|FHWA > Highway History > Rex Whitton--the Man from Missouri|
While serving as Federal Highway Administrator (1989-1993), Dr. Thomas D. Larson prepared a weekly Administrator's Note for FHWA employees. Two of them discussed one of his predecessors, Rex Whitton. They are reproduced here because they provide a unique insight into one of the FHWA's greatest leaders.
Rex Whitton--the Man from Missouri
Administrator's Note, Volume 2, Number 10, November 16, 1990
Those portraits in the hall outside my office--"Chief Highway Executives Since 1893"--continue to intrigue me. I've mentioned them before--they start with stern-looking General Roy Stone (1893-1899) and, for now, end with Bob Farris (1988-1989). I'm not sure if they are there to inform passersby of past leaders or to remind the current occupier of this post of the big shoes to be filled.
I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some of the recent Administrators, but of course I can only read about the others. Rex Whitton, for example, was our Administrator from January 20, 1961, to December 31, 1966. His picture is just to the right of the entrance to room 4211, our Executive Secretariat--opposite our entrance, so I see it every time I go out. (You can find a copy on page 194 of America's Highways 1776-1976.) I never met Rex Whitton, but like most students and instructors of Civil Engineering, I knew of him as a giant in the highway business.
Recently, with the help of Richard Weingroff from our Program Development office, I had a chance to flesh out that image, thanks to some old newspaper articles and speeches saved by the DOT Library. In one of Whitton's last speeches as Administrator, he said, ". . . it is sometimes useful in getting a clear perspective on the road ahead to take a quick look at the road behind." With 1991 and the approach of a major turning point for our program, I thought a quick look back might be useful. In this note and one to follow, I'll review Whitton's days as Federal Highway Administrator--and see how they relate to our work today.
Perhaps you'll think I was drawn to Whitton by his background. He was born on a farm in Jackson County, Missouri, and milked 10 cows a day, hoed corn, plowed the fields, shocked wheat, and put up hay for his family while attending a country school. He worked his way through the University of Missouri, graduating in April 1920 with the degree of bachelor of science in engineering. His grades, he told a reporter in 1961, were, "Just average, and maybe I'm bragging a little when I say that."
Whitton began working for the Missouri Highway Department 11 days after graduation, earning $110 a month as levelman on a 15-mile stretch of road in Johnson County. He moved steadily upward in the department, finally becoming Chief Engineer in 1951. The only interruptions in his steady progress occurred when he decided to stay in two jobs longer than necessary because he wasn't satisfied he had learned enough about those phases of highway construction.
He became President of AASHO in 1955. As such, he represented AASHO in the debates on Capitol Hill leading to passage of the legislation that launched the Interstate Highway Program with a few strokes of President Eisenhower's pen on June 29, 1956. Whitton was especially proud of the fact that under his leadership, Missouri let the first contract following approval of the legislation (for paving a section of I-44 in Laclede County, let on August 2). Whitton received the 1958 Bartlett Award and the 1960 Thomas H. MacDonald Award, as well as being named one of 1960's Top Ten Public Works Officials--all before he became Administrator.
Along the way, he met his future wife, Callie Maude Lowe, while on a 20-mile grading job in 1924. They married a year later. In 1961, on the verge of taking office as Federal Highway Administrator, Whitton credited much of his success to his wife. "She goes everywhere with me and makes my life wonderful." The other reason for his success? "I always figured I wasn't too smart, so I had to work just a little harder to make up for it." Those two factors will work for anyone.
A description of him, written in 1961, surprised me:
You might expect . . . to meet a human dynamo [after all those accomplishments, I would!]. On the contrary, Whitton moves and acts like a man with low metabolism. He moves slowly, speaks softly, smiles rarely and gives the impression of relaxed friendliness . . . . Almost six feet tall and slender, Whitton could pass for a man in his early fifties [he was in his early 60's at the time]. His dark brown hair, showing a little gray, is still thick . . . . He keeps his weight at 170 pounds by watching his diet.
He was scrupulously honest and occasionally impatient with lobbyists, some of whom referred to him as "that sorehead over in the Highway Department." Possibly no greater tribute could be paid to the head of a highway agency.
He was dedicated to completion of the Interstate System on schedule, but used freeways only when he was in a hurry. "We take the back roads," he explained. "That's the finest way to travel unless you're in a big hurry to get somewhere." He and his wife collected antique glass and, as he told a reporter in 1964, ". . . you don't find antique shops on the big new interstate highways."
The Bureau of Public Roads was part of the Department of Commerce at the time. When Secretary of Commerce-designate Luther Hodges (then the Governor of North Carolina) offered Whitton the job, he declined. "But Hodges told me it was my duty to serve and that I owed it to the country. So on that basis I accepted."
You may recall my theory that history is strongly circular, as demonstrated by my adventures on "A Mule Called Jack" (Administrator's Note, August 24, 1990). As it happens, Whitton dealt with many issues 30 years ago that we see, in altered form, in our work today. The whirlpools of history still spin, so I wondered how Whitton dealt with some of "our" problems.
Take financing, for example. We often hear calls to "spend down" the balance in the Trust Fund. I know from long experience that trying to explain the workings of the Trust Fund and the reasons for the balance is a little like explaining term life insurance. Eyes glaze over. Whitton, however, had to confront the aftermath of "spending down" so far that we went beyond our means.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958 had increased authorizations, but not revenue, and temporarily set aside the Trust Fund's pay-as-you-go mechanism. The idea was to accelerate the program and "prime the pump" during a late 1950's recession. Only borrowing from the general treasury and a temporary gas tax increase approved in 1959 kept the Trust Fund solvent. As one Congressman described the problem in October 1959, ". . . we barely missed detouring the whole construction program up a blind alley." Serious consideration was given to major changes in the financing of the program and the costly urban segments.
During his initial months in office, Whitton was involved in securing new legislation to restore order to the Interstate Program. After considerable debate, Congress rejuvenated the program by passing the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1961. It increased revenue for the Highway Trust Fund and assured development would proceed on a pay-as-you-go basis. President Kennedy signed the bill on June 29--exactly 5 years after President Eisenhower signed the 1956 act. Whitton said:
I have among my proudest possessions today one of the pens used by the President in signing the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1961 . . . . It is not an expensive pen 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.
Whitton was right. The 1961 act set the program on a steady course that has continued to this day. (And I think I know exactly how he felt--I have never been prouder than on the day last March when the President and Secretary Skinner released the National Transportation Policy.)
Changes were also needed to handle the expanded mission. During Whitton's tenure, he set up the Office of Planning, a function that had previously been combined with research. He also established the Office of Right-of-Way and Location to deal with two of the most difficult areas in the Interstate Highway Program, created the Office of Highway Safety, and brought in specialists (ecologists, behavioral scientists, civil rights specialists, etc.) to deal with the new circumstances. In all, the Bureau expanded from 4,521 employees to 4,839 during this period.
Another change allowed Whitton to deal with what turned out to be exaggerated allegations of corruption (sometimes called "The Great Highway Robbery"). He created an Office of Audits and Investigations, headed by a former FBI agent, to toughen our oversight capability. This office, plus increased inspections, sampling of materials, audits, and investigations, helped restore the program's reputation with the public and the Congress.
We, too, must change to meet the challenges of a new era in our history. We recently reorganized Washington Headquarters to accomplish several goals, including the mainstreaming of environmental issues and the sharpening of our technology transfer functions. "I'm not afraid of change," Whitton told a reporter in 1966, and neither should we.
One of our biggest problems today is congestion. Creeping along an "expressway" during "rush hour" is bad enough. But congestion also takes a toll on our national productivity, our environment, and our civility. Some critics think the problem was caused by too many cars and too much reliance on highways. Next year, that claim will surely be heard many times. It's nothing new, of course--but it never has been true. We have long recognized that highways alone are not the full answer to urban transportation problems. Here's what Whitton said about this subject in 1966:
There is every prospect that the demands for new and expanded highway facilities will continue to increase . . . . [However, the] fact is that all of the additional urban freeway mileage it might be possible to build . . . would probably not be enough to accommodate the tremendous traffic loads of future years. We will need all the help we can get from other modes of transportation to serve our cities. And often, even that will not be enough.
Quick, did Rex Whitton or Tom Larson make the following statement: "If it takes rails or subways, let's have them." The answer is: Rex Whitton, but it could just as easily have been Tom Larson, or any of my other predecessors. My successors will probably say the same thing.
I'll return to the Man From Missouri in a later note to discuss some of the other issues he faced in the early days of the Interstate Highway Program.
I have never seen a problem that did not present an opportunity; nor an opportunity that did not present problems. In any sector of human striving it has always been true that problems and challenges are the bedfellows of progress.
Administrator's Note, Volume 2, number 12, November 30, 1990
T. D. Larson
Most voters may not be aware that they work nearly 40% of the time for the government. But they have realized that, whatever the amount, they do not get enough in return to justify the burden.
Equally disturbing, the effort of catering to the demands of so many special interests diverts government attention and expenditures away from what it should be doing: activities that cannot be handled efficiently by the private sector. These include financing roads, airports, schools, and other forms of infrastructure . . . .
Gary S. Becker|
University Professor of Economics
University of Chicago
Business Week, November 26, 1990
Office of Infrastructure and Transportation Performance