U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
202-366-4000


Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration

Highway History

Thomas H. MacDonald's 3/20/1919 letter to Secretary Houston

The following is Thomas H. MacDonald's letter to Secretary Houston describing the conditions for acceptance of the position of Chief, Bureau of Public Roads.

March 20, 1919

Hon. D. F. Houston
Secretary of Agriculture,
Washington, D. C.

My Dear Secretary Houston:--

Your telegram as delivered to me, reads as follows:

"As you know, Agricultural Committee of both House and Senate inserted in appropriations bill salary of six thousand dollars for Chief Bureau of Public Roads. Bill passed House but did not come up in Senate. Feel sure this action will be taken at next session since both committees and House were favorable. The interval is the difficult time. I find that I can appoint you immediately as Engineer in charge of Federal Aid Road Act work at salary six thousand and can give you in effect the direction of the Bureau. Having discussed matter with Captain Wilson [Acting Chief of the Bureau] who thinks it is in the public interest that this matter be settled. I tender you the position and hope that you can come within a very short time. When Congress acts a few months from now, your formal assumption of the position of Chief of Bureau of Roads can occur. If by any mischance, and I do not anticipate any, the Congress should not act, I can continue you in the vitally important work indicated, at a salary of six thousand. Hope you can give favorable answer and undertake the tremendously important task of supervising the expenditure of the pending Federal and State funds under the Federal Aid Road Act."

To this telegram, I replied as follows:

"Will accept position to report between April fifteenth and May first, if my understanding and conditions in my letter following meet your approval. Greatly appreciate your offer and consideration."

Your wire is clear that your offer carries with it in effect direction of the Bureau and Engineer of Federal Aid Road work at the salary of six thousand dollars. Also that the matter would be placed before the Committees of Congress with the same recommendations from yourself as before with reference to the position of Director of the Bureau of Public Roads, and should Congress fail to act, a contingency which you do not anticipate, I would be continued in the position.

The status of the matter is satisfactory to me, and I am quite ready to do all I can to assist in tiding over the present rather trying interval.

We talked over the general principles of the conduct of the Federal Aid and other work of the Bureau to the extent that I feel our views are entirely in accord, but there are some matters of detail which I feel will require early adjustment and with which I will wish to know that you are in sympathy. These may be expressed in general terms as follows:

  1. A general policy of de-centralization which would place the responsibility for the conduct of the Federal Aid work immediately upon the district engineers under the general rules and regulations of the Secretary. This would involve every step which would be necessary to save time in the consideration of plans and that would make the district engineer an agent acting under or with authority of the Bureau. This would involve also making the office at Washington in the greater sense, an office of record and review.
  2. An adjustment in the salaries paid the district engineers, such as may be necessary to retain the services of the men who have become very valuable to the Bureau in these positions.
  3. The adoption of the most liberal policy possible under the existing laws, in order to get actual construction work under way as early and as rapidly as is consistent with good engineering and a justifiable use of the funds
  4. Provision for an advisory committee to be selected by the American Association of State Highway Officials, which would be called in consultation at quarterly meetings or at such intervals as may be determined to be practicable.

I feel sure from our conferences, that you have the same attitude with reference to these matters as I have, and I am only recalling them here in order to be sure that I would have your assistance in bringing about at the earliest possible time, such changes which are partly indicated, in these matters, as I feel would assist in changing the present attitude of criticism toward the Department and to insure the cordial co-operation of the state highway officials of the various states and of all other bodies whose purposes and aims are not inconsistent with the results which the Bureau is seeking to accomplish.

If I can come to Washington with the assurance of your assistance and co-operation in these matters, I will accept the position, and wish to express my cordial appreciation of the honor which you have conferred in the tender which you have made. I would be able to report between April fifteenth and May first, but it is probable that it would be necessary for me to return here to finish up some business matters at some later time.

Sincerely yours,

Return to McDonald Article

Updated: 10/16/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000