The Greatest Decade 1956-1966
Celebrating the 50TH Anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate System
Part 2 The Battle of Its Life
by Richard F. Weingroff
Even as construction continued at a record pace, the Interstate System needed a savior-and found one in Missouri.
On November 8, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Ma.) defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the presidential election. President Dwight D. Eisenhower took the defeat of his Vice President personally, feeling it was a rejection by the public of all the Administration had accomplished in its 8 years. Nevertheless, he maintained cordial relations with the incoming President through the freezing temperatures of Inauguration Day, January 20, 1961.
They were from different generations and political parties, but President Kennedy-the first President born in the 20th century-shared President Eisenhower's concern about the future of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Even as construction moved forward at a record pace, a looming fiscal crisis threatened to derail the schedule, if not the program. Controversy was making construction in urban areas more difficult. And the press regularly repeated tales of alleged corruption and bungling that the former President considered "almost hair-raising." A sympathetic article in The Cincinnati Enquirer for July 3, 1960, summarized the criticism:
Now critics are proclaiming it "our great big highway bungle," a "nightmare," a "rat hole" of waste and extravagance, and a scandal of such potential that Teapot Dome [an influence peddling scandal under President Warren G. Harding during the early 1920s] will be peanuts by comparison.
President Kennedy would have to address these issues before calls to end the Interstate program grew too loud to ignore. He would need help from the Department of Commerce, which housed the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), the agency responsible for administering the Interstate program.
The President selected Governor Luther H. Hodges of North Carolina to be Secretary of Commerce. Hodges, who had worked in textiles with Marshall Field and Company, had been elected Lieutenant Governor in 1952. When Governor William B. Umstead died in November 1954, Hodges became Governor and was elected to a full term in 1956.
The new Federal Highway Administrator would be Rex Whitton. His career with the Missouri State highway agency had begun in 1920 when he accepted a job as a levelman at $110 a month, plus field expenses. He became Chief Engineer in 1951, leading to his role as president of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) in 1956 after the incumbent, General Frank Merrill of New Hampshire, passed away shortly after assuming the position. Whitton represented AASHO in Congress during this critical year, as well as overseeing revision of the geometric design standards for the Interstate System that had been approved in 1945. The new edition was approved July 12, 1956, and quickly adopted by the BPR. He had ensured that Missouri would have the first project to go to contract after President Eisenhower approved the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Whitton's first speech as Administrator was to the American Road Builders Association (ARBA), meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on March 6, 1961. The Interstate System, he said, "can and must be completed by 1972" as scheduled. He did not anticipate drastic changes, but expected to promote changes "in the interests of speeding up the program, promoting greater efficiency in it, [and] humanizing certain aspects of it."
He saw three problems. The first two were the funding problem and the "scandals" that were undermining public support. The third was "public apathy, or at least a lack of full appreciation of the urgent need for the highway program and the benefits it is bringing." Increased public information and public relations were essential in the face of the negative publicity. He added, "there is no instant panacea for the trouble besetting the highway program," but he promised to "give the job everything I have."
The Funding Problem
The funding problem would be addressed promptly. On February 28, 1961, just 5 weeks after taking office, President Kennedy sent a message to Congress that began, "Our Federal pay-as-you-go highway program is in peril." He justified the special message by citing the "vital contribution" of the program to security, safety, and economic growth, as well as national defense." Moreover, completing the Interstate System "at least as fast as originally scheduled is essential to our economy." He opposed "stretching out or cutting back" the program, two options that critics had suggested.
He explained that President Eisenhower had signed legislation increasing the gas tax to 4 cents as a temporary measure that was to expire on July 1, returning the tax to 3 cents. The reduction would be "fiscally unwise," President Kennedy said. "It was vigorously opposed by the previous administration. It is opposed by this administration with equal vigor." Overall, he recommended tax changes that would add $9.7 billion, or about $900 million a year, for the Interstate program.
The President also addressed urban development issues. He had, he said, directed Secretary Hodges and Housing and Home Finance Administrator Robert C. Weaver "to increase their joint planning at every level, to improve coordination of urban renewal and freeway construction plans in the same area, and to invite the cooperative efforts of State and local highway and housing officials and private experts." In addition, he encouraged development of legislation to help families displaced by highway construction find "reasonable housing at reasonable costs"-a problem that he said "has been largely overlooked."
President Kennedy also took aim at billboards. "The Interstate Highway System was intended . . . to enable more Americans to more easily see more of their country," not "to provide a large and unreimbursed measure of benefits to the billboards industry." He endorsed the "Bonus Program" established by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958 for States that agreed to control outdoor advertising along the Interstate System. The bonus was a 1/2-percent increase in the Federal share of Interstate construction costs, with the revenue coming from the general Treasury rather than the Highway Trust Fund. Only one State, Maryland, had taken advantage of the program, which was to expire on June 30, 1961. The President urged extension of the Bonus Program for 4 years.
After he submitted legislation on March 14 to achieve these and other purposes, Congress acted quickly. On June 29, exactly 5 years after President Eisenhower had approved the landmark 1956 Act, President Kennedy approved the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1961 "with the greatest pleasure." The new law made the 4-cent gas tax permanent and adjusted other excise taxes to provide the revenue needed to complete the Interstate System on the basis of the latest ICE. It also adjusted remaining authorizations for the Interstate System to a total of $25.2 billion over 9 years. With State matching funds, the legislation accounted for $27 billion in funding for the remainder of the program through fiscal year (FY) 1971, the same amount Congress had thought in 1956 would be the total cost of the program.
The economic crunch the Interstate System faced at the time was not the last time funding would be a challenge, but it was the pivotal battle. After enactment of the 1961 Act, completion of the Interstate System was never again in doubt.
President Kennedy gave Whitton one of the pens used to sign the legislation. "It is not an expensive pen," Whitton would recall, "but it is the most important one I ever owned, for it was an instrument of writing a solution to the highway financing crisis which has bothered so many of us for several years."
Getting the Message Out
Whitton also began a public relations initiative to counter the negative publicity the Interstate program was receiving. On April 29, President Kennedy issued a proclamation declaring that the week of May 21-27 would be the National Highway Week. It was an opportunity for Federal and State highway officials, and the Nation's Governors, to remind the public of the "vital role of highway transportation in our way of life." The idea for the week had emerged from the 1st Annual Public Understanding Workshop sponsored by AASHO and the Better Highways Information Foundation.
Whitton's public relations offensive included participation in highway openings around the country, each an opportunity to gain positive publicity in local newspapers. One of the earliest was the opening of I-4 in Florida between Orlando and U.S. 27 on July 7, 1961. Whitton's remarks on this "happy occasion" stressed the role of the Interstate System in highway safety, noting that 619 people lost their loved over the just-completed July 4 weekend. "Highways of the Interstate System type cut the accident rate in half and the death rate by two-thirds." The Interstate System would, he said, "save at least 4,000 lives a year." Whitton also stressed "the solid economic benefits" and promised his "best efforts to wipe out not only the irregularities, but the opportunities which may give rise to them" and to work within "the framework of the Federal-State partnership which has worked so well for 45 years."
The Federal-aid highway program had succeeded over the decades with little attempt to reach beyond traditional supporters in the highway community and Congress. Even during the years leading to the 1956 Act, the BPR had remained largely invisible to the public. Whitton's public relations campaign, therefore, was unprecedented. By the time he left office in December 1966, Whitton had participated in more Interstate openings than any Federal Highway Administrator before or since. (He also participated in openings off the Interstate System, such as the ceremony for the U.S. 50/63 expressway in Jefferson City, the State capital of Missouri, on August 18, 1961. By proclamation of the City Council, the expressway was named the Rex M. Whitton Expressway, a name it still bears.)
As he traveled the country, Whitton continued to meet with representatives of the press to spread his optimistic message about the future awaiting the country when the Interstate System was completed in the early 1970s. For example, on May 10-11, 1962, Whitton was in Chicago for the first regional Urban Transportation Conference sponsored by AASHO, the National Association of County Officials, and the American Municipal Association (AMA). While in Chicago, he appeared on a many radio and television shows, including Don McNeill's "Breakfast Club," "Paul Harvey and the News," and Alex Dreier's "Commentary on the News" (all on ABC), Irv Kupcinet's "At Random" (CBS), NBC's "Monitor" with Jim Hurlbut, and "National Reviewing Stand" (Mutual network).
The message was consistent and upbeat. As he told Hurlbut, the individual car owner will soon "be able to go from coast to coast without a single stop light. You'll average 700 miles a day without undue tiring. You'll save money on gas and car wear. And you'll be safer than you ever were before on our highways." He had a positive answer for every concern. When Dreier asked why new freeways seem to be congested, Whitton explained that because the urban networks were not completed, "traffic pours in from every direction" when a new section opens, causing delays. "When they're completed, you'll see an entirely different picture."
Whitton's public relations initiatives included an interview in the October 8, 1962, issue of U.S. News & World Report ("Are Cars Really Strangling Cities?); a widely distributed article prepared for publication in Sunday newspapers on November 25, 1963 ("Our 41,000-Mile Superhighway"); and an article for the Commerce Sunday Feature Service in August 1964 ("Save-As-You-Go Driving"). The message was always upbeat, as reflected in the closing sentence of the 1964 article: "Today, wherever we look throughout our country, we find that the Interstate System is spurring new industrial and commercial development, creating new jobs, and generating new economic growth for the benefit of all Americans."
The BPR also cooperated with Parade magazine, the weekly supplement to Sunday newspapers, in a competition to select America's finest new scenic highways. In the issue of October 15, 1961, Parade announced that the 24-mile section of I-95 from Augusta to Waterville, Maine, had been selected as America's finest example of a "driver's road" for scenery, speed, and safety. Other roads selected for special mention were I-75 north of Indian River, Michigan, I-93 from Littleton to Bethlehem, New Hampshire, and I-89 from Montpelier to Waterbury, Vermont.
The Great Highway Robbery
These efforts coincided with continued negative press coverage of the program. The investigative journalist Jack Anderson wrote about "The Great Highway Robbery" in the February 4, 1962, issue of Parade. He quoted Representative John A. Blatnik (D-Mn.), who headed the Special Subcommittee on the Federal-Aid Highway Program that was investigating the allegations of corruption in the program, as saying, "Corruption permeates the highway program and stigmatizes the whole road-building industry." The committee's counsel, Walter May, suggested throwing a dart at a U.S. map. "Wherever it sticks, we can find something wrong with the new highways." Similar themes appeared in a three-part series in New York Herald Tribune (June 10-12, 1962), Look magazine (Fletcher Knebel's "The Great Highway Scandals," June 19, 1962), and an hour long episode called "The Great Highway Robbery" on NBC's "David Brinkley's Journal" (October 1, 1962).
The coverage usually cited examples brought to the attention of the Blatnik Committee, often involving a small number of States, particularly Florida, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. They covered:
- Graft-For example, Anderson reported that an Oklahoma highway official was a partner in a sodding company "which had received fat highway contracts."
- Payola-Knebel reprinted testimony showing that a Florida highway official had received 8 to 10 turkeys, 6 to 15 hams, 4 to 5 cartons of cigarettes, 18 to 20 quarts of whiskey, and 2 or 3 fruitcakes from highway contractors during the 1961 Christmas season.
- Abuse of right-of-way appraisals-Anderson cited instances of inflated appraisals to benefit well-connected politicians, with the contrasting example of poor treatment of individual home owners, such as the Florida woman who learned her home was about to be taken the same week the State began condemnation proceedings,
- Poor judgment-Several instances recurred, such as the Montana interchange that, as Anderson put it, "has 24 signs which tell a farmer and his family (the only people who use it) how to go places they have been going for generations."
The BPR issued a six-page point-by-point rebuttal of the Brinkley program, even objecting to Brinkley's claim that during a filmed interview, Whitton could not answer several questions (Whitton replied that he could not answer questions about projects that took place before he assumed his position). The rebuttal also cited steps the BPR had taken to strengthen program controls, including a reorganization on July 20, 1962. The new Office of Right-of-Way and Location, to be headed by long-time employee Edgar H. Swick, would be responsible for ensuring right-of-way is acquired properly and at fair cost. It also would handle all issues involving route location. Former FBI agent Joseph M. O'Connor would direct the new Office of Audit and Investigations. It would probe allegations of fraud, land speculation, collusion, and other irregularities, as well as auditing State claims for reimbursement of the Federal share of project costs. "None of this was included in the televised program. Nor were any portions of the many hours of interviews with other persons in the Bureau staff and highway departments. This may be editorial privilege," the rebuttal explained, "but it [is] hardly objective reporting."
In addition, the BPR had been cooperating fully with the Blatnik Committee, the General Accounting Agency, the FBI, and State investigative units. Beginning in May 1961, the Blatnik Committee issued reports on its findings. They covered such topics as highway construction practices in New Mexico and Oklahoma, right-of-way acquisition in Massachusetts, the relationship between road contractors and State personnel as well as disposition of right-of-way improvements in Florida.
In June 1962, Chairman Blatnik summarized his committee's findings in a speech to the Western Association of State Highway Officials. After citing the instances his investigators had looked into, he said that "the areas in which we have found these faults are only a small fraction of the total of this great program." He was disturbed by the seriousness of the incidents the committee did find, but what really disturbed him was that "we can not prove it isn't widespread."
Nevertheless, he warned the highway officials not to overrate "the unjustified conclusions and editorials in the newspapers." As a politician, he knew that "we are constantly under attack for one thing or another." Instead, officials should look to the support of the program in Congress, especially in comparison with the attitude in 1959 when "wild speeches" were being made in the House about "extravagance, inefficiency, waste, graft and so forth." Now, he said, the Members of Congress knew that any incidents they heard about from constituents would be investigated and resolved.
The Blatnik Committee, combined with policing efforts by the BPR, the State highway agencies, and investigative agencies, defused the crisis. It did not go away, however. The allegations would resurface in later critical articles and books, but as a threat to the program, the danger was over.
The President's Message on Transportation
With the funding released by the 1961 Act, construction of the Interstate System accelerated throughout the early 1960s. By December 31, 1962, 14,300 miles of the Interstate System had been opened, with a total of 1,992 miles opened during the year and another 4,341 miles under construction. Of the open mileage, 8,915 miles met standards for 1975 traffic, the design goal established by the 1956 Act. Over $15 billion had been put to work on the Interstates since the accelerated program began in 1956. (The open mileage included 2,307 miles of toll roads, bridges, and tunnels that had been built without Federal-aid funding and incorporated in the System).
A year later, BPR reported that nearly 16,600 miles had opened, with construction underway on another 5,000 miles, raising expenditures to $18.3 billion.
Each State highway agency was responsible for deciding the schedule for building its Interstates within funding limits. Some States emphasized the urban segments because the need for traffic relief was greatest in cities. Whatever transportation benefits these and other urban Interstate projects provided, construction in urban areas remained the most controversial aspect of the program.
On March 28, 1962, Secretary Hodges and Housing and Home Finance Administrator Weaver submitted a report to the President on the problems of urban transportation. The major objectives of urban transportation policy, they said, "are the achievement of sound land-use patterns, the assurance of transportation facilities for all segments of the population, the improvement in overall traffic flow, and the meeting of total urban transportation needs at minimum cost." A balanced transportation system was needed to achieve these objectives.
One of the key findings was that comprehensive transportation planning should be a continuing process that includes all the interdependent parts of the urban community and all agencies and jurisdictions involved. The report recommended that beginning July 1, 1965, approval of Federal-aid highway projects in any metropolitan area should be contingent on a finding by the Commerce Secretary that the projects "are consistent with adequate, comprehensive development plans for the metropolitan area or are based on results of a continuing process carried on cooperatively by the States and local communities" so that the Federal-aid system "will be an integral part of a soundly based, balanced transportation system for the area involved."
With mass transit increasingly operated by public agencies rather than private for-profit companies that had dominated the field in the 1950s, Federal funding to subsidize needed service was vitally needed. The report acknowledged that "it is generally not possible to support a large-scale investment program from the fare box. However, the results of inadequate mass transportation were "uneconomic uses of land and higher than necessary costs of public facilities, excessive travel and increasingly aggravated congestion at peak hours." In short, "Mass transportation must be viewed as a public service and often cannot be a profit-making enterprise."
On April 5, 1962, President Kennedy submitted a message to Congress on "The Transportation System of our Nation." It began:
An efficient and dynamic transportation system is vital to our domestic economic growth, productivity, and progress. Affecting the cost of every commodity we consume or export, it is equally vital to our ability to compete abroad. It influences both the cost and the flexibility of our defense preparedness, and both the business and recreational opportunities of our citizens . . . . Transportation is thus an industry which serves, and is affected with, the national interest.
The message was a broad statement that covered a wide range of topics that were part of a basic national transportation policy, including freight shipments by land, air and water; international aviation and maritime issues; and labor relations related to transportation workers. In the section on urban transportation, the President explained that changes in where people lived and worked had resulted in a change in the patterns of urban travel. Instead of traveling to and from downtown areas during weekdays, travel was "increasingly diverse" and less geared to mass transportation systems. "A steady decline in patronage and a concomitant rise of unprofitability and financial problems have occurred," particularly for rail commuter and streetcar services.
President Kennedy recommended that Congress establish a long-range program of Federal-aid to urban mass transportation ($500 million over 3 years) in the form of direct grants to public agencies for rights-of-way, fixed facilities, including maintenance and terminal facilities, and rolling stock, as well as extension and rehabilitation of existing systems and creation of new systems. Only substantial, continuing Federal support "can induce our urban regions to organize appropriate administrative arrangements and to meet their share of the costs of fully balanced transportation systems." The President also proposed authorizing the Housing Administration to make emergency grants over the next 3 years to meet urgent needs for any existing mass transportation facility or service that otherwise might end.
Because highways would remain an "instrumental part" of urban transportation, the President had asked the Secretary of Commerce "to make his approval of the use of highway planning funds in metropolitan planning studies contingent upon the establishment of a continuing and comprehensive planning process." He also recommended a change in Federal law to make Federal approval of a program for highway projects in any metropolitan area contingent on the Secretary's finding that the projects are "consistent with comprehensive development plans for the metropolitan area and that the Federal-aid system so developed will be an integral part of a soundly based, balanced transportation system for the area involved."
In addition, the President reiterated his concern about "the problems of families displaced by new highway construction." He cited Secretary Hodges' estimate that 15,000 families and 1,500 businesses were being displaced by Interstate construction each year. In the interest of equity, President Kennedy recommended that "assistance and requirements similar to those now applicable to the urban renewal program be authorized for the Federal-aid highway program and the urban mass transportation program." Legislation was being submitted "to authorize payments not to exceed $200 in the case of individuals and families and $3,000 . . . in the case of business concerns or nonprofit organizations displaced as a result of land acquisitions under these programs." (The payment for businesses could be higher based on moving costs.)
Addressing the Urban Crisis
With the 87th Congress due to end early so members could return home to campaign for the off-year (non-Presidential) elections in November, prospects for action on the overall message were not considered good. However, Congress did complete action on the highway portion of the message by passing the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962, which President Kennedy signed on October 23, 10 days after Congress adjourned for the year.
The 5-page legislation contained routine provisions, such as increased funds for the basic Federal-aid highway program (the Interstate System had been funded in previous Acts), as well as two provisions President Kennedy's message had requested. Section 5 addressed the growing concern, cited by the President and many critical articles about relocated individuals and businesses. Before approving a project, the Secretary would have to receive assurances that the State highway agency would provide advisory assistance for displaced families. He also was required to approve Federal-aid participation in relocation payments by the State to displaced individuals, families, business concerns, farms, and nonprofit organizations. The $200 limit for individuals and families and $3,000 for business or nonprofits proposed by the President was adopted.
The most important provision was Section 9, "Transportation Planning in Certain Urban Areas." It addressed the President's call for a means of ensuring Federal-aid highway and mass transportation programs were part of a comprehensive and balanced urban transportation plan. The provision added Section 134 to Title 23, United States Code:
It is declared to be in the national interest to encourage and promote the development of transportation systems, embracing various modes of transport in a manner that will serve the States and local communities efficiently and effectively. To accomplish this objective the Secretary shall cooperate with the States, as authorized in this title, in the development of long-range highway plans and programs which are properly coordinated with plans for improvements in other affected forms of transportation and which are formulated with due consideration to their probable effect on the future development of urban areas of more than fifty thousand population. After July 1, 1965, the Secretary shall not approve under section 105 of this title any program for projects in any urban area of more than fifty thousand population unless he finds that such projects are based on a continuing comprehensive transportation planning process carried on cooperatively by States and local communities in conformance with the objectives stated in this section.
This section launched modern transportation planning by calling for "a continuing comprehensive transportation planning process carried on cooperatively." What became known as the "3C" process remains the core of Section 134, which now contains nearly 20 subsections. Former Federal Highway Administrator Thomas D. Larson (1988-1993), who was beginning his career at the time, has called the original language "about as precise a set of words as you could ever come up with on this subject." He added, "It's just masterful prose."
The BPR worked with AASHO and the AMA to implement Section 9. The result, Instructional Memorandum (IM) 50-2-63, was released on March 27, 1963. As E. H. "Ted" Holmes, BPR's Director of Planning, would explain in a recollection of this period, the IM called for "attention to social and community value factors, such as preservation, enhancement, and extension of parks and open space, preservation of historic buildings and sites, avoidance of disruption of neighborhoods, and appearance of the facility both from the viewpoints of its users and its neighbors."
To address the new planning requirements, State and urban area officials formed ad hoc planning committees to reflect the "cooperative" element of the 3C process and hired consultants to gather and process the data. Neither Section 9 nor the IM required formation of a permanent planning organization; the IM called for "a formal procedure. However, the metropolitan planning organizations of today, required by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973, would evolve from these early efforts to comply with the 3C requirement.
Although Section 9 emerged from the controversy over urban Interstate segments and the growing demand for urban transit service, Congress did not mandate the 3C planning process to block Interstate construction. The purpose, as Representative William C. Cramer (R-Fl) said in a 1963 presentation before the House Committee on Public Works, was "to expedite these constructions, to avoid conflicts, to permit planning that would avoid those conflicts, with the result that urban extension and construction would be expedited rather than delayed, and that any [interpretation] of this section to the contrary is subverting rather than carrying out the intent and purpose of the Congress."
A Challenge to AASHO
As AASHO gathered in December 1962 for its annual meeting in Miami Beach, Florida, State highway officials had several changes by the BPR to contemplate. Whitton had resigned from the Executive Committee of AASHO while BPR officials had resigned as secretaries of 9 of 18 AASHO subcommittees, positions BPR had long held in the historic Federal-State partnership. BPR also shifted many of its Division Engineers, the top person in each State office, to other States, an attempt to counter the tendency to "go native," that is to build relationships with State highway officials that run counter to national goals. Engineering News-Record reported that these efforts "reflect a growing desire on the part of federal officials to make BPR the 'senior partner' in the federal-aid program." (Unhappy wives of the Division Engineers confronted Whitton outside the hotel regarding the transfers that would disrupt the lives of their families, but he did not relent.)
Whitton, in his annual speech, had a challenge for AASHO's member State highway agencies. Given the continuing criticism of the Interstate program, Whitton pointed out that, "Nothing succeeds like success." Each Interstate highway, he said, "is its own best advertisement" of the benefits of freeways. "A new highway is like a new automobile. No salesman can offer a more convincing argument than a trial ride." Building the Interstates as fast as possible "is the best means we have to combat the carping critics and mud-slingers."
He pointed out that with the Interstate program funded through FY 1971, the half-way point of the 15-year program was 1964. Therefore, he challenged State highway officials to have 50 percent of the Interstate System or 20,000 miles in service by the end of that year. He considered the goal reasonable because 13,100 miles had been opened (including 2,300 miles of toll facilities built outside the program), with another 4,900 miles under construction. He urged the States to focus on "those projects that will link up continuous, long route sections, especially those connecting the larger cities." Such routes, he said, "best demonstrate to the public the benefits of the system-time saving, travel ease, and safety."
The Administrator spoke of "the opening of a route clear across the country," saying, "What an impact that will have on the public!" He did not think a Golden Spike would be driven, similar to the Golden Spike used to complete the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. Instead, he proposed commemoration of the event with a gold sign. (On August 22, 1986, I-80 became the first transcontinental Interstate to be completed when a 5-mile segment in Utah, approximately 60 miles from Promontory Summit, was dedicated in a ceremony at Salt Lake International Airport. The media took little notice, so its impact on the public was negligible.)
The Quiet Crisis
Although decades are measured by the passage of time, some decades take on an identity that can be evoked by a few words or a phrase, such as the Roaring 20s. When the 1960s became "The Sixties" is unclear, but for some, the mantra of the Sixties has been condensed to the phrase "peace, love, and understanding." By contrast, Life magazine referred to it in December 1969 as "The Decade of Tumult and Change."
Of the two characterizations, Life's epithet was the one that applied to the Interstate System. Construction continued at a fast pace and the new highways became an integral part of the American Way of Life, but the image of the Interstate System never recovered from the Sixties. The ideas that informed the decade-such as stewardship of the environment, guarantee of civil rights, expansion of the role of women, and the questioning of authority-meant that no amount of public relations and optimistic predictions about highways without stoplights could overcome the negative image the Interstate System had received during its first years. There would be neither peace nor love for the Interstate System, and little understanding.
A turning point occurred in September 1962 with the publication of a book, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, that had nothing to do with the Interstate System. Carson, a biologist and retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, had published several earlier books to supplement her government income, including the bestselling The Sea Around Us (1951). Silent Spring, which described the effect of chemicals such as DDT on our environment, was an immediate international best seller. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has said that the book's most important legacy "was a new public awareness that nature was vulnerable to human intervention."
The history of environmental activism goes back a century, but was not a major national concern except in the conservation movement that could be traced, as could the Federal-aid highway program, to the Progressive Era of reliance on experts rather than politicians to solve society's problems (roughly the 1890's through World War I). With that history in mind, Carson wrote to a friend that, "It would be unrealistic to believe one book could bring a complete change." However, as the NRDC put it, "the need to regulate industry in order to protect the environment became widely accepted and environmentalism was born" in the aftermath of Silent Spring. This "quiet crisis," as Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall called it in 1963, would require a "new conservationist" in the form of ecologists, botanists, and biologists.
In the pre-Interstate years, most road construction took place in or near the existing right-of-way, usually with the enthusiastic support of State and local officials as well as the public. During the Interstate System's greatest decade, with much of the construction on new right-of-way, controversies related to impacts on businesses and towns that were bypassed, acquisition of homes and businesses, and the growing concerns about the effect of the Interstates on urban areas. The BPR and the States faced many problems, but the "location" issue did not involve selecting a route or design to protect the environment. Rather, road builders sought the best routing to provide traffic service at the lowest cost with the least disruption to homes and businesses. For the Interstate System, the "quiet crisis" in the post-Silent Spring world would soon become another concern the highway engineers had not anticipated.
Less than a year after Silent Spring, the BPR announced on August 26, 1963, that beginning January 1, 1964, the States would be required to certify, for each Federal-aid highway project, that they had considered its possible effects on fish and wildlife resources. In discussing this change, Whitton told an All-Parks conference of park and recreational area organizations that their attacks on highway administrators were sometimes less than fair. "We do not seek to despoil the countryside." He added, "But our responsibility, usually spelled out in law, is to spend the highway user's dollar wisely." The change in consideration of fish and wildlife resources demonstrated that "we do not have closed or calloused minds."
Although Whitton presented the initiative as a "conservation" measure, it was one of many steps the highway engineers would take, willingly in some cases, not so willingly in others, in the wake of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The highway builders would have to adjust to an evolving public awareness that meeting transportation needs had environmental consequences that should be considered along with congestion relief, economic development, safety, and other traditional factors.
Rachel Carson died of cancer on April 15, 1964, at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the age of 56. In 1999, Time magazine included her in the Time 100-the Most Important People of the Century, saying, "Before there was an environmental movement, there was one brave woman and her very brave book."
President John F. Kennedy
On October 24, 1963, President Kennedy approved the Federal-Aid Highway Amendments Act of 1963. It was a technical corrections bill, but contained an important change in design of Interstate projects. The 1956 Act had called for Interstate projects to be designed to meet traffic demand in 1975. As that year came closer, officials and Congress began to worry about the construction of highways late in the program that would soon be obsolete. Therefore, the 1963 Amendments Act required design for a 20-year period commencing on the date of plan approval. (The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1966 made another key change in design standards by providing that, "Such standards shall in all cases provide for at least four lanes of traffic.")
That same year, President Kennedy played a role in two Interstate projects. One involved Interstate routing. After what The Nashville Tennessean called "years of haggling," the Governors of Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee had agreed on a compromise routing for I-24 and creation of a 64-mile Interstate from I-55 at Hayti, Missouri, to I-40 at Jackson, Tennessee, via Dyersburg. On September 17, 1963, President Kennedy, Secretary Hodges, and Administrator Whitton met in the White House with Governors John Dalton (Missouri), Frank Clement (Tennessee), Otto Kerner (Illinois) and Bert Combs (Kentucky). The President directed Whitton to study the proposal. (The BPR agreed to the compromise routing for I-24, but approved only a portion of the Interstate addition, from Hayti to Dyersburg (I-155).)
The other project was on I-95 in Delaware and Maryland. The segment had been included in the Interstate System as a toll-free segment. However, Section 6 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1960 allowed the two States to repay the Federal-aid funds used on I-95 from Farnhurst, Delaware, to White Marsh, Maryland (about $900,000 in Maryland, $500,000 in Delaware), and construct the highway as a turnpike.
The Maryland Northeastern Expressway-Delaware Turnpike opened on November 14, 1963. President Kennedy participated in the dedication ceremony, the only time a President has participated in an Interstate opening. More than 10,000 people turned out for the ceremony on a cold, windy day.
The President said of the new turnpike:
It symbolizes, I believe, this highway, first of all, the partnership between the Federal Government and the States, which is essential to the progress of all of our people; and secondly, it symbolizes the effort we have made to achieve the most modern Interstate highway system in the world, a system which, when completed, will save over 8000 lives a year and $9 billion in cost. And third, it symbolizes the effort which we are giving and must be giving to organizing an effective communication system here in the United States of America.
Referring to his comprehensive transportation message of April 5, the President called for a consistent approach to the problems in the Northeast, "for it may be only a few years when the whole area, stretching from Washington to Boston, will be one gigantic urban center." Highway planning was not enough, he said. By 2000, the region would have to find housing and parks for 23 million more people, schools for 6 million more students, hospitals and nursing homes for 8 million men and women over the age of 65, plus an additional 2 billion gallons of water every day. Some "would prefer to forget" these facts, but the President hoped "we will begin today, this year, this decade, the things which will make this country a better place to live in for the rest of this century.
As the President spoke, civil rights protestors marched on the Delaware side within a dozen feet of the platform. One protester held a sign that read:
Mr. President, you're opening highway No. 95. Now, help us open public accommodations
After concluding his brief remarks, President Kennedy joined Governor Elbert N. Carvel of Delaware and Governor J. Millard Tawes of Maryland to clip the ribbon opening the 59-mile turnpike.
Eight days later, on November 22, President Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
On January 18, 1965, officials gathered in the lobby of a Hot Shoppes restaurant on the turnpike while Governor-elect Charles L. Terry, Jr., of Delaware removed a golden shroud from a bust of the late President by sculptor Maurine Ligon of New Castle, Delaware. With the unveiling, the highway was officially renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway.
Ligon told journalists that she had tried to capture "the great combination of Mr. Kennedy as an idealist and a fighter; as a dreamer and yet a practical man who got things done." Her work, she said, speaks for itself "because our objective is like the horizon, always just beyond our reach."
President Lyndon B. Johnson was the opposite of President Kennedy in origins, personality, career, and image. Unlike the wealthy Kennedy whose public image exuded youth, vigor, and style, the new President rose from humble origins to become a master practitioner of the back room, rough-and-tumble, bare-knuckle politics that made him one of the most effective Senate Majority Leaders in history. His attempts to convey an image of presidential sincerity were at odds with his earthy personality. For all his skill in manipulating politicians and rules inside the walls of the Senate, President Johnson's policy initiatives would contribute to the "tumult and change" of the Sixties.
"Separate," Not "Equal" Transportation
President Johnson would play an important role in ensuring civil rights for African-Americans and other minorities, but the Interstate System had been planned long before the Civil Rights Movement gained broad public and political acceptance.
The period when the Interstate System was conceived in two reports to Congress, Toll Roads and Free Roads (1939) and Interregional Highways (1944), was very different from the world facing the builders of the Interstates. The 1895 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, based on railroad service, had rendered "separate but equal" facilities acceptable for schools, transportation, and other public facilities, even if "equal" was routinely much less assured than "separate." Public accommodations along the Nation's roads throughout the South and adjacent States were racially separate. Motoring African-Americans bought travel guides that identified hotels and restaurants that would serve them. Outside the South, de facto segregation was common. The mass migration of African-Americans from southern farms to northern industrial cities that had begun around World War I was in its final years.
Neither of the reports to Congress discussed race, but in drafting them, Chief Thomas H. MacDonald of the BPR and his top assistant, Herbert Fairbank, emphasized that one of the most beneficial features of the Interstate System would be its role in revitalizing America's cities. The urban world MacDonald and Fairbank wrote about in the two reports was one in which the automobile had encouraged "the outward transfer of the homes of citizens" and businesses to the suburbs (which often were still within the city limits). "The former homes of the transferred population have descended by stages to lower and lower income groups." They were now "occupied by the humblest citizens" who lived along the fringe of the business district-"a blight near its very core!"
At a time when society was embracing "slum-clearance projects," the Interstate System would displace many of those homes with freeways that would link the central business district with the suburban communities while stimulating investment in the blighted areas. With traffic moved to the Interstates, city streets would become more suitable for neighborhood uses.
"The essential role of government," Interregional Highways explained, "would be to facilitate the transition financing of the rehabilitation of blighted areas, to employ its powers of eminent domain in the public interest, and to fix the standards of redevelopment." Sufficient right-of-way should be acquired, the report said, "for adjacent housing, airport, park, or other public developments which the highways will be designed to serve in part." The "mutual benefits of such a simultaneous and cooperative program of land assembly" would be "lower land costs, in a more rational land-use pattern, and in the elimination of all possible focal points of conflict between the various improvement programs."
Given right-of-way acquisition practice, MacDonald and Fairbank knew that accomplishing the "radical revision of the city plan" that they envisioned would not be easy. State highway agencies, accustomed to working only in rural areas, usually expanded highways on right-of-way donated by willing property owners. Many State constitutions did not allow full control of access or right-of-way acquisition by the agencies, which did not have staff or experience with the practice. While proposing creation of a Federal land acquisition agency to buy the right-of-way and transfer it to the States, MacDonald and Fairbank did not address how the displaced families and businesses would move on with their lives.
By the time President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the Supreme Court had rejected separate-but-equal schools. In effect, the 1954 ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education (of Topeka, Kansas) overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and declared the broader segregation of American society unconstitutional. In 1955, a tired seamstress named Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, stepped onto a bus at the end of a routine workday. Her arrest for refusing to yield her seat to a white passenger touched off a bus boycott that received national attention and helped elevate the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to a leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement. Parks' arrest gave new life to the Civil Rights Movement, just as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring would spark the environmental movement a few years later.
City officials welcomed "slum-clearance projects" and "radical revision" as essential to their long-term economic viability. But as the Interstates began to run through the blighted areas where right-of-way costs were low, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. The movement gave the "humblest citizens" a voice, an urgency, a legitimacy that MacDonald and Fairbank could not have anticipated and did not live to see.
By the 1960s, the urban revitalization that they thought would accompany the Interstates would be derided as building "white men's roads through black men's homes." Moreover, the reconfiguration of transportation to favor highways over transit was harmful to transit-dependent minority communities, contributing to high rates of unemployment and civil unrest among the African-American population. While the broader issues of urban redevelopment continued to be a major component of the highway debates, this angry battle cry put highway officials in the difficult position of defending what was increasingly perceived as racist highway policies.
As Alfred E. "Alf" Johnson, AASHO's executive secretary during this period, conceded in an interview with Frederic Schwartz for his 1976 study of urban highway issues, some city officials saw the urban Interstates as a way of getting rid of the poor African-American neighborhoods. In a study of the impact of the Interstates on cities, Professor Raymond A. Mohl of the University of Alabama at Birmingham described some of the cities where these issues came into view. Among the cities, he cited:
- In Miami, Florida, officials rejected an abandoned railroad corridor to route I-95 through the inner-city community of Overtown, "wiping out massive amounts of housing as well as Overtown's main business district, the commercial and cultural heart of black Miami."
- In Nashville, Tennessee, "highway planners went out of their way to put a kink in the urban link Interstate 40 [gouging] a concrete swatch through the North Nashville black community, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and dividing what was left of the neighborhood."
- When I-94 displaced one-seventh of the African-American population of St. Paul, Minnesota, a critic wrote that "very few blacks lived in Minnesota, but the road builders found them."
- Professor Mohl described the success of historic preservation interests in blocking an Interstate through the French Quarter while highway builders "leveled a wide swath along North Claiborne Avenue in central New Orleans for Interstate-10." The result was "a devastated black community, a concrete jungle left in the shadows by a massive elevated highway."
- In Chicago, the Dan Ryan Expressway "effectively separated the Robert Taylor Homes, a massive black public housing project, from white ethnic neighborhoods to the west."
- In Camden, New Jersey, I-95 bisected low-income neighborhoods, displacing 1,093 minority families (out of a total of 1,289 families), while only about 100 low-incoming housing units were built at the same time "with the usual consequences."
Based on these and other examples, Professor Mohl concluded that the "forced relocation of blacks from central-city areas triggered a massive spatial reorganization of urban residential space." As a result, "The expressway building of the 1950s and 1960s, then, ultimately helped produce the much larger, more spatially isolated, and more intensely segregated second ghettos characteristic of the late twentieth century."
Some State highway and city officials were racist, as Professor Mohl documents, while others were following the inexorable logic of routing the urgently needed highways where right-of-way expenses would be lowest and revitalization most needed. The BPR approved these routings, with knowledge of the racial motive behind some of the decisions made within the prerogative of the State partner.
In part, Federal and State highway officials were driven by the urgency of finishing the Interstate System by the early 1970s and by visions of the benefits the Nation, particularly its cities, would enjoy when it was completed. They did not see the inextricable link between civil rights and transportation planning or the impact of this link on social and economic opportunity for America's "humblest citizens." In short, highway officials and urban political leaders did not foresee that in their pursuit of "radical revision," they were exposing America's racial divides and contributing to the problems their successors would confront in coming decades.
An Obvious and Urgent Need
In President Johnson's first full year in office, he launched an attempt to reduce highway deaths. On March 23, 1964, he wrote to Secretary Hodges about the "obvious and urgent need for a program to improve our highway safety rapidly and significantly." The Secretary was to work with State and local governments to develop priority safety programs, with special attention to reducing hazards on highways with high-accident experience, to reduce the "staggering toll."
The Interstate System stood as one of the few successes. The fatality rate on the Interstate System in 1964 was 2.8 deaths per 100 million miles traveled, compared with a fatality rate of 9.7 on older highways in the same corridors. (Reports on fatalities vary according to the source. The BPR's annual report for FY 1965 reported that 47,700 people died in traffic crashes in calendar year 1964, for a fatality rate of 5.7, an increase from 5.4 the previous year.) The success of the Interstate System in reducing fatalities provided design experience that could be used in upgrading other roads.
Based on this experience, Whitton opposed the over-emphasis on the driver that had characterized the safety campaigns of past years. Drivers were "performing as well as we can reasonably expect under existing conditions," but he did not accept the "nut behind the wheel" theory of crashes; people should not die simply because humans are not infallible. The "conditions must be changed," he said, adding "we must continue to improve the road, the vehicle and the basic control measures of the system." Whitton identified many Interstate design features that could be applied to other roads, including clear roadside zones, widening of narrow lanes and bridges, construction of stable shoulders, erection of guardrails, installation of lighting, improved sight distance, and reduction of curves.
In response to the President's concern, the BPR launched a spot improvement program to encourage States to use their Federal-aid funds to improve Federal-aid primary and secondary roads to eliminate or reduce hazards at spot locations or on sections of roads and streets with high accident rates. The program would evolve into the "Forgiving Highway" concept that has characterized highway design since then.
Ralph Nader's book Unsafe at any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, released in November 1965, would emphasize the role of the vehicle in fatalities and injuries. The resulting controversy led to passage of two highway safety bills that President Johnson signed on September 9, 1996. The Highway Safety Act of 1966 required each State to implement a safety program supporting driver education and improved licensing and auto inspection. The Act also strengthened the existing National Driver Register operated by the BPR. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act focused on the vehicle, required Federal motor vehicle safety standards. The bills created two agencies, the National Traffic Safety Agency and the National Highway Safety Agency. President Johnson appointed Dr. William Haddon, who had extensive highway and vehicle safety credentials, to head both.
The End in Sight
As Administrator Whitton addressed forums around the country, he made the finite nature of the Interstate program clear. For example, on December 5, 1963, he addressed the California State Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. The BPR would, he said, soon have to consider disapproving funds for projects that could not be completed by 1972. He was particularly concerned about the urban segments that "take a number of years from conception to completion." He hoped that he would not have to disapprove an urban interstate project "for the reason that there is not enough time left for its completion by 1972." He added that, "Close and harmonious cooperation of the state and local governments is the best insurance against such an eventuality." His comments were covered by newspapers around the country
By the end of 1964, the State highway agencies had not met his challenge to complete half the Interstate System by then. They were, however, close. In all, 19,000 miles (46 percent of the total) had been opened, with another 5,200 miles under construction. Of the open mileage, 13,635 miles met full standards, while routes adequate for current traffic but needing upgrading to the ultimate standards totaled 3,059 miles. (The remaining open mileage consisted of toll roads, bridges, and tunnels incorporated into the System.) Since the start of the program in 1956, $21.7 billion in Interstate Construction funds had been put to use.
On January 12, 1965, the third ICE was submitted to Congress showing a total estimated cost of $46.8 billion (Federal share: $42 billion), an increase of $5.8 billion since 1961. The total cost of work remaining to complete the Interstate System was $20.3 billion (Federal share: $18.4 billion). The data used to compile the ICE revealed that 82 percent of the Interstate System would be on new location (80 percent in rural areas, 90 percent in urban areas). At least a portion of the change (more than $3.6 billion) came through changes in the law, such as adoption of a 20-year design period and development of safer designs. The ICE indicated the System would include 12,957 interchanges requiring 22,252 individual structures, as well as 20748 other highway grade-separation structures, 4,361 railroad grade separations, and 14,806 other bridges and tunnels.
Beauty for America
In November 1964, the American people gave President Johnson a landslide victory over Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Az.). A minor element of the campaign would spark a major presidential initiative.
During the campaign, the President's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, had informed her husband of her feelings about the roadside junkyards they saw along the way. He revealed her views during remarks on conservation in Portland, Oregon, on September 17, 1964. The auto junkyards they had seen during the campaign, he said, "are driving my wife mad." She had told him "that one of the advantages of getting defeated is to give her some time to get out and do something about cleaning up the countryside and these old junkyards along our beautiful driveways."
He intended to "develop a national policy for the control and disposal of technological and industrial waste." Even as the campaign continued, his Administration began searching for solutions. As U.S. News and World Report explained, the President's references to the subject during the campaign prompted applause, so "the President observed: 'If it's beautifying they want, it's beautifying they'll get.'"
On February 8, 1965, within 3 weeks of renewing his oath of office, President Johnson submitted a message to Congress on stewardship of the country's natural bounty. "It would be a neglectful generation indeed, indifferent alike to the judgment of history and the command of principle, which failed to preserve and extend such a heritage for its descendants."
The President identified "the tempo of urbanization and growth" as one of the culprits, referring to cities that reach into the countryside, "destroying streams and trees and meadows as they go." Technology, for all its benefits, was part of the problem as well. "Its uncontrolled waste products are menacing the world we live in, our enjoyment and our health."
The modern highways that "may wipe out the equivalent of a 50-acre park with every mile" were another culprit. Recognizing that "ours is an automobile society," the President did not want to curtail roads. He wanted to make roads the "highways to the enjoyment of nature and beauty." The task was twofold. "First, to insure that roads themselves are not destructive of nature and natural beauty. Second, to make our roads ways to recreation and pleasure."
The President planned several highway initiatives. He directed Secretary of Commerce John T. Connor, a lawyer who had left his position as president of the pharmaceutical Merck and Company, Inc., to take office on January 18, 1965, to ensure landscaping would be part of all Interstate and Federal-aid primary and urban highways. Johnson also planned to introduce legislation on effective control of billboards and "unsightly, beauty-destroying junkyards and auto graveyards along our highways."
In addition, he called for "a new conservation" that would protect the countryside, restore "what has been destroyed" and "salvage the beauty and charm of our cities." He was not, he said, referring to the "classic conservation of protection and development, but a creative conservation of restoration and innovation." His creative conservation included proposals for cities, rivers, and trails, as well as ideas for curbing pollution.
The initiative dovetailed with what Administrator Whitton and the State highway agencies had been trying to accomplish through their public relations responses to critics. Whitton had discussed highway aesthetics in his speech to AASHO's annual convention in December 1964. He had "preached a good deal about esthetics in highway design," he told AASHO, "But I still see too many roads and structures that look like they were cranked out of a machine." He said, "Esthetics should be one of the basic elements in the design of highways. When an otherwise beautiful stretch of highway is spoiled by unsightly scars, let's do the necessary surgery." The surgery should include: "Screen out the automobile graveyard with shrubs and trees. Plant vines and bushes on the barren slopes. Round the sharp angles in cuts and fills, to blend with the land. Open up vistas where you can, and provide parking overlooks. Take easements on attractive roadside scenic spots, to insure their preservation." In short, give motorists "feast instead of famine."
To explore new conservation ideas, President Johnson called a White House Conference on Natural Beauty for May 24 and 25 in Washington. During the conference, Whitton told the panel on "The Design of the Highway" that, "Highways are for people," a message he would repeat on many occasions. "The highways must be beautiful as seen from the driver's seat and the backseat driver, and they also must not be a scourge on the community through which they pass." To accomplish this goal, he urged cooperation among Federal, State, and city officials as well as use of "every skill that is available," including "the skills of architects, landscape architects, highway engineers, and psychologists and all the others," to create "the best possible transportation system and the best possible urban plan for our cities."
William F. Babcock, North Carolina's Director of Highways, chaired the panel. Summarizing the panel's conclusions, he said, "the highway in a rural setting, should fit the landscape like a deer in the forest rather than a bull in the china shop." Increased attention must be devoted to aesthetics in new rural highway development as well as existing highways. He cited acquisition of additional right-of-way for buffer zones, the creative regrading and landscaping of the roadside, and the screening or removal of objectionable views. More imaginative design was needed, such as "building freeways on elevated structures, or at ground level, or below, making much better use of the space above or below them." Greater weight should be given to protecting parks, open spaces, scenic, recreational, historic, and cultural features. The range of skills cited by Whitton should be united in urban design teams.
Other highway-related panels suggested a scenic roads and parkways program, control of outdoor advertising, and requiring Interstate and primary funds to be conditioned on prohibition of future junkyards and the removal or screening of existing junkyards.
The Highway Beautification Act of 1965
The President's America the Beautiful initiative proved controversial when the rights of private property owners clashed with public interests. Billboards, for example, had been criticized for decades, but attempts to control them had met with limited success. In authorizing the Bonus Program, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958 had declared that control of outdoor advertising was "in the public interest." However, by 1965, only 20 States, with one-fourth of System mileage within their borders, had entered into bonus agreements, despite several extensions of the original time limit (from July 1, 1961, to June 30, 1965). At its peak, the bonus program covered 25 States, two of which dropped out before receiving a bonus. A total of some $44.65 million was paid to the 23 remaining states (Congress has not appropriated funds for the program since theearly 1970s).
Given this limited success, one of the most prominent results of the President's beauty initiative was the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. As expected, it had been controversial. When the House considered its version of the bill on October 7, the debate lasted into the early morning hours of October 8. A pointed but tongue-in-cheek amendment by Representative Robert Dole (R-Kan.) to strike out the term "Secretary of Commerce" wherever it appeared in the bill and insert the words "Lady Bird" lost by a voice vote. Representative Harold R. Gross (R-Iowa) suggested that when the bill passed, as he knew it would, the President could have his signing ceremony in front of a Texas billboard advertising the Johnson family's television station.
After the House and Senate reconciled differences between the two versions of the bill, Congress approved the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 on October 14. The signing ceremony took place at the White House on October 22, the day after the President returned from surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Recalling the ride from the hospital along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the President said, "not one foot of it was marred by a single unsightly man-made obstruction-no advertising signs, no junkyards. Well, doctors could prescribe no better medicine for me." Saying, "Beauty belongs to all the people," he signed the bill and gave the first pen to Lady Bird, along with a kiss on the cheek.
The sign portion of the Act, which became Section 131 of Title 23, United States Code ("Highways"), required the States to provide effective control of outdoor advertising along the Interstate System and primary system highways (within 660 feet of the nearest edge of the right-of-way and visible from the main traveled way). Federal-aid apportionments could be reduced by 10 percent for States that did not do so. Some signs would be permitted, namely directional and other official signs, signs and other devices advertising activities conducted on the property on which they were located, and signs advertising the sale or lease of the property on which they were located. The Secretary was to enter into an agreement with each State regarding the size, lighting, and spacing, consistent with customary use, on control of outdoor advertising.
Signs that did not comply with the new requirement were to be removed, but not before July 1, 1970, with just compensation for those that had been erected legally before enactment of the law. The Act authorized $20 million a year for FYs 1966 and 1967 for this purpose, with the funds coming from the general Treasury, not the Highway Trust Fund, and a Federal share of 75 percent.
To promote the safety and recreational value of travel and preserve natural beauty, the 1965 Act also required effective control of the establishment of outdoor junkyards along the Interstate System and the primary system (Section 136 of Title 23, United States Code). Effective control meant screening by natural objects, plants, fences, or other means, with a 10-percent penalty on apportionments for States that did not comply. The Federal share of junkyard screening projects was 75 percent, again with $20 million a year (FYs 1966 and 1967) from the general Treasury.
The first billboard did not come down until April 29, 1971. It was in a pine grove off I-95 near Freeport, Maine. Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe said, "Take her down, boys," as a crane pulled the facing off the double-faced billboard that had most recently advertised a Brunswick restaurant and a Falmouth music store.
The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 has been amended several times, in part to address changes in outdoor advertising. As amended, it requires us to ensure that the State transportation departments maintain "effective control of the erection and maintenance" of outdoor advertising signs along the Interstate System and the National Highway System. The law allows State and local officials to determine whether more stringent controls than those imposed by Federal law are appropriate for these routes. The result varies from State to State and even from community to community, with some States essentially banning billboards while others allow them to the maximum extent permitted under the Federal law.
The Web of Union
A year after launching his conservation initiative, President Johnson announced in his State of the Union Address on January 12, 1966, that a Department of Transportation was needed. With 35 government agencies spending $5 billion a year on transportation, he said, the "present structure makes it almost impossible to serve either the growing demands of this great nation or the needs of the industry, or the right of the taxpayer to full efficiency and frugality."
The idea of a Department of Transportation had a long history. As early as January 1874, Representative Laurin D. Woodworth (R-Oh.) had called, unsuccessfully, for a Federal bureau of transportation. In April 1919, dozens of technical societies met in Chicago to discuss organization of a public works department that would include the BPR, but their efforts failed as well. Since then, proposals for a Department of Transportation or a consolidation of transportation agencies within the Commerce Department had been made by government study groups, but without a push from the President, the proposals failed.
Federal Aviation Administrator Najeeb Halaby had revived the idea on July 1, 1965, his last day in office. Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation Alan S. Boyd worked with the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) to establish a task force on the subject. In October 1965, the task force recommended creation of a Department of Transportation. A new task force, headed by Charles Zwick of the BOB and including representatives of the agencies to be in the new department, was established to draft legislation.
On March 2, President Johnson submitted the legislation to Congress along with a message on transportation. "In a nation that spans a continent," he said, "transportation is the web of union." The "tenuous skein of rough trails and primitive roads" of the Nation's early years had become "a powerful network on which the prosperity and convenience of our society depend." He listed the current system's deficiencies, which in the area of highways included "consuming, frustrating, and wasteful congestion"; "super-highways for super-charged automobiles - and yet [we] cannot find a way to prevent 50,000 highway deaths this year; a network of "new freeways to serve new cities and suburbs" that "carelessly scars the irreplaceable countryside."
He urged creation of a Department of Transportation "to serve the growing demands of this great Nation, to satisfy the needs of our expanding industry and to fulfill the right of our taxpayers to maximum efficiency and frugality in Government operations." The BPR would be part of the new Department, but the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA), which administered the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, would remain in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, its home since September 1965. The President said that after creation of the Department of Transportation, he would ask the new Secretary of Transportation to work with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to submit proposals on "a unified Federal approach to urban problems."
The bill received bipartisan support in Congress, with the most difficult issue being whether the Maritime Administration (MARAD) would be included. Members of the House who wanted to leave MARAD in the Department of Commerce threatened to deadlock the legislation, prompting the Administration to concede the point. (MARAD remained in the Commerce Department until 1981, when it was moved to the Department of Transportation.)
President Johnson signed the Department of Transportation Act on October 15, 1966, before about 200 guests at the White House. The new law brought together 31 agencies and bureaus, including BPR, which had by far the largest budget ($4.4 billion) in a Department with a total budget of $6.6 billion. "In large measure," he said, "America's history is a history of her transportation." Although the transportation system "is the greatest in the world," he added, "we must face facts. It is no longer adequate." The President recognized that the task ahead-"to untangle, to coordinate, and to build a national transportation system"-was mammoth. He described his vision that, "A day will come in America, when people and freight will move through this land of ours speedily, efficiently, safely, and dependably." He added, "That will be a good day indeed." The new Department was to go into effect 90 days after enactment of the legislation.
To be the first Secretary of Transportation, President Johnson selected Alan Boyd. A 44-year old lawyer, Boyd had been general counsel of the Florida Turnpike Authority and chairman of the Florida Railroad and Public Utilities Commission before President Eisenhower appointed him to the Civil Aeronautics Board. Boyd became chairman in 1961 and was appointed Under Secretary of Commerce in 1965. President and Mrs. Johnson watched on January 16, 1967, as Boyd took the oath of office in the East Room of the White House. The President explained that Boyd would "coordinate a national transportation policy for this great land of ours . . . and give the kind of results that the American people would like to point to with pride."
Administrator Rex Whitton Takes His Leave
By the time he left office at the end of 1966, Rex Whitton had addressed the problems facing the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways when he took office. By cooperating with the Blatnik Committee and strengthening BPR oversight, Whitton had helped put to rest the scandals that had given critics of "the great highway bungle" their strongest, most visible weapon. With enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1961, the program had been put on a sound financial footing that would carry the program through the early 1980s.
The most remarkable transformation had come in response to the objections on social and environmental grounds. Initially, Whitton and the road building community were convinced that these issues could be addressed with public relations initiatives such as National Highway Week. As he had told ARBA in his initial speech as Federal Highway Administrator, the solution was to ensure the public had a "full appreciation of the urgent need for the highway program and the benefits it is bringing." Although Whitton and his successors would continue to stress the positive aspects of the program, he was, in effect, the bridge between those who thought the benefits of the Interstate System trumped other considerations and those who, in later years, embraced the growing number of environmental laws and the stewardship they demanded as a key part of their work.
On February 9, 1966, the BPR announced that the States had met Whitton's challenge to AASHO by opening more than 50 percent of the Interstate System. With the opening of 2,166 miles in 1965, open mileage totaled nearly 21,185 miles or 52 percent of the 41,000-mile Interstate System. Construction was underway on another 5,580 miles; only 2,880 miles (7 percent) of the System had not yet advanced beyond preliminary status. Approximately $24.7 billion had been put to work on the Interstate program.
On November 29, 1966, Whitton was in Wichita, Kansas, for his final presentation to AASHO during its annual meeting. Noting that 1966 was the 50th year since creation of the Federal-aid highway program in 1916 he told his colleagues, "the first 50 years are the easiest," and as for the future, "You ain't seen nothing yet." Change, he said, was "the outstanding characteristic" of the program, as it was of all aspects of society. During his tenure, the program had probably seen "more changes in emphasis and direction" than in any period since the Federal Road Act of 1916. The Federal-aid highway program "advances through evolution, not revolution, but advance it surely does."
With the population of urban areas increasing, the main thrust of highway efforts "should be directed to easing the plight of cities." Whitton also emphasized "making highway transportation compatible with the environment while serving many urban needs." Highways, he said, cannot be isolated from other forms of transportation. "We must plan transportation systems. We cannot afford to do any less." (Emphasis in original.) This is why the new Department of Transportation "makes sense - from any viewpoint, but particularly with respect to the close and efficient coordination of government programs for the entire transportation system."
The one negative he discussed involved displacements and relocations. Only 32 States were paying moving costs, "and far too few States are doing an outstanding job in providing the basic assistance required." If more States do not address this problem voluntarily, "it will become a mandatory one." (The Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act became law on January 2, 1971.)
I have been around long enough . . . to have confidence that our highway program is not frozen by tradition, that it has not only resiliency but also the flexibility needed to respond to any new challenge. And I have confidence that its response, that your response, that the response of the highway engineer, will be more than adequate to what our Nation expects and deserves - and that, gentlemen, is a lot.
On December 29, 1966, a retirement ceremony was held in the General Services Administration Auditorium. The BPR's newsletter stated that the auditorium "was filled to overflowing with the hundreds of associates and employees of Mr. Whitton." Secretary-designate Boyd presented the Commerce Department's Gold Medal Award to Whitton "for exceptional achievements as a leader in highways and highway transportation in the United States, and contributions to these same interests worldwide."
Whitton would tell the highway community, "An awful lot has happened in the last few years, but a lot more must be done if we are to be fully responsive to our mandate from the public."
A New Department Takes Off
The U.S. Department of Transportation opened for business on April 1, 1967. On the National Mall, Secretary Boyd participated in opening ceremonies that were combined with the Smithsonian Institution's third annual Rite of Spring, titled a "Pageant of Transportation." According to The Washington Post, "Everything seemed to be happening at once" on a sun-drenched day. As bands played, large crowds enjoyed viewing past, present, and future vehicles, including a llama, an 1880 15-passenger horse-drawn omnibus (pulled by mules on this occasion), antique automobiles dating to 1910, an air-cushion "Hydroskimmer," and a rocket-propelled man.
After a news conference during which Boyd introduced Department leaders, the Secretary pledged that the new Department would work to make transportation more efficient and more socially responsible. In a remark that seemed directed at the impacts of the Interstate System, he added, "We want an end to the noise, pollution, and general disfigurement transportation has unintentionally brought to our cities."
The opening of the new Department meant changes for the BPR. One involved the name "Bureau of Public Roads." It had been the name of the agency during two periods of its history spanning 39 years (July 1, 1918, to June 30, 1939, and July 1, 1949, to March 31, 1967) with the agency named the Public Roads Administration between the two periods. On April 1, 1967, the agency became the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The FHWA was organized into bureaus headed by Directors, with the BPR name retained for one of them, along with the Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety (now the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) and the National Highway Safety Bureau (now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). With the additions, the agency increased from about 4800 employees at the end of 1966 to 5,360 employees a year later. (In a reorganization that took effect on August 10, 1970, the FHWA eliminated its bureau structure, replacing the Directors with Associate Administrators, and finally ending the use of the term BPR.)
The Director of the new BPR was Francis C. "Frank" Turner, who had joined the BPR in 1929 after graduating from Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Texas A&M University). In the 1950s, he had played a key role in the committee established by President Eisenhower in 1954 and headed by retired General Lucius D. Clay to develop a national highway plan, and had served as liaison between the BPR and the key committees in Congress during development of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. (On February 24, 1969, he became the only career employee to become Federal Highway Administrator, a position he held through June 30, 1972.)
Perhaps the most surprising change was that the first person to hold the title of Federal Highway Administrator in the new Department would not be an engineer. Lowell K. Bridwell was a journalist, most recently as the top writer on highways for the Washington Bureau of Scripps-Howard Newspapers, a post he had assumed in 1958. He had joined the Commerce Department in April 1962 as assistant to Under Secretary for Transportation Clarence Martin, Jr., before being appointed Acting Deputy Federal Highway Administrator on January 20, 1964, a post he held until becoming Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation (Operations) on July 2, 1964. He would take office as Federal Highway Administrator on March 23, 1967, and hold the position until the end of the Johnson Administration on January 20, 1969.
The Pioneer of Modern Highway Construction
After leaving the BPR, Rex Whitton returned to Kansas City, Missouri where he accepted a position as consultant to the engineering firm of Howard, Needles, Tammen and Bergendoff. He retired in 1975. The following year, he told the agency newsletter, FHWA News, that he and his wife enjoyed driving to auction sales for antiques. However, they avoided the freeways he had helped to build. He never liked driving on them, he said, and now they "enjoy driving on the little back roads, keeping a map of each one we travel."
Rex Whitton passed away on July 7, 1981, after a long illness at age 82. The passing of the man who had saved the Interstate System, was little noticed around the country. However, an obituary in AASHTO Quarterly said, "His national reputation as a pioneer of modern highway construction not only brings honor to his memory, but also to a profession he dearly loved."