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Highway History

Promoting Highway Improvement: Project Adequate Roads & GM'S Better Highway Award

Project Adequate Roads

President Harry S. Truman, a lifelong good roads booster, had done little to promote good roads or the Interstate System during his years as the Nation's Chief Executive. (See "The Man Who Loved Roads," Public Roads, May/June 2002, at www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/02may/08.cfm). Dwight D. Eisenhower, who became President on January 20, 1953, was on record as supporting improvement of the Nation's highways, but he took little action on the issue during his first year-and-a-half in office.

During this period, highway interest groups stepped in to fill the void. Historian Mark Rose has described Project Adequate Roads (PAR), a 1951-1954 campaign spearheaded by the National Highway Users Conference (NHUC). The NHUC included the leaders of the trucking, manufacturing, and oil industries, as well as automobile and farm group executives. (See Rose, Mark, "Project Adequate Roads: Traffic Jams, Business, and Government, 1951-1954," Interstate Express Highway Politics 1939-1989, Revised Edition, The University of Tennessee Press, 1990.)

The new initiative was launched on November 1, 1951, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Rose described the members of PAR as including "highway users, manufacturers, public officials, and traffic research men in the Highway Research Board and Automotive Safety Foundation." PAR would, according to NHUC Director Arthur C. Butler, become "a national committee for highway improvement." Chaired by Greyhound president Arthur M. Hill, PAR set such goals as construction of additional highway mileage in urban areas, legislation prohibiting the States from diverting highway user tax revenues from highway purposes, and lower taxes. PAR wanted a systematic rating of highways to establish "sufficiency ratings" that could provide the basis for "impartial, unbiased" allocation of funds.

The idea was to form a series of independent local and State groups to promote the PAR agenda. PAR would provide the data, through its publications; the groups could use the data to support good roads legislation at the local, State, and national levels.

The one major piece of highway legislation during PAR's existence was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952. With the Korean War underway, President Harry S. Truman had asked Congress for a $400 million ceiling on highway spending. Rose explained:

During the early months of 1952, Truman still worried more about inflation than speeding the flow of traffic. Even the arguments of his secretary of the army in favor of greater federal assistance for construction of high-volume Interstate system roads failed to turn Truman's attention from the national economic picture.

Thomas H. MacDonald, Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), testified in support of the President's request. After listening to MacDonald's presentation, Representative George H. Fallon (D-Md.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads, House Public Works Committee, told him, "I can only say that we feel sorry for you when you have to defend and support a measure we all know falls short of the minimum needs." In response to questions, MacDonald was able to lay out the scope of highway needs, which far exceeded the meager presidential request.

Both the House and Senate approved higher funding levels than the White House wanted. The conference committee approved higher amounts than either House: $550 million a year for the primary, secondary, and urban systems in FY 1954 and 1955, plus a token $25 million for the Interstate System in each year. This was the first Federal funding specifically for the Interstate System. The matching share remained 50-50. Additional authorizations, such as funding for the Inter-American Highway, brought the bill to a total of $1,386,000.

It was not enough to meet needs, but Representative Fallon urged the House to approve the compromise bill:

We are a nation on wheels and the number of automobiles continues to increase each day. With the seriousness of the road conditions today, it is absolutely necessary that we have all the funds possible to put our roads in a condition where they are not only safe but where we can move commerce.

President Truman signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 on June 25. With the exception of the Interstate funding, the 1952 Act was a continuation of past policies, despite PAR's campaign of boosterish literature, conferences, and public relations activities.

Ultimately, PAR was ineffective and unable to hold its broad coalition together in the face of conflicting interests. As Rose put it, "By the end of 1953, the PAR campaign had failed miserably." He explained:

Much effort and expense had not shifted high-level federal officials in two administrations to their cause, and truckers remained divided about tax and regulatory matters. Traditional allies such as AAA leadership, highway contractors, and state legislators, governors, and engineers had broken from PAR. Now, old friends demanded that federal officials link gas tax income to road spending, not abolish the tax as PAR leaders recommended. Other than the maxim that more mileage was vital, highway promoters could not agree about much.

These divisions would remain evident in 1955 when Congress considered President Eisenhower's proposals for an expanded highway program. The highway interests, each of which wanted more highways and each of which wanted someone else to pay for them, succeeded in swaying enough votes to kill all bills introduced in the House, effectively killing the bills for 1955.

Only when they came together in compromise in late 1955-56 was Congress able to complete work on what became the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

GM's Better Highway Award

The General Motors (GM) Corporation had an idea. The increasing need for highway improvement prompted GM to announce, on November 20, 1952, a Better Highway Award for the best essay on "How to plan and pay for the safe and adequate highways we need."

Prize money totaled $194,000 for 161 awards, with the grand prize being $25,000. Anyone, including GM employees, could submit an entry except the panel of judges and their families. If a GM employee won, a duplicate award would be made to keep the amount for outsiders intact. Entries had to be postmarked by midnight, March 1, 1953, and received by March 14, 1953.

The judges were:

  • Ned H. Dearborn, President National Safety Council.
  • Thomas H. MacDonald, Commissioner, BPR.
  • Curtis W. McGraw, Chairman of the Board, The McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.
  • Dr. Robert Sproul, President, University of California
  • Bertram D. Tallamy, Superintendent, New York State Department of Public Works and President of AASHO.

GM's President, Charles E. Wilson, announced that the contest was designed to energize "a great national education program." To generate interest, GM's advertising budget for the contest far exceeded the amount of prize money. The announcement of the campaign included a technicolor film, dinners in key cities, and advertisements in hundreds of newspapers and magazines. As the magazine of the American Road Builders Association, Road Builders' News, put it, the announcement "caused hundreds of thousands of Americans to grab their lead pencils and start studying up on roads and streets."

The GM campaign was successful in generating interest. Approximately 44,000 entries were submitted. Each would be reviewed by the judged as numbered, unsigned submissions. They would be evaluated on the basis of originality, sincerity, and practical adaptability.

The winners were announced by new GM President Harlow H. Curtice at a dinner in Detroit's Statler Hotel on June 18. The $25,000 top prize went to Robert Moses, the 64-year old New York "power broker" who was then at the height of his power. His titles included Construction Coordinator for New York City, Commissioner of Parks for the city, and Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Biographer Robert A. Caro said of Moses:

Robert Moses possessed at the time . . . an imagination that leaped unhesitatingly at problems insoluble to other men . . . and that, seemingly in the very moment of the leap, conceived of solutions. He possessed an iron will that put behind his solutions and dreams a determination to let nothing stand in their way. (Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, p. 3-4.)

His legacy can be seen throughout New York City as well as New York State--great bridges such as the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, expressways and parkways, tunnels, apartment houses, public beaches, hydroelectric power dams, and landmarks such as Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium, and the United Nations headquarters. He affected the shape of national parkways and expressways, and played a role in development of the Interstate System.

But Moses was controversial, and had a way of brushing critics aside that only made matters worse. Today, the legacy of Robert Moses is as often cursed as praised--perhaps more often cursed--and his methods have become a model of how today's public works professionals should not act. Caro observed that Moses was "America's greatest builder," but added that to earn that title, he had dispossessed hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed lively communities, flooded the city with cars while starving the subways and suburban commuter railroads, and ensured the sprawling, low density suburban development pattern relying on roads that "would continue for generations if not centuries." (Caro, p. 18-19)

Caro's ambivalence about the subject of his biography is illustrated by the index entry on Moses, which includes such subjects as "brilliance," "charm," "idealism," and "imagination" as well as "bullying," "deviousness," "divorced from reality," "end justifying means," "imperial style," and "self-glorification."

As for Moses, he was unrepentant. But he warned those considering a career in public works:

The prudent, conservative, pedestrian soul who wants every course neatly plotted out and tested, every accident and emergency guarded against, every contingency covered, should keep religiously away from the permanent, unprotected public service, because it is fraught with danger to you and yours, full of the unpredictable and unpremeditated, the freakish, illogical, bone-chilling, narrow shaves, and the dubious favors of Lady Luck. (Moses, Robert, Public Works: A Dangerous Trade, McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1970, p. xxii.)

The Award Winning Essay

Moses began his award winning essay, "How to Plan and Pay for Better Highways," with the statement that, "The highway dilemma is a major concern of every man, woman and child in the country." The problem could be easily stated: 53 million cars are riding on roads that are "by and large inadequate in mileage, location, width, capacity, and durability." They were, moreover, "unsafe, of inferior, dated design and poorly lighted and policed."

He estimated that an adequate road system "if we could get it in, say, ten years, would cost about fifty billion dollars." He was referring not simply to building the Interstate System, but improving the entire road network. Readers, Moses suggested, might think 10 years "seems unduly long." But considering the "practical difficulties," such as defense and housing needs that were pulling resources from road building, 10 years was about right.

Even beyond the practical difficulties, time was needed simply to build the projects, especially in urban areas where the need was greatest:

[The] minimum schedule of major highway building in urban areas runs to at least three years for each large project--a year to design and sell the plan to those whose support is needed to lift it from idea to reality, and at least two years to clear and prepare the site, build on it and landscape it.

At a time when many States wanted to abolish the BPR and devolve the Federal-aid highway program to the State-level, Moses was in no doubt about the importance of retaining the BPR. He described what the Nation would be missing if not for the BPR:

. . . we should have no national through routes uniting all sections of the country, few comprehensive long range state programs, no uniformity of design, no progress in the less populous and prosperous states and municipalities, no official leadership, no continuing Congressional support and no formula for federal aid.

What was needed was a coordinated effort by the BPR, the State highway agencies, the toll authorities, municipal governments, and regional bi-State bodies. Amidst "a complex administration of highways," as at present, he believed that the "federal government must set the pace, that it must contribute a proportionately larger percentage of aid to routes of more than local significance and that it must continue to raise and enforce standards."

Raising money for a $50 billion, 10-year program would require "more federal aid for main and subsidiary routes, more state and local bond issues involving the general credit, and more special bond issues supported by capitalized auto revenues." In addition, bonds would have to be floated by regulated public, regional, bi-State, State, and municipal authorities.

For the Interstate System, Moses had specific advice on financing. He estimated that it would cost at least $11 billion, but included highways that were "potentially wholly or partially self-liquidating" (that is, they could be built as turnpikes):

The present policy of the Congress and the Bureau of Public Roads, which bars the expenditure of federal highway funds on toll highways, should be reexamined.

Through a change in policy, Moses thought that a combination of Federal-aid and toll financing could fund construction of many Interstate routes.

He dismissed the idea of excess condemnation, which had been favored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Under this concept, the right-of-way for the highway would be acquired along with additional right-of-way that could be sold or rented to businesses interested in locating along the highway to serve motorists. Moses explained that aside from the fact that many State constitutions prohibited the practice, the amount of money that could be raised in this way "has in most instances been greatly exaggerated." Further, speculation in land, even by the most reliable public officials, would "lead to widespread suspicion and, human nature being what it is, to irregularities."

(Moses had served under Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was Governor of New York. As depicted by Caro, they had a complicated relationship, with the Governor disliking Moses the man but appreciating Moses the master builder.)

Moses included a table that summarized his financing program by showing the changes that would add up to the $50 billion he thought would be needed:

  • Double the present federal aid allotment to the states, the income to be derived from segregation of a 3-cent federal gas tax plus the present 6 cents per gallon tax on oil ($12.5 billion over 10 years).
  • Raise average gas tax in 48 states ½ cents and increase truck tax. State highway user revenue will then total $3,450 Millions annually.
  • Deduct from this amount $1,400 Millions annually, representing average of 2 cents of gas tax and half of registration fees, capitalize this revenue and issue bonds backed by it ($23.3 billion).
  • Remainder of State Highway User Revenue ($20.5 billion).
  • Construct $4,000 miles at $1.2 Millions per mile with proceeds of revenue bonds of public authorities and similar agencies ($4.8 billion).
  • Municipal government expenditures including moderate increase ($12 billion).

His plan added up to $73.1 billion, but was reduced to $50 billion after subtracting the cost of maintenance and administration ($23.1 billion). The key to success was a strong Federal role:

There would be a great incentive to states and municipalities to do their share if the President were to recommend and Congress were to pass legislation offering such additional aid on the basis of this new formula.

The remainder of the essay stressed the importance of eliminating railroad-highway grade crossings, controlling parking in urban areas, developing uniform safety measures, and controlling billboards.

To generate support for the 10-year program, Moses recommended that every legitimate influence, effort, and means be used. Imaginative exhibits, similar to GM's Futurama at the 1939-40 World's Fair, should be shown around the country to acquaint the layman "with the stirring drama of the ten year program." Gasoline, oil, tire, and other related businesses should "put their shoulders to the wheel," along with safety organizations, the press, and elementary schools, high schools, colleges, universities and other similar forums. The Council of State Governments, American Association of State Highway Officials, the BPR, the Governors, the Highway Committees of Congress, the Conference of Mayors should all work together on the program. The slogan for the campaign would be:

Good Roads for Good Cars
Support the Ten Year National Highway Program

In conclusion, Moses stated:

By such means we can have, before 1953 is over, general agreement on an adequate program and schedule with enough flexibility to insure the cooperation of the national, sectional and diverse other interests which control our motorized civilization.

When Moses included excerpts of the GM award-winning essay in Public Works: A Dangerous Trade, he reminded readers that the essay appeared in 1953, "when the recommendations since adopted were novel, disturbing, and controversial."

At the Detroit dinner announcing the winners, Moses gave a brief address, praising the contest because it had "stirred up the public, and countless daily irritations will keep them agitated." GM President Curtice stressed that this was the point:

But the real success of the contest is not something that can be measured only by the ideas or suggestions that were offered. The important thing is that the contest has stimulated many people all over the country to concern themselves more seriously with the fact that our national highway transportation system is becoming increasingly inadequate to meet the ever increasing demands upon it.

The Other Winners

Other top awards went to:

  • Second National Award ($10,000): Brig. General Lacey V. Murrow, D.C. Director of Competition for the Association of American Railroads, and former Highway Director of the State of Washington.
  • Third National Award ($5,000): Claude A. Rothrock, Chief, Planning Division, West Virginia Road Commission.

Transport Topics, the "National Newspaper of the Motor Freight Carriers," summarized the views of Murrow, Rothrock, and other top winners:

All of the top winners agreed that there is no quick and easy solution to the highway problem. They also were in virtually unanimous agreement on two other major points: (1) The need for continued and intensified research into highway matters, and (2) the importance of keeping the public informed about the road problem.

Most of the winners flatly opposed diversion of gasoline and motor vehicle tax revenues to non-highway uses, and several made it clear that they were speaking especially of the federal government in this connection. However, Mr. Moses contended there were strong arguments on both sides of the diversion question and warned that "there is no one formula which will be adopted immediately throughout the nation."

Most winners appeared to feel that the states should retain major control over highway planning and construction. Several, however, urged action by the federal government or by regional committees or conferences to insure integrated planning among the states and to help end what Mr. Steuber [Wisconsin Highway Engineer William F. Steuber, Jr.] called "the bedlam of fees and taxes and the muddle of motor vehicle regulations among states."

GM's Charles E. Wilson

Harlow Curtice had become the president of GM following the departure of Charles Wilson. By the time the competition was completed, President Eisenhower had chosen Wilson, the highest paid executive in the world, for the $22,500-a-year post of Secretary of Defense. (Before Senate confirmation, Wilson had to sell $2.5 million in GM stock to avoid a conflict of interest; GM was the Nation's largest defense contractor.) Before long, according to Eisenhower biographer Piers Brendon, Wilson "was reducing Ike to paroxysms of rage by his rambling discourses in the White House and his appalling gaffes outside it." (Brendon, Piers, Ike: His Life & Times, Harper and Row, Publishers, 1986, p. 231.)

Today, he is remembered primarily for a statement he made during his confirmation hearing in January 1953 before the Senate Committee on Armed Services. When asked if he would be willing to make a decision unfavorable to GM, he said:

For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist.
Updated: 10/10/2013
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