interstate Highway System as vital to our economy, safety, relief of congestion, and defense. However, he did not propose a one-out-of-five-mile rule, and Congress didn't include such a requirement in the 1956 Act. The one-out-of-five rule was not part of any later legislation either.

So yeah, it's bullshit. A bullshit fun fact. Now you can look like a snob / know-it-all, too! Pass the Riesling.

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