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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 69 · No. 5 > Essential to the National Interest|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-2006-003
Essential to the National Interest
by Richard F. Weingroff
The first decade of the greatest public works project in history began a transportation system yet unrivaled in the world—along with problems to match.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood the value of roads. In 1919 he was aboard the U.S. Army's first transcontinental convoy, a 2-month journey from Washington, DC, to San Francisco, CA, to assess the readiness of military vehicles to make such a long trip and to promote good roads. The trip convinced the participants, which included military personnel, road advocates, and members of the press, of the country's need for better roads. During and after World War II, he traveled on Germany's Reichautobahnen network of rural superhighways, which were studied and envied by American engineers during the prewar 1930s. Eisenhower would say, "The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land."
In 2006 the transportation community celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate System. The second in a three-part series, this article examines the birth of the Interstate System, from the grand ideas to the day-to-day challenges of executing the country's largest public works project.
The Interstate Idea
The concept of the Interstate System was born in two reports to the U.S. Congress, Toll Roads and Free Roads (1939) and Interregional Highways (1944). The reports recommended construction of what the 1939 study called a "system of direct interregional highways, with all necessary connections through and around cities, designed to meet the requirements of the national defense in time of war and the needs of a growing peacetime traffic of longer range."
Congress agreed. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 directed designation of a 65,000-kilometer (40,000-mile) "National System of Interstate Highways" by joint action of State highway agencies, subject to approval by the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR). In August 1947, Major General Philip B. Fleming, the Federal Works Administrator, and Commissioner of Public Roads Thomas H. MacDonald announced designation of 60,642 kilometers (37,681 miles) of principal highways, including 4,638 kilometers (2,882 miles) of urban thoroughfares carrying the main line through cities. The remaining 3,732 kilometers (2,319 miles) of the authorized mileage were reserved for circumferential and distributing routes. This process was completed when BPR released the publication General Location of National System of Interstate Highways Including All Additional Routes at Urban Areas Designated in September 1955 (known as the "Yellow Book" because of the cover's color).
What was missing was a program to fund and build the Interstate System.
The "Grand Plan"
President Eisenhower's Grand Plan is sometimes misunderstood as simply recommending construction of the Interstate System. His vision was far grander than that.
The President intended to present the plan to the Governors' Conference meeting in upstate New York in July 1954. However, following the death of his sister-in-law, Eisenhower was unable to attend. Instead, he provided notes to Vice President Richard M. Nixon for delivery to the Governors.
The Grand Plan, Nixon explained, was that each level of Government—Federal, State, county, and municipal—would contribute to upgrading the Nation's entire road network over a 10-year period. The goal was "a properly articulated system that solves the problems of speedy, safe, transcontinental travel." The benefits would be improved safety, reduced traffic jams, less traffic-related litigation, increased economic efficiency, and elimination of "the appalling inadequacies to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense should an atomic war come."
Finally, the Grand Plan included "very probably, a program initiated by the Federal Government, with State cooperation, for the planning and construction of a modern State highway system . . . to construct new, or modernize existing, highways." That was as close as Eisenhower came to mentioning the Interstate System in his Grand Plan speech.
Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956
The President asked his friend and adviser General Lucius D. Clay to head a committee to develop a Federal response to the challenge. The resulting Clay Committee believed the Interstate System would cost $27 billion, with $23 billion of that for rural segments. In February 1955, Eisenhower submitted the committee's report to Congress along with legislative proposals. The Clay plan—which entailed $25 billion in bonds and redirection of the gas tax—was a flop.
As Congress searched for an alternative financing plan in 1955, the highway-related interests that supported the Interstate System agreed on only one thing—they did not want to pay for it. Why, they asked, should only users pay for a highway network that would benefit the entire country? In July 1955, the Congress adjourned without completing action, mainly because of disagreement over financing.
Supporters realized they would have to compromise to get the highways they wanted. With tax compromises in place, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 moved through Congress with little controversy. It included a financing mechanism drafted by Representative Hale Boggs (D-LA) of the House Ways and Means Committee. At the suggestion of Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey, Boggs used the Social Security Trust Fund as a model for the Highway Trust Fund. Revenue from taxes on highway user products would be credited to the highway fund for use exclusively on the Interstate System and other Federal-aid highway and bridge projects. The revised bill sailed through the Congress, which approved the bill on June 26.
Having fought for this bill, President Eisenhower would be denied a signing ceremony. He was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center following emergency surgery for an intestinal ailment. On June 29 he was given a stack of bills, including the highway act. Without fanfare, a photograph, or statement, he signed the legislation and was, according to Press Secretary James C. Hagerty, "highly pleased."
The legislation changed the name of the Interstate System to reflect its importance to national defense: The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. It expanded the system by 1,609 kilometers (1,000 miles) to 65,983 kilometers (41,000 miles) and authorized $25 billion to be made available in fiscal years (FY) 1957 through 1969 for construction to accommodate traffic demand in 1975. The Federal share of costs would be 90 percent.
The first project to go to construction under the new law was the Mark Twain Expressway portion of U.S. 40 (future I-70) in St. Charles County, MO. Construction on the $1.87 million project, which included 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of bridging, grading, and concrete paving leading to a new bridge over the Missouri River, began on August 13. The Missouri State Highway Commission placed a sign on the project declaring it to be the first on which "actual construction" was begun under the 1956 act.
On August 31, the Kansas State Highway Commission awarded a contract for concrete paving of a 12.9-kilometer (8-mile) section of U.S. 40 (I-70) outside Topeka. Construction had begun before enactment of the 1956 law, but under the new contract, paving began on September 26 with funds provided under the new program. Joined by BPR officials, First District State Highway Commissioner Ivan Wassberg marked the historic occasion by scratching "9-26-56" in the fresh concrete. On November 14, 1956, highway officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and posted a sign proclaiming the project to be the first completed under the 1956 act.
Off to a Flying Start
In July 1956, BPR and the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), as it was called at the time, agreed on design standards for the Interstate System. Access would be controlled, with crossroads carried over or under the routes. The system would consist of divided highways with four or more 3.7-meter (12-foot) lanes. In sparsely settled rural areas where traffic volumes were low, the standards would be relaxed, with at-grade crossings permitted in some cases; two-lane sections with one lane in each direction would be built to one side of the right-of-way so additional lanes could be added when traffic warranted.
The highways would be designed for speeds of 80.5 kilometers per hour, km/h (50 miles per hour, mi/h) in mountain terrain, 96.6 km/h (60 mi/h) in rolling terrain, and 112.7 km/h (70 mi/h) in flat terrain. Bridges and overpasses would be built without overhead obstructions, but all structures would allow at least 4.3 meters (14 feet) of vertical clearance over the roadways and shoulders.
To maintain the program's quick start, President Eisenhower believed that BPR would need a leader with the prestige of Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation as he worked with State highway leaders appointed by Governors. With the support of Senator Al Gore, Sr. (D-TN), Senator Prescott Bush (R-CT), and others, the Administration's proposal for a position of Federal Highway Administrator became law in August 1956. The Administrator would be a top adviser on highway policy and take charge of the Interstate program, while the Commissioner of Public Roads, Charles D. "Cap" Curtiss, would oversee day-to-day operations of BPR and its other programs.
President Eisenhower's choice was Bertram D. Tallamy, who had held several positions with the New York Public Works Department and helped create the New York State Thruway. But because Tallamy was unable to sever his New York connections until February 1957, the President appointed John A. Volpe, who had recently resigned as Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Works to return to the private sector, to serve as interim Administrator. Like Tallamy, Volpe was a seasoned veteran within the highway community, having started his own construction company with initial capital of $300 and built it into a multimillion dollar contracting firm.
Thus, on October 22, 1956, Volpe became the first Federal Highway Administrator (although not confirmed by the Senate). At the White House ceremony, President Eisenhower said he wanted to make certain that the highway program got off to a "flying start." He held the Bible while Frank K. Sanderson, White House administrative officer, administered the oath of office to Volpe, the only Administrator whose swearing-in ceremony was attended by a President.
Volpe coordinated important decisions with Tallamy, and in his brief tenure, he reorganized BPR and delegated authority to field offices to handle the increased workload more efficiently. The States, he reported to the President on February 1, were moving forward aggressively; only five had not obligated any of their FY 1957 Federal funds. In submitting his resignation, Volpe said, "My 100 days in Washington have been exciting, challenging, busy, action-packed, and, I trust, productive."
On February 5, 1957, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks administered the oath of office to Tallamy, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. Tallamy understood the task he would oversee. As he told the Economic Club of Detroit in May, the 1956 act provided the highway community with "the greatest challenge that has ever been given to any peacetime public works agency." It was bigger, he said, "than the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Panama Canal, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Egyptian Pyramids, and a lot of other big projects . . . all rolled into one." Despite the scale of the project, he said, the highway community had only 13 to 16 years to complete the job.
As the first year ended, BPR General Counsel Clifford W. Enfield said, "Perhaps the greatest advancement to be enjoyed by Americans during the 20th century may not come about because of nuclear energy, startling medical advances, or interplanetary communications, but by enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956." He added, "This legislation calls for environmental changes for the United States on a scale so staggering as to dwarf any prior peacetime endeavors of mankind."
Enfield called it "America's New Design for Living."
Pivotal Year: 1957
The highway engineers who launched the Interstate System may, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking they would be part of one of the most popular programs in American history. Today, with the automobile long since a key part of the American way of life, traffic volumes increasing every year, congestion in cities sapping urban energy, suburban life spreading into exurban sprawl, and continuing concern about highway safety, the system's popularity may have decreased a bit. But in the 1950s, support for Interstates was widespread and bipartisan. During the debates in Congress in 1955 and 1956, no opposition was expressed whatsoever.
As the first fiscal year of the Interstate program ended in June 1957, Tallamy reported that based on engineering and economic studies, BPR had approved 80 percent of the locations within the original 65,000-kilometer (40,000-mile) limit. Further, State highway agencies completed improvements on 1,190 kilometers (737 miles) of the Interstate System at a total cost of $173.3 million (Federal share: $117.8 million). BPR added that planning and construction were "going on at a furious pace throughout the Nation."
But Tallamy acknowledged that problems had been encountered. For example, he noted that engineers and steel were in short supply. Indeed, throughout 1957, highway engineers would be buffeted by surprises, even shocks.
One of the problems was a requirement in the 1956 act that the States hold public hearings to consider the economic effects of the location if a Federal-aid highway project involved bypassing or going through a city, town, or village. Based on early experience, AASHO Executive Secretary A. E. "Alf" Johnson warned highway officials that the hearings required "the finest in public relations" and must present "factual data and logical reasons."
Right-of-way acquisition was another concern because so much of the Interstate System would be built on new locations. State highway agencies had rarely needed to acquire land or to do so by eminent domain. The States needed new legislation, standards, appraisers—and they needed them quickly. The first problems arose in Indiana, where speculators were buying land in the Interstate corridors to resell to the State at "preposterous profits," as The Washington Post and Times-Herald reported.
Perhaps the greatest shock of 1957 involved the urban routes, which—contrary to the estimate of requiring just $4 billion of the total $27 billion—would take about half the Interstate funds. From the earliest description of the Interstate System, in BPR's 1939 report to Congress Toll Roads and Free Roads, the goal was to use the new highways to invigorate blighted urban areas, reverse suburbanization, and restore city tax bases. To achieve these goals, BPR had used sampling techniques developed with the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct extensive urban origin-and-destination surveys and worked with State and local officials before designating the urban Interstates in 1955. BPR urged the States to concentrate on projects in urban areas because that was where the need for traffic relief was the greatest.
The highway community would find out how hard providing that traffic relief would be at a September 1957 conference in Hartford, CT, on the effect of highways on metropolitan areas. Tallamy, reinforcing statements by Administrator Albert M. Cole of the Housing and Home Financing Agency, told conference attendees that "we have the chance of a century to make our cities sparkle brightly among our Nation's brilliant collection of really wonderful cities." The Interstate System, he added, was "probably the greatest single tool" in reversing urban problems.
Tallamy recognized, however, that as soon as "a fine new highway project" is developed, "there will develop forces opposed to it." He was confident that those who criticized the program the most at the start would "probably be pushing the real supporters of the program in the background at the finish so they can cut the ribbons and take the credit they do not deserve."
The final speaker at the conference, nationally known author and social scientist Lewis Mumford, was skeptical, however. "We have good reason to be anxious," he said, since it was obvious "that neither of these Administrators had the slightest notion of what they were doing."
The real blame fell on Congress, Mumford said, which approved the 1956 act based on a study of highways, "not a study of the real problems." It had been "jammed through Congress so blithely and lightly," Mumford said, "on a dubious pretext," namely America's love of the automobile and the idea that it was "a necessary part of our defense program." He dismissed the latter claim as "nonsense" because "there is no defense against total extermination in nuclear warfare, no defense except peace."
The conference made national news, painting the highway experts as the "bad guys." The consensus among critics was that the urban Interstates should be suspended until comprehensive land use plans could be drawn to incorporate them.
The initial reaction of State highway officials is reflected in a speech by AASHO President William A. Bugge to a regional AASHO branch. He rejected the suggestion that highway officials needed "some expert assistance from outsiders." The idea of a 2-year moratorium for urban Interstates, as some had called for, "is a bit ridiculous," because the "economic penalties for delaying already vitally needed facilities for another 2 years would be tremendous," he said.
Despite the warning signs, the highway community had much to celebrate as 1957 ended. The States broke the record in dollars invested in all highway development by spending nearly $4.6 billion. Through December 1, more than $1 billion in Federal and State funds had been committed to Interstate projects, and projects totaling $247 million were completed.
Secretary Weeks released the first Interstate Cost Estimate (ICE) in January 1958. It covered 62,037 kilometers (38,548 miles) of the Interstate System (excluding mileage added in 1957) and pegged costs at $37.6 billion (Federal share: $33.9 billion). However, the Secretary did not see a need for additional authorizations. As techniques for estimating costs were refined, he said, future estimates would more accurately reflect trends "either upward or downward." Until then, an increase in funding "would be premature."
The Secretary's caution was soon confronted by economic reality. By August 1957 the country had slipped into a recession that would increase unemployment to 7 percent and reduce corporate profits by 25 percent by April 1958. One of the reasons the President had promoted the Interstate System was to counteract just such a situation—so that he would have a public works program that could be expanded or contracted to influence the economy.
To stimulate the economy and avoid losing momentum, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958. It increased Interstate funding by $800 million for FYs 1959-1961 and included an emergency increase of $400 million for the Federal-aid systems in FY 1959.
Because these increases occurred without a change in taxation to boost revenue, the 1958 act also suspended the 1956 law's "Byrd Amendment"—for deficit hawk Senator Harry Flood Byrd (D-VA)—which required the Commerce Secretary to hold apportionments below the point of creating red ink in the Highway Trust Fund. President Eisenhower approved the legislation in April 1958, just as the recession was ending.
By the end of the year, Interstate construction expenditures exceeded trust fund receipts. Additional income would be needed to avoid reduced apportionments in FY 1961 under the restored Byrd Amendment. The looming crisis led many in the highway community to fear what the American Road Builders Association (ARBA) described as "a complete collapse of work on the Interstate System."
Critics attributed the funding imbalance to "gold-plating," especially in urban areas. They created the term "90-itis" to describe the attitude of State highway officials who, they said, had no reason to be economical because the Federal Government was picking up 90 percent of the cost. As Representative John A. Blatnik (D-MN) of the House Committee on Public Works would say, "Congressman after congressman got up on the floor of the House and made wild speeches, frightening speeches . . . saying we had a shortage of funds because the States were playing fancy-free and foot-loose with the taxpayers' dollars."
To maintain the construction schedule, President Eisenhower recommended a temporary 1.5-cent increase in the gas tax, but the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1959 added only a penny (increasing the tax to 4 cents a gallon) through June 1961. The legislation, which the President approved on September 21, also reduced FY 1961 Interstate authorizations to $2 billion, but because of the Byrd Amendment, BPR could apportion only $1.8 billion.
While signing the 1959 act, President Eisenhower disclosed that he had asked a member of his staff, Major General John Bragdon (U.S. Army, retired), to study the Interstate program with attention to delineating Federal versus State and local responsibilities in financing, planning, and supervising the highway program. Bragdon also would be responsible for determining ways to improve coordination between planning for Federal-aid highways and State and local planning, especially for urban areas. At the same time, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (D-TX) appointed Representative Blatnik in September 1959 to head the Special Subcommittee on the Federal-Aid Highway Program investigating corruption allegations.
The Urban Problem
Shocked by the intensity of objections to the Interstate System from Mumford and others, the highway community tried to regain its footing by holding a summit at Syracuse University in October 1958. Committees of the American Municipal Association, AASHO, and Highway Research Board joined the university in what was billed as the first National Conference on Highways and Urban Development. Funded by the Automotive Safety Foundation, the conference featured highway officials and elected officials, primarily mayors, who supported the goal of making the Interstate System work for the orderly development of urban communities. The critics were not invited.
The goal was a "grand accounting" in which the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative for highway users and the community were to be evaluated. As E. H. "Ted" Holmes, BPR's assistant commissioner for research at the time, would recall many years later, "Probably no one present, however, had any notion of the difficulty of measuring the community costs and benefits."
The Urban Revolt Begins
If the highway community left the Syracuse conference with renewed optimism, it soon had a reminder of how difficult a challenge it faced in urban areas.
Several cities were seeing resistance to Interstates, particularly from those whose homes or businesses would be acquired for rights-of-way. In San Francisco, for example, opposition focused on the Embarcadero Freeway (I-480) that was to link the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (I-80) with the Golden Gate Bridge (U.S. 101). City officials had proposed the freeway in 1943 as a way of using a needed transportation artery to revitalize a blighted area near the Ferry Building and a former farmer's market. State highway officials used a double-deck design that they considered "an ultramodern highway facility." After the initial section opened in February 1959, it came to symbolize what the San Francisco Chronicle called "a crime which cannot be prettied up."
In January 1959, the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco met to discuss the proposed Western Freeway (I-80) through the Sunset District. With more than 160 freeway opponents cheering, the board adopted a resolution opposing construction of all freeways in the San Francisco Master Plan. The resolution cited "the demolition of homes, the destruction of residential areas, the forced uprooting and relocation of individuals, families and business enterprises" as well as the loss of property from the tax rolls.
Concerns about the impact of the Interstate System on urban areas would be summarized in the April 14, 1960, issue of The Reporter magazine. "New Roads and Urban Chaos" was written by Daniel P. Moynihan, a professor who had served on the staff of New York Governor Averill Harriman. Moynihan began by quoting The Wall Street Journal's description of the Interstate program as "a vast program thrown together, imperfectly conceived and grossly mismanaged, and in due course becoming a veritable playground for extravagance, waste, and corruption."
Moynihan declared that "the crisis has come. In one metropolis after another, the plans have been thrown together and the bulldozers set to work." At this late stage, metropolitan planning would be difficult, especially given the shortage of planners. Still, he said, "almost any effort to think a bit about what we are doing would help." He advocated funding flexibility because he was convinced that city officials would use at least 50 percent of the Interstate funding for mass transit and commuter facilities if they could.
Moynihan was sure the pending congressional investigations would turn up thieving, mischief, and blunder. "If not," he said, "it will be necessary to investigate the investigators," but he hoped for a more serious reappraisal in the next Administration. "We may yet impart some sanity and public purpose to this vast enterprise." He closed, "Roads can make or break a Nation."
As Ike Leaves Office
Meanwhile, the highway community awaited two reports, namely Bragdon's report to the President and the new ICE, both of which were expected to provoke additional concerns. Rumors about the Bragdon report were circulating for months, particularly that it would call for abandoning the urban Interstates, downsizing the program, and converting it to toll facilities. Bragdon and his staff had peppered BPR with questions and requests for a year before issuing a 12-page report embodying these concepts just 3 days before the end of the Eisenhower Administration. It was quickly forgotten.
Although Bragdon's untimely report was ignored, Congress could not ignore the 1961 ICE. This estimate, submitted to Congress on January 11, put the total cost of the Interstate System, including past expenditures, at $41 billion (Federal share: $37 billion). Based on work underway and previous authorizations of $25.4 billion, Congress would have to authorize an additional $11.5 billion to complete the Interstate construction program on schedule—or scale it back.
As the Eisenhower Administration ended on January 20, 1961, 16,802 kilometers (10,440 miles), or 25 percent, of the Interstate System was opened to traffic. More than $10 billion was spent. Lingering concerns would need to be addressed by incoming President John F. Kennedy and his appointed officials. General L. W. Prentiss, executive vice president of ARBA, put the situation facing the Interstate System in stark terms: "The highway program is in for the battle of its life."
To be continued in the May/June 2006 issue of Public Roads magazine.
Richard F. Weingroff is the information liaison officer in the FHWA Office of Infrastructure.
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