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The Trailblazers

Brief History of the Direct Federal Highway Construction Program

Note: The Direct Federal Highway Construction Program is now called the Federal Lands Highway Program. For a present-day history of the program, please go to: https://flh.fhwa.dot.gov/about/history/.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and its predecessor agencies have been directly engaged in the location, design, and construction of public roads, giving access to and through the National Parks, the National Forests, and other areas within the Federal domain since 1905. The record of intergovernmental cooperation with the other agencies concerned has been outstanding to this day.

In 1905, the same year of the U.S. Forest Service was established, the Division of Tests of the Bureau of Chemistry and the Office of Public Road Inquiries in the U.S. Department of Agriculture were consolidated into the Office of Public Roads. In spite of extremely limited staff and resources, immediate plans were made to offer a professional service in the area of road construction to other agencies of the Federal Government. This work was essentially advisory in nature.

The Agricultural Appropriation Acts of 1912 and 1913 provided funds that could be expended on construction of roads and trails serving the National Forest, and for the first time offered a sustained source of revenue for road improvement purposes in the public domain.

It is of interest that in 1912 the congress also appropriated funds for the improvement of Post Roads, in conjunction with Sates and interested localities who were required to provide matching funds. This concept was the forerunner of the subsequent Federal-aid highway construction program.

The Office of Public Roads worked out a cooperative arrangement with the U.S. Department of the Interior and with the U.S. Forest Service for he use of professional services in location, design and construction of roads in the National Forests and in the National Parks. By the end of fiscal year 1916, the direct Federal highway construction program was well established. The magnitude and extent of the job ahead can be appreciated as, at that time, there were virtually no improved in the vast areas of the Federal domain.

The Federal-Aid Road Act, approved July 11, 1916, is historic as it established the basis for the Federal-Aid highway program in cooperation with the States. To carry out the provisions of the Act, a complete Federal highway engineering organization was needed throughout the country. In 1917 10 districts were established, with each district given the responsibility for the construction of rural Post Roads in cooperation with the State highway departments, and for the survey, construction, and maintenance of National Forest roads in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service and the State and local authorities.

The Agriculture Appropriation Act for fiscal year 1919 changed the name of the Roads and Rural Engineering to the Bureau of Public Roads.

In recognition of the importance of providing missing links needed for transcontinental highway travel, and in order to aid in State and community development, and to provide access for the conservation and development of natural resources, the Federal Highway Act of 1921 provided for a number of changes needed for more effective administration of the Federal - aid cooperative highway program, and it increased substantially the funds available for forest highways.

To facilitate the administration of the direct Federal program in the western States, in 1921 the Bureau of Public Roads established a Western Regional Office in San Francisco, California, with four districts covering the 10 western States, Dr. L. I. Hewes was given responsibility for administration of the Western Regional Office.

In 1928 the Bureau of Public Roads was assigned the task of locating, designing, and building the Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway, with the objective of having the Parkway completed by 1932, the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. The parkway, running along the Potomac River, represented a relatively new concept. It was aligned with easy curves to fit the natural contours of the land, pleasant scenic vistas were provided, and the parkway was landscaped so that it became a natural part of the environment. At the same time, the arterial highway aspect was recognized, and access to the parkway was provided only at long intervals.

The parkway, now a part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, remains on of the most scenic drives near our Nation's capital, an outstanding tribute to the engineers and landscape architects of the Bureau of Public Roads responsible for its concept and construction.

Prior to the establishment of the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior in 1916, road building in the parks was sporadic depending on the availability of funds. During the period 1883 to 1918 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed and built the basic road system in Yellowstone National Park, our first National Park.

By the mid 1920'2 it became evident that road building by the States and by Federal agencies on public lands needed to be closely correlated. In 1924 the Congress enacted special legislation authorizing road construction in the National Parks. Following this legislation, a Memorandum of Agreement between the Bureau of Public of the Department of Agriculture and the National Part Service of the Department of Interior was executed in 1926. The agreement, signed by Stephen T. Mather, Director of the National Park Service, and Thomas H. MacDonald, Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, established the basis of interagency cooperation for the construction of roads and parkways under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

The work of the Bureau of Public Roads in the location, design, and construction of roads in the National Parks such as the Grand Canyon National Park, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, and other parks, was a natural extension of the Bureau of Public Roads as it had acquired the needed expertise through many years of experience of road building in the National Forests.

As additional National Parks were established, including those east of the Mississippi, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Shenandoah National Park, and the Everglades National Park, the Bureau of Public Roads played an important role working with the National Park Service under the interagency agreement in providing improved roads throughout the entire national park system.

During the 1930's the whole direct Federal Highway construction program expanded greatly as the Congress sought to alleviate effects of the economic depression by providing funds for increasing the number of public works.

In January 1934 Commissioner Thomas H. MacDonald of the Bureau of Public Roads established a new field district office in Washington, DC to handle the location, design, and construction of park, forest, and such other highway work as maybe entrusted to the Bureau. Mr. H. J. Spellman was placed in charge of the new district. Later, the district was designated Region 15, and it included the District of Columbia and 30 states east of the Rocky Mountains.

A notable achievement during the 1930's was the design and construction of Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park. Landscape architects of the National Park Service and highway engineers of the Bureau of Public Roads worked together to blend the parkway into the mountain landscape in a way that optimizes scenic vistas of the panorama of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the plains of Virginia. The subsequent construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a southern extension of Skyline Drive to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, represented a major effort of the Bureau of Public Roads Region 15 for many years.

When the eastern district office was established, direct Federal highway construction work in the western States and in Alaska remained as organized in 1921, under the Western Regional Office with Dr. L. I. Hewes, Deputy Chief Engineer in charge. There were five districts in the Western Region with district headquarters in Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, California; Denver, Colorado; Juneau, Alaska; and Ogden, Utah.

On July 1, 1939, the Bureau of Public Roads was transferred from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to become the Public Roads Administration of a new agency, The Federal Works Administration. The internal organization remained the same in carrying out the direct construction program.

During the years of World War II, highway construction in the National Parks and Forests was suspended. Direct Federal construction employees were assigned to defense projects such as the Alcan Highway, Inter-American Highway, the Pentagon network, and roads to provide access to sites where military and war-related activities were undertaken.

In 1949 the Federal Works Agency was abolished and the Public Roads Administration was transferred to the newly-created General Services Administration. Immediately thereafter the Public Roads Administration was renamed the Bureau of Public Roads and placed in the Department of Commerce.

During the decade 1950 - 1959 the direct Federal construction program grew in size and complexity. Substantially increased funds were made available and a concerted effort was made to modernize forest highways on the Federal-aid System which had been built originally in the early years and were no longer adequate. The years following World War II also brought a tremendous increase in recreational travel an the Bureau of Public Roads was called upon to build roads in many areas as they were added to the National Park system.

Many outstanding examples can be cited of new highways built in difficult terrain throughout the United States, including several long bridges and major tunnels. Work was also undertaken for other Federal agencies such as roads needed by the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Bureau of Land Management of the Department of the Interior, to provide access to military sites and to sources of raw materials.

In 1956 the Alaska Road Commission organization was transferred to the Department of Commerce and combined with the Bureau of Public Roads' Alaska office to form BPR.

Region 10, with responsibility for a system totaling 5,356 miles. Upon acquisition of statehood, the Alaska Department of Highways was organized in 1960 and assumed responsibility for the State's highway program.

To better administer the national highway program under the 1956 Federal-aid Highway Act, which initiated construction of the Interstate System, major organizational changes were made in the Bureau of Public Roads. At the headquarters level, the direct Federal construction program continued to be administered by a specific organizational unit, the Federal Domain Division, later renamed the Federal Highway Projects Division. In the field, Region 15 continued to handle direct Federal construction operations in the eastern part of the United States, and in the west a Federal Highway Projects Office was established in each of the three western regional offices - Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, California; and Denver, Colorado.

On April 1, 1967, the U.S. Department of Transportation was established. The Bureau of Public Roads was transferred from the Department of Commerce and became a part of the Department of Transportation, as the Federal Highway Administration.

In 1974 there was a further consolidation of the direct Federal construction program in the western States. The Federal Highway Projects Office in San Francisco was transferred to Denver. The program in the western part of the United States is now administered from two FHWA regional offices, Region 8 in Denver, and Region 10 in Portland.

In 1969, at the direction of Mr. Francis C. Turner, Federal Highway Administration, a Demonstration Projects program was established in Region 15 with the objective of promoting by demonstration the application of new technology as it applied to highway location, design, construction, maintenance, and operation. Under this program, similar to the one originated by the Office of Road Inquiry in 1893, the direct Federal construction staff has carried out many successful demonstration projects.

During its 70-year history, FHWA direct Federal forces have worked almost exclusively on Federal domain lands, utilizing Federal funding. The variety of work has ranged from the tropical swamplands of Florida to the glacial mountains of Alaska, and from urban freeways and parkways around Washington, DC, to one-land timber access roads in remote forest area.

Today, the direct Federal highway program is an integral part of the overall program of the FHWA. It has served as a valuable training opportunity for several generations of young engineers who, just out of college, received practical engineering experience that served as stepping stones in their careers. Many of the engineers in the direct Federal program subsequently moved to other positions of higher responsibilities, and attained wide professional recognition for their achievements in specialized aspects of highway engineering.

The FHWA has, for a continuous span of 70 years, contributed its highway engineering expertise to the planning, location, design and construction of highways and parkways in the federal domain for other governmental agencies. The many beautiful highways and parkways constructed under the direct federal program are a legacy for future generations to enjoy as they serve the transportation systems in our national Forests and Parks.

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Updated: 09/28/2017
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000