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Highway History

Ted Holmes on Thomas MacDonald and Herbert Fairbank

On April 2, 1971, Associate Administrator for Planning E. H. "Ted" Holmes retired after 43 years of service with the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) and the Federal Highway Administration. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he had joined the BPR in 1928.

A few weeks later, on May 14, 1971, Holmes participated in a videotaped oral history conducted by Michael Lash, Director of Environmental Policy for the FHWA. Holmes, in addition to discussing his 43 years of service, provided his impressions of Thomas H. MacDonald, who headed the Agency for 34 years, and his close associate, Herbert S. Fairbank. The following excerpts, transcribed and edited by Richard Weingroff, from the interview are presented without ellipses and some rearrangement for ease of reading.

The discussion began with Holmes' recollections of his early years in the Bureau of Public Roads helping to build the 7-percent Federal-aid system. The goal was a paved, two-lane network connecting the country's main cities. With the system expected to be completed in the 1930's, Holmes recalled fellow trainees who wondered if they would be out of a job in a couple years. This discussion led to the role of Thomas H. MacDonald and Herbert S. Fairbank in planning the next generation of highways.

The Statewide Highway Planning Surveys

Photo of Ted Holmes

That came about in the early or mid '30's-it must have started 1933 or '34. We began to develop a means of what we then called statewide highway planning surveys. As you know, of course, it was started in a formal way in the Hayden-Cartwright Act, which was passed in 1934. That authorized the use of 1 and a half percent of our highway apportionments for the purpose of highway planning. The money could be used with or without matching because there was considerable question as to whether the States themselves would accept the idea of spending even that much money in planning for their future.

I believe that the impetus for that really came from H. S. Fairbank, who headed up what was then called the Division of Information in the Bureau of Public Roads. But he was really, I think, the very strong right hand of Thomas H. MacDonald, who was Chief of the Bureau then and had been in that capacity for many years. Between the two of them, I'm sure, came the idea that we must look ahead to the time when the highway system would be more than simply a means of getting from here to there.

They realized that we would have to provide more in the way of capacity in many sections of the country. They [also] realized that resources were not unlimited and that if we were to provide for the movement that they could foresee that we would have to find ways of increasing funding for the highway system. And so it was on that basis that Fairbank laid the foundation-and I'm sure it came out of his own mind-laid out the framework of what we now call the statewide highway planning surveys-a total inventory of all road systems. Many States had no knowledge, literally, of how many miles of roads existed in the States. [The inventory involved] a survey of the traffic volumes and of the classification, the number of trucks, [and] every cultural item that was on the road, every house, every barn, every business along the road. [This was only] in the rural areas, of course, because then we were not thinking seriously of building roads in cities. In fact, we were prohibited by law at that time from doing it. He also, however, carried this on beyond simply the physical aspects of the road and its traffic. He went into financial aspect surveys, and they were pretty hard to sell in those days.

Lash: Was Mr. Fairbank an engineer?

He was an engineer, a very able engineer. He graduated from Cornell, but Fairbank was far more than an engineer. In my mind, Fairbank was an educated man in what I would say is the very best sense of the word. He perhaps could be characterized as a scholar. He read a great deal. And I'm sure that his knowledge of economics was good because he read in that field. He read literature as well and I think that's one of the things that many of us as engineers lack-knowledge of literature and history-and I believe it showed in Fairbank. Some of his abilities came from his knowledge of what had come before through his reading. So he was an engineer without doubt, basically an engineer, but he was the broadest thinking man that I perhaps ever had the opportunity to come in contact with.

So he foresaw these things, it seemed to me, as a need for this highway planning. He foresaw early the need for economics and he tried to bring economists into our organization and into our thinking. He realized that we as engineers were not trained in economics. He realized I'm sure the importance of highway transportation to the economy of the country and he tried to introduce into our planning, into our thinking, the work of economists he could employ. It was a strong effort to marry engineering and economics into the development of the system that he saw back in the very early '30's.

But we were unfortunate, I would say, in that I don't believe the economists produced anything like what Fairbank had hoped would be forthcoming. I don't believe they had the ability to do it and I don't believe the economic profession at that time had advanced to the stage where they could give us the help that we needed.

So I look upon Fairbank as a man well ahead of his time in that respect and as I said, the strong right hand of Mr. MacDonald, who certainly foresaw most of what we now have on the ground today. He was a man of great vision.

How MacDonald and Fairbank Worked Together

 
Photo of Ted Holmes

Lash: How did they work together-was this a capability that led to differences and conflicts or did they work well together as a pair of remarkably talented and visionary men?

They were-I almost said a matched pair and that isn't right because a matched pair are almost identical. They were, I guess you could say, a complementary pair. Both men of great vision, both men of great talent, but expressing their talent and using it in quite different ways.

Now Mr. MacDonald was, I might say, a man for his time. People thought of him in many ways. Austere is the word I sort of think of when I think of Mr. MacDonald. Reserved is a good name; cold, he's thought of. Yet he was not cold when anyone got to know him. I'm sure he was a very warm man. But he was warm to only a very very few people. And I think he was a warm man to Fairbank [who] knew him.

I don't know that there were more than a few people who ever really got to know Mr. MacDonald. I was fortunate to be acquainted with Mr. MacDonald, very fortunate, I should think--acquainted with him over quite a number of years. And yet I couldn't possibly claim to know him. Many people said they knew him well. But when I hear someone talk about "Tom MacDonald," indicating that they were close to him, I knew very well that they probably couldn't even get into his office because nobody who knew Mr. MacDonald would ever call him "Tom MacDonald." If you called him anything but "Mr. MacDonald," you called him "The Chief." And he wasn't referred to in any other way by even his closest associates. People like to make themselves appear close to him, but very very few people were.

I'm not one who ever knew him, I'm sure of that, and yet I have had opportunities, a few only, in which just he and I sat and talked on a train trip. For example, we happened to be together at a meeting. He was a principal at a meeting and I was his alternate and I had been at the meeting with him [but he] left. I recall he always used the drawing room, of course, and being a Federal employee, I always used a lower berth. It happened we were in the same car. He couldn't go to the meeting in the afternoon and I was in the car and he walked by to the drawing room and presently would come back and said, well, how did the meeting go in the afternoon, and we got started talking then just coming out of Chicago and I guess at least 3 hours he sat there in the section with me and we just talked. Just as I say, the warmth that came from that man was just amazing compared to the austerity and coldness with which he usually is pictured [at least] on the few occasions when I had the real great privilege of sitting and talking with him.

Now where I think they paired off so well is that Mr. MacDonald was close to people who had real power. People in the automobile industry and people in agriculture and people in business and industry. He was close to leaders in those fields in a very quiet way and outside our office. That is, they were relationships that he had developed from which I'm sure he drew many of the ideas that he developed in his thoughtful, introspective periods that he had. And that's where he matched up so well with Fairbank.

Fairbank also was reserved. As I said earlier, I think of him as a scholar and you think of those people as a little bit apart and Fairbank to many people was a little bit apart. Yet to his broad field of friends and associates he was a very casual, old shoe type of man. You could kid with him, laugh with him, joke with him. Yet strangers didn't. He was dignified and reserved. Nobody called him by his first name except a very few. I never called him anything but Mr. Fairbank or Fairbank. I never got any closer to him than that.

Yet he could take these broad concepts that Mr. MacDonald saw and work them in through his organizational ability and through his wide acquaintance within our own field and those with whom we associated outside. He could meld those into a program. And that's why I think those two paired off so well over so many years.

Mr. MacDonald's Personality

 
Photo of Ted Holmes

Now [Fairbank] remarked one time about Mr. MacDonald-and he was rather fuming over the fact that he couldn't seem to get an increase in pay for some of the people that he thought deserved it because Mr. MacDonald felt that we couldn't afford it and any way they're pretty young. Fairbank was one who wanted to push the young people. Mr. MacDonald was one who wanted to rely on his old tried and true hands, his district engineers as he called them then and his chiefs of divisions. He thought, I really believe, that unless you had 30 or 40 years that you probably were pretty young. Fairbank remarked one time about Mr. MacDonald that he [never] been anything but head of the organization. He doesn't know what it is like to work for anyone. He doesn't know what it is to have to worry about your salary, about finding money to support his family or send the children to school. He started off at the top of the Iowa highway department. He came in to be the head of the Bureau of Public Roads. [Lash: At the age of 38 as I recall.] But he never worked for anybody in the Bureau of Public Roads. He came in as the head of it. And he was drawn from the university in the first place to head up the Iowa Department. He always looked back to his early Iowa days and the confidence he had in those people, Dean [Anson] Marston, Dean [Thomas R.] Agg [both of Iowa State College], you know those names, of course, those are the people Mr. MacDonald looked back to.

But he kept to himself. [When] you would go into his office at a meeting, he came as close as I could come in characterizing what I call royalty. When you're in Mr. MacDonald's presence, you were quiet, you spoke if he asked you to. If he didn't say anything, and someone concluded the statement he was making, nobody spoke until Mr. MacDonald reacted. It was sometimes to me rather embarrassing long silences while Mr. MacDonald meditated over what was said with his head down and his hands together and sometimes after minutes, literally, he'd come up and ask another question or he'd say I think we better do so and so.

Now Fairbank, you'd sit with Fairbank and it's just back and forth, back and forth, same as you and I are doing now. He was ready to listen to everybody and he got his ideas from everybody.

Somehow Mr. MacDonald's ideas seemed to stem from this meditating introspection. He'd take-back in those days he could do it-he'd take a month maybe and be gone from Washington. No one knew where he was. Well of course people knew where he was-Fairbank knew where he was. He was out on a ranch in the Sand Hills of western Nebraska and he was actually riding horses and working out there with this friend of his by name of Abbott who owned that ranch. People later knew where it was he had been. But it was during those periods, I'm very sure, that he formulated in his mind what I call grand programs, long visions that he showed in those days and which ultimately he sold to Congress.

He had the means to do it through the acquaintance of powerful people, people with constructive ideas outside, people in Congress and people in other government agencies. But he was looked upon always with deference everywhere he went. Even the Appropriations Committee looked upon Mr. MacDonald with deference. I used to play golf with a fellow who was on the Appropriations Committee and he would say he was the toughest witness or the best witness we ever have. We ask him a question and if he doesn't want to answer it he just sits there and smiles and pretty soon somebody goes on to another question. Picture that today!

I mean he was a man for his times, Mike, I think I have to say that. I don't know how Mr. MacDonald could have performed today. I wonder. But what a strength he was in those days and what he and Fairbank jointly contributed to our highway system and highway transportation today. Those two men principally did it.

Origins of the Interstate System

Lash: I think your contrast of the two in terms of where they obtained the vision is very interesting. On the one hand you describe Mr. MacDonald as getting his ideas and his concepts and vision almost entirely from within himself. He would go off in seclusion and develop these programs. While you characterized Mr. Fairbank as getting this from his reading, from his wide reading, and from interacting with people. I think that's a very interesting contrast of two people, two personalities and how they each had vision and yet how they came from different sources.

I think one other point about Mr. MacDonald might be worth mentioning. I think Mr. MacDonald more than any one man recognized the importance of highway transportation to the national defense. And I think he had an extremely strong influence in getting the full support of what used to be the War Department, the Navy Department, for our program and particularly in the Interstate program, which we originally called the interregional program.

And that stemmed in large part and I heard him say this [on the train trip from Chicago]-in large part from Hitler and the autobahn. He said he thought World War II started a year before Hitler really wanted it to because he hadn't got his autobahn quite completed. He didn't mean to imply by that that the outcome might have been different, I suspect. But he had been very cognizant of the importance that Hitler attached to highway transportation, quick transportation within the borders of Germany, and the designs that he had built for that purpose. He was concentrating more on that than he was on armament when preparing for the war he felt was inevitable. Of course, he had the support of prominent engineers [such as Dr. Fritz] Todt [Chief Engineer for the autobahn].

He brought that view back to this country and saw the need of this interregional highway system for quick communication, not simply to rush military equipment around but to provide the industrial base and provide the transportation that was needed for the industrial base in connection with the war effort.

And it was so well demonstrated during the war. Our system was regarded as expendable and we used to say in papers we wrote then, "we spent it during the war." That's the reason we were in such horrible shape after the war was that the numbers of trucks, the heavy loads, lack of maintenance, broke the system up. And it proved conclusively that Mr. MacDonald's views were correct on that and it was one of the strong reasons by which we were able to get the interregional system built, I believe, was because of the strong support we got from what is now the Department of Defense.

Again an example of how MacDonald's interest extended through the whole world was his great interest in developing countries and the importance that he saw in helping these countries build their highway system, the training he had us give to the foreign engineers after the war, hundreds of them literally, who came over here and the missions that we set up-we worked in more than 30 countries-35 or 36 countries-we've had missions. That stemmed from Mr. MacDonald's view of the importance worldwide to all the people of highway transportation. He saw it so far ahead of the rest of us.

Lash: I heard that Mr. MacDonald gained a lot of his strength on the Hill through his ability to foresee years in advance what Congress would be likely to be interested in and ask for. And he would anticipate this-and because of this he was greatly admired and looked upon as almost a prophet.

I would suspect, however, it wasn't his anticipation of what Congress would be thinking, but his anticipation of what the times would be requiring and recognizing that Congress would have to be responding to the times. He was ready for the times. That's why Fairbank had total support of Mr. MacDonald in organizing his highway planning activity.

Transforming the Research Function

One thing, I think, I ought to mention about Fairbank, in particular-I've spoken about him in relation to planning. But Fairbank was the one who set up research as a total function in Public Roads. When I came in we were designing highways for almost static loads. Fairbank was quick to recognize that we were switching from planning for single vehicles to dynamics and traffic and we had to think about capacity and we had to think about sight distance and widths of lanes and so on. And Fairbank was the one who found the money to start these basic researches into geometric design-that I was fortunate to be involved in-signs, signals, markings, geometrics, safety, making the roads useful for people. Fairbank pulled together this research which had been wholly physical.

He went into the research in the field of economics, and the field of management and finance. Mr. MacDonald was just a bug on better administration of highway departments-research in the field of administration, how should highway departments be organized and how should the Bureau be organized and how should the counties be organized. He felt that administration was the key to the success of our program.

So these were all brought together into the research function and one of the reasons why Fairbank could do that was that budgets were never an important factor in those days in the 30's. You can't picture that nowadays, but if Fairbank felt that we ought to undertake a new study like the road test, for example the Maryland Road Test we put a lot of money into, all he had to do was go to Mr. MacDonald and say "Look, I need maybe $500,000 or a million dollars" and Mr. MacDonald would say, "Well, fine." I guess he said "fine" because Fairbank always got it.

Now sometimes he'd have to go back to the Appropriations Committee and ask for it. But then we had our percentage-2 and a half percent I think in those days-for administration and engineering. We never spent more than about 1 percent or 1 and a quarter and the committees were willing to say, well, Mr. MacDonald is a highly efficient administrator, he only uses half of the money that he has authorized, so, sure, if he wants another millions dollars, there's no problem. Now compare that to today. So that's one reason that Fairbank and MacDonald could succeed-is that they were not cramped for resources. They could hire people they needed. If they could find them, they could hire them.

Creation of Toll Roads and Free Roads

 
Photo of Ted Holmes

Lash: The highway planning surveys took place in the '30s. Was there any relationship, any linkage, between those programs and the development of the interregional highway program?

Not a linkage. It's a direct result, the next step down the pipeline. It might be worth recalling back in [1939] we produced a report called Toll Roads and Free Roads.

Now that report was prepared as a result of a discussion between President Roosevelt-Franklin Roosevelt-and Mr. MacDonald. It goes back to somewhere about 1937 that President Roosevelt called Mr. MacDonald over to the White House one day and said that I think we ought to have a system of superhighways in this country crossing the country east-west and north-south and I would say that we need three-I'm paraphrasing-east and west, three north and south, and he had a map of the United States there and on this he had drawn or did draw three lines east and west and three north and south. And he said not only that, I think they ought to be liquidated by charging of tolls and I think what I ought to ask you to do is lay out such a system of highways that will be self-liquidated.

So Mr. MacDonald came back and brought the map and, I suppose, called Fairbank in. And so, he said we have this job to do. I can recall because I had a hand in that report, a very minor hand as a very junior worker in the Fairbank stable as of that day. But we drew then at that time very heavily and almost totally on the products of the highway planning surveys that had been started back in 1935 and '36 and by then were underway in all States and we were then able to produce enough information to prepare a report that was ultimately transmitted to the Congress in [1939].

We examined not just those three routes east and west, three north and south. We examined a wide variety of routes. [We came to] the conclusion that such a system would not be self-liquidating. Such a system, Fairbank concluded, was needed, without any doubt, for the continuing economic growth of the country, but it could not be liquidated through the charging of tolls. Traffic would not be enough to justify it.

We did find even then that certain sections would be possible of liquidation by the charging of tolls. And if you could go back to that report and see the listing of sections, you'd find that the toll roads that have been built and the ones that are proving the most successful are right on the top of that list that we developed way back in the late 1930's. [That] proved simply that times change, but proportionately as the country grew, as traffic grew, it grew somewhat in proportion generally and the roads that were thought to be most likely to succeed in the 1930's, proved to be that in the fifties when the modern toll road era was at its height.

That report was sent to Congress and recommended that while such a system could not be liquidated through tolls, it recommended that a system of interregional highways be built.

Lash: Who were the people involved in preparing that report?

It's hard to go back and remember all of the people because this report was such a single handed effort of Fairbank himself. He would meet with all of us and work on details of his report so that I almost said it's a Fairbank product. But basically it was a Fairbank contribution, basically it was a planning report, basically it involved traffic volumes, estimates of cost, and so on.

Fairbank's Method of Writing

Fairbank had an unusual way of writing such a thing. He lived in Baltimore. He was a bachelor. and he lived with his sister who was in the Baltimore school system and retired from that system after many years. He lived a pretty simple life and of course it was quiet at home. He would work at home. He would write on yellow paper without lines and he'd write reams literally; as he could visualize the end product of his report, he would write it. And when he came to a figure, he'd leave a blank. And then sometimes he would come back after several days at home in Baltimore with a stack of yellow sheets and say, "Here," and pass them out [for his staff] to fill in the figures.

Well, hopefully, they were figures that we'd been working on and of course he knew what we'd been working on. It was most amazing to me that the figures that we filled in almost invariably supported the position he was trying to make. Now occasionally he came up with a statement he made that the figures didn't support. But he had the feel for this thing. He had enough of the figures in his mind as he wrote. And when he wrote, he wrote in a literary style.

I guess I couldn't single out people who worked on it. I worked on it, for sure, but you could never find any of my product in it, except the figures, I suspect, because the words are Fairbank's. The same thing applied to Interregional Highways [issued in 1944] when he wrote that report.

Laying Out The Interstate System

In laying out this system [for Interregional Highways] we undertook to make it conform to what we could foresee, to the best of our ability, were the needs of the future, principally in the economy of the country and in serving the country's population.

In doing that we started out in a pretty basic way, a crude way, of trying to develop a highway system that was really related to the economic infrastructure. We got maps that had the county lines in this nonphotographic blue and then with pencils or zipitone we started coloring in the counties by, say, agricultural production. We had maps that showed the degree of agricultural production in every county and value added in manufacturing, in mineral resources, areal forests. We took every measure that we could find from the Bureau of the Census or anywhere else that was available on a county basis and put it on these maps and then started laying lines through the blackest part of the maps-the black counties were the ones that were the most prominent in the particular activity. We found, as would not be unexpected, that when we tried to connect the bigger cities with lines that we're also connecting the areas with greatest commercial activity, and the greatest industrial activity, or whatever it was.

Originally the thought was, in Fairbank's mind and ones that we were busy trying to work out, were to find all the various measures we could of the country's economy and, I guess, you might even say, to the best of our ability then, its social needs and trying to fit them [into] a system that would serve those to best advantage and at the same time serve the greatest volume of traffic. Ultimately the system that was selected, at 40,000 miles, was found to be the best we could measure it at that time. [Beyond that] we would have reached a point of diminishing returns, that average traffic would be decreasing as we added more routes. So that we felt that we had reached about the optimum length when we got to that figure.

And that's why it was set at that figure. Of course, it's been increased a little since then for various reasons, but basically, it's still the system that originally we chose. And it is serving its purpose.

Interstate Highways in Urban Areas

Lash: Pyke Johnson was a visionary himself and an observer of highway developments in that time. In giving credit to Mr. Fairbank's remarkable vision and content in the toll road report, he said, "if all of the recommendations in that report could have been carried out in the decade that followed, the face of America today would not have the scarred landscapes that now appear on many of our routes of travel." I think something that is so often overlooked today is that these basic reports that paved the way for this program of thruways actually envisioned that these thruways should be built as part of a very close connection with land use planning to get the best reinforcement from both sides, which of course was never accomplished.

That's exactly true, Mike. I'm glad you brought it up. It was well recognized in those reports-the importance to the urban areas of highway transportation, the fact that highways would attract growth, that they could be used as dividers between different classes of land use; for example, the relationship between highways and land use is recognized. We couldn't quantify it in those days but the fact that a relationship had to exist certainly was recognized. Fairbank himself was strongly imbued with the idea of fitting the highway into the countryside and you'll see the illustrations in those reports that show how he recommended the independent alignment and the parklike surroundings that they hoped to be able to produce when they could and the need for good architectural treatment in the urban areas. Those were points that Fairbank recognized and wrote-and he was ahead of his time. They were not ready in the highway engineering field generally to accept those, I'm afraid.

Updated: 10/16/2013
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