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"Clearly Vicious as a Matter of Policy": The Fight Against Federal-Aid

PART ONE: Unease in the Golden Age (Page 2 of 6)

Thomas H. MacDonald

Although AASHO and the Highway Industries Association disagreed on the Nation's highway needs, they agreed on the need for a strong new leader of BPR. And they agreed that salary was an obstacle to finding such a man. An editorial in Engineering News-Record for December 26, 1918, foresaw "a new era in highway work," one in which "an engineer of vision and strength" was essential for BPR, even though a Federal Highway Commission "should be created soon." The editorial stated:

Lack of vision and of sympathy with new conditions have been the chief deficiencies in the bureau in the immediate past. But of one thing the President and the Secretary need to be forewarned - they cannot obtain the type of man needed for $4500, which is the very inadequate salary attached to the directorship.

The editorial suggested an annual salary of $10,000.

AASHO recommended Thomas H. MacDonald for the job. Born in Leadville, Colorado, in 1881, MacDonald moved with his family to Iowa in 1884. He received his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Iowa State College in 1904. That same year, the college was designated a commission to study road improvement, with MacDonald as Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering and head of the road investigation. He became State Highway Engineer in 1907 and Chief Engineer of the Iowa State Highway Commission when it was formed in 1913. In this role, he worked with the small AASHO committee that drafted the Federal-aid bill that Senator Bankhead introduced in 1916. He had been an ally of Logan Page and was dedicated to the Federal-aid concept.44

From his experience in Iowa, he was better suited than Page to the postwar mission. Seely explained why:

If Page, with his laboratory background and moral crusader's outlook, had been the perfect choice to head the OPR in 1905, MacDonald brought traits that were equally well suited for running the BPR in 1919. His years in a state highway department gave him the insights essential for managing a cooperative federal-aid program... As the moral emphasis of the Progressive Era died out, killed largely by the war, MacDonald brought to the office a justification of road work that stressed more narrow economic and technical terms, a shift that seemed in tune with the times.45

MacDonald was prepared to accept Secretary Houston's offer when it became clear that Congress would approve a salary of $6,000 a year, an amount MacDonald felt would accommodate the higher cost of living in Washington and the additional expenses he would incur in discharging his responsibility to foster friendly relations with the State highway departments. However, he wanted one last assurance.

In a letter to the Secretary on March 20, 1919, MacDonald said he wanted to ensure he would be able to make the adjustments to "assist in changing the present attitude of criticism toward the Department and to insure the cordial co-operation of the state highway officials..." The changes were decentralization of responsibilities to the BPR's District Engineers; increased salaries for the District Engineers to retain their services; adoption of the "most liberal policy possible" in interpreting existing laws to get construction underway rapidly; and provision for an advisory committee, to be selected by AASHO, to help improve Federal-State relations.

These conditions being acceptable, Secretary Houston appointed MacDonald on April 1, 1919, "engineer in immediate charge of the work under the Federal-aid road act." When the salary of $6,000 was confirmed, he was appointed "Chief of Bureau" on July 1, 1919.

Although MacDonald was committed to the Federal-aid concept, he believed the key to making the program work was to reestablish the spirit of partnership that had foundered under Page, especially during the war. As a former State highway officials, MacDonald had a first-hand understanding of how the BPR was perceived by its State partners. He used that understanding in his campaign to restore the Federal-aid spirit. In a memorandum dated May 25, 1919, he advised all BPR engineers:

It requires unusual tact and ability on the part of our engineers and our organization to act in harmony with so large a number of officials and under such a variety of conditions. Our success will depend largely upon the attitude of mind and confidence we establish on the part of the State officials.46

In that spirit, he tackled some of the problems that could be dealt with administratively. For example:

  • He redefined the slippery term "substantial construction" to give States increased flexibility (roads should meet local traffic requirements and could be upgraded to that level in stages).
  • He expedited BPR's reviews of State plans, although he retained tough standards (for example, BPR rejected wooden bridges and refused to participate in questionable construction contracts).
  • He worked with the Interstate Commerce Commission to expedite shipment of portland cement amidst the severe rail shortage after the war.
  • In 1919, he asked Wisconsin's Hirst to select five of his peers to form an Advisory Committee to suggest ways of improving cooperation between the States and BPR.
  • He also made the BPR's technical expertise available to help the State highway agencies deal with problems beyond construction projects.

In these and other ways, MacDonald restored the foundation of the partnership. As Seely pointed out:

He received the credit for removing bottlenecks in the inspection and approval process, and largely ended the adversarial atmosphere that had appeared in federal-aid administration without reducing the bureau's ability to enforce standards. He also restored the feeling, which had existed before 1916, that the BPR was the place to turn for assistance with any type of highway problem. Thus the basis of success in the emerging federal highway program continued to be the technical expertise of the BPR and the cooperative attitude of these federal experts.47

Shortly before MacDonald took office, he received a note dated March 25, 1919, from the BPR's John M. Goodell, who had been informally advising him of activities in Washington during discussions of the appointment. Having heard that MacDonald was thinking about attending the April meeting where the Highway Industries Association organized the Federal Highway Council, Goodell advised against it. Noting that the goal was "to push a national highway system and commission," Goodell informed the incoming Chief that, "Everything that money and men can do to attain its objects is being done." He added, "but the sledding is none too easy, I hear." Attending the meeting would be going "into the very camp of the enemy."48

The Townsend Bill

When the 66th Congress convened on May 19, 1919, the Republicans had gained control of the Senate and House of Representatives during the November 1918 off-year (non-presidential) election. Senator Townsend became Chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, while Congressman Dunn, who had opposed enactment of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, became Chairman of the House Committee on Roads.

Townsend called a meeting in Washington on May 20 to discuss Federal highway legislation. State highway officials and leaders of the Highway Industries Association joined the Senator for the discussion. When the Townsend Bill was reintroduced in the 66th Congress on June 2, 1919, it was altered from the earlier version. Engineering News-Record summarized the new bill (S. 5626):

Among the principal changes is the reduction in the number of commissioners from five to three, decreasing their terms from seven to six years. The bill provides that not more than two of the commissioners may be of the same political party. In cases where states have so framed their highway laws that they can take advantage of Federal aid only through the Secretary of Agriculture, he shall act jointly with the proposed Federal Highway Commission in administering the Federal-aid law in those states.

All present Governmental road agencies, with the exception of those pertaining to the War and Navy Departments are transferred to the proposed new commission.49

The commission was to select the highways to be included in the national highway system within 2 years of enactment of the legislation.

The Highway Industries Association and other supporters of long-distance roads launched an extensive campaign to gain support for the new Townsend Bill. One of the organizations supporting the bill was the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. During its annual meeting on April 30, the chamber adopted a resolution favoring "a comprehensive national policy" that would direct Federal funding "to national needs for interstate commerce, agriculture, postal delivery, common defense and general welfare." Accordingly, the chamber resolved:

Congress should create a Federal highway commission, independent of present departments of the Government, composed of members from the different geographical sections of the country, to perform all executive functions of the Federal Government pertaining to highways, including those relating to existing appropriations in aid of state construction... Congress should make substantial appropriations for the construction and maintenance of a national highway system to serve the need for the maintenance of interstate travel and traffic... Expenditures of funds should be permitted only for highways which are of a permanent type, having thorough drainage, substantial foundations, sufficient width and a capacity for traffic which will be reasonably adequate for future needs.50

Similar resolutions were circulated to local chambers of commerce, one of which wrote to Secretary Houston to request his views. Houston's reply was widely reprinted in highway journals, with the BPR ensuring its circulation by reprinting it in the June 1919 issue of its own magazine, Public Roads. The reply began by pointing out "certain fundamental considerations" that should be reflected in a sound policy of highway administration and development:

(1) The roads in each section of the country are of varying degrees of importance in the service which they render or may render to the particular locality, to the State, and to the Nation as a whole. (2) This is a big country and the traffic conditions and needs vary greatly from section to section. (3) The State highway departments, being in immediate touch with local conditions, are best able to classify the roads properly on the basis of the economic purpose which they may serve. (4) The Federal Government, under the present Bankhead Federal Aid Act, is cooperating in the improvement of the roads of greatest importance, the classification of which is fixed by the State highway departments; and (5) when this classification has been carefully made and by agreement between the highway departments of adjoining States, the roads of first importance generally meet at State boundaries, and, therefore, become interstate highways of nation-wide utility. The Federal Government, under the present law, is aiding the State highway departments in the classification of their roads on the basis of importance and needs, and Federal aid is rapidly being extended for their improvement, on projects submitted by the States and approved by this department.

With those points in mind, Secretary Houston was "unable to see the need for the creation of a separate Federal highway commission or the wisdom of substituting for the present cooperative program a plan which would commit or limit the Federal Government to the construction of two federally owned and maintained trunk lines in each State of the Union." After summarizing the Townsend Bill and the 1916 Federal Aid Road Act, he acknowledged that the original legislation contained "certain features... that made its smooth administration difficult." These, he said, had been corrected by the Bankhead amendment to the post-office appropriations act. As a result, he saw "no special obstacle" to the construction of roads "that would serve the greatest economic needs."

Aside from the corrections in the Post Office Appropriation Bill for 1920, the Department had brought in MacDonald, "one of the most successful former State highway engineers in the country" to head the BPR. The amended legislation would be implemented by the BPR, "one of the largest and most effective organizations of its kind in the world," in close cooperation with the 48 State highway departments. A State advisory committee was to be established "to work in intimate touch" with the BPR:

This machinery, in effect, is an expert national commission intimately in touch through its various parts with all sections of the Union, having no other purpose than that of serving the public interest. It is difficult to see what need there can be for additional machinery.

Funding was another question. With $300 million available for the Federal-aid program, the Secretary thought it "scarcely likely" that Congress would made additional large appropriations available for the national commission. He added, "it would be impossible without creating many complications" to divert present funds from "the purposes and plans already under way under the cooperative arrangements with the States."

He was "convinced that nothing material would be gained by the proposed change." In fact, he said, "Much would be lost." Creation of the commission would add unnecessary administrative expenditures even though the commission could not do anything the current cooperative machinery could accomplish. He did not think the American people would support diversion of the funds to two main or trunk-line automobile roads in each State. Moreover, he thought the present system would result in roads that would serve the needs of long-distance travel by automobile or motor-truck, but also the farm interests. He said:

I have no prejudice against any sort of road except a bad road, or against any sort of construction except wasteful and unsubstantial construction.

Why introduce complications when the present law "will result, in a shorter time than most people imagine, not only in a network of good, substantial roads in the various States of the Union, but also in the requisite interstate highways"? He concluded:

It is difficult for me to see why all who are animated by high public spirit in their thinking concerning highways should not cooperate in the development of present programs and in the perfection of the existing processes and machinery, instead of attempting to overthrow them. I believe that many of those who are backing the proposed change do not know the facts and are not aware of existing conditions and possibilities.51

When Highway Engineer and Contractor printed Secretary Houston's response, the magazine added comments by Dr. H. M. Rowe, past president of AAA and a member of the AAA special committee devoted to passage of the Townsend Bill. Compared with Secretary Houston, the magazine said, Dr. Rowe was "a man who is equally, if not better able to tell what the people want." Dr. Rowe stated that "building a National Highway System is indicated not only by public sentiment, but by the weight of Government precedent." Highways should be considered "in the same class of public activity as railways, waterways, merchant marine, the national banking system and, in fact, any of the great distinctly national undertakings." He said:

It seems a self-evident proposition that the building of a national system of highways will form an enterprise of such magnitude and such complexity as to put it entirely beyond the sphere of a single bureau or other subdivision of an executive department and if, therefore, it be considered in the class of these greater national enterprises I have named, we should naturally expect to see the same kind of administrative machinery established for highways.

He demonstrated how each of the other enterprises was managed by an independent Federal agency that served no other purpose. (The railroads, which were privately built and owned, had been taken over by the Federal Government for the duration of the war, but in peace time were subject to the requirements of the independent Interstate Commerce Commission.). No such independent agency existed to build the desired highway network. The Departments of Agriculture, War, and the Interior might have a claim for building such a network, as could the Post Office Department. However, in each case, highways would be "a minor undertaking" in comparison with the agency's other responsibilities. He concluded:

From the standpoint of directness, of responsibility, timeliness of action and comprehensiveness of knowledge, a commission devoting its whole time to the one single task could not fail to accomplish far greater results than would be possible through the medium of a cabinet officer who would be devoting the greater part of his time and attention to matters wholly foreign to highways. It would seem that the commission plan is unassailable.52

In June 1919, AAA assembled in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for its annual meeting. The address by David Jameson, AAA's president, recalled the "pioneers in the early recognition of the importance of motor transportation" who had formed the organization in 1902. Although "the era of good road building has arrived," he warned that none should think "our mission is ended, that our work is done." He explained:

There is more and more work for the motor clubs and their central organization. Its kind changes, but its quantity increases with the years. We have advocated the appropriation of public moneys. We are in honor bound to assist in its wise expenditure. We have long favored a National Highway Commission entrusted with this duty. We have been assisting and shall continue to assist in procuring the enactment of the legislation needed to create such a commission.

George Diehl of AAA's Good Roads Board outlined the campaign. He recalled that before 1916, AAA had sponsored Federal Aid Conventions in Washington. "We possess the gold pen with which President Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act." Now, however, the focus had shifted:

We are now solidly behind what is known as the Townsend bill, calling for a Federal system, to be in charge of a Federal commission. We have figured in the developments which led to the introduction of this bill, and we shall utilize our country-wide strength in working for it.

He told the meeting:

It is a safe prediction to make that in the next five years more money will be spent on highways in this country than ever before, besides which there will come a gradual linking up of the main routes, both of an intrastate and an interstate character. Road travel and transportation are here and it is no longer necessary to advocate road building, for it is simply a case of obtaining the money and then seeing to it that it is properly expended.

The members adopted two resolutions addressing Federal road expenditures. One called for an amendment to the Federal Aid Road Act to address a concern that "the present interpretation of the road act does not bring substantial results" in establishing State road systems:

RESOLVED, That the American Automobile Association urge and call upon other organizations to co-operate in petitioning Congress to amend the Federal Aid Road Act in such manner as to provide definitely for the expenditure of the joint Federal and State money on highways which shall be included in defined State systems of roads.

The resolution also urged that the Secretary of Agriculture be given the power to increase the Federal share to 75 percent "whenever in his judgment both the intrastate and interstate needs can be best served."

A separate resolution addressed AAA's desire to replace the Federal-aid highway program:

WHEREAS our national policy in the early days of the Republic recognized the necessity for national highways; and

WHEREAS traffic conditions of today can only be effectively met by Federal legislation by reason of the enormous volume and wide radius of travel of motor propelled traffic seeking main routes and crossing State lines; and

WHEREAS the highways of interstate importance should be for that reason a national charge and cannot be selected or financed with due regard to equity and practical accomplishment except by a Federal agency. Therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the American Automobile Association urges upon the Congress of the United States the early enactment of a measure providing for the selection, construction, and maintenance of a connected system of main highways by a Federal highway commission, with the advice and consent of the States; that the entire expense of such highway system be paid out of the national treasury; that one provision be made to meet equitably the requirements of justice in States wherein the area is largely held by the Federal Government, and in States which have or shall have constructed portions of highways of national importance at State or local expense; and that we fully endorse S. 1309, commonly known as the Townsend bill, as fully meeting the needs of a national highway policy.53

Federal-Aid Rebounds

This period proved to be the high point for advocates of the Townsend Bill. With the Federal-aid highway program funded through FY 1921, Congress had no need to return to the subject. This interregnum gave Federal-aid supporters time to counter the national highway advocates.

Even as AAA and other advocates of the Townsend bill stepped up their promotional activities, the BPR published an article in the July 1919 issue of Public Roads that addressed the subject indirectly. The title of the article was:


The BPR had considered 239 Federal-aid projects during the month, and approved 133 of them. The approved statements covered 1,426.84 miles of road at an estimated cost of $25,611,314.99 (Federal share: $11,725,500.61). "The road-building era," the article stated, "is in full swing, and it would seem that the end is not yet." The BPR expected "yet greater records in the months immediately to come."

As if in direct response to advocates of long-distance roads, such as AAA and Judge J. M. Lowe, president of the National Old Trails Road, who often cited the National Road, the article highlighted Illinois Project No. 9. It "contemplates, after the lapse of nearly a century, the completion of the Old National Road, extending from the Potomac to the Mississippi, which already has been largely improved as far west as the Indiana line." Project No. 9 would extend the improvement from East St. Louis across the State to the Indiana line:

The proposed type of surface is monolithic brick and concrete pavement, the average cost of which is about $30,000 per mile.

In this way, the article, which included a brief history of the National Road, responded to those who advocated national road construction and increased expenditures per mile to build roads to a higher standard. These goals could be attained, the article implied, through the Federal-aid highway program of cooperation between the BPR and the State highway agencies.54

Seely identified some of the factors that led to the faltering of enthusiasm for a Federal Highway Commission:

Quarrels among the various backers of the Townsend bill over who should lead the campaign hampered genuine cooperation of the public relations effort. A more serious problem was the continuance of federal-aid, for even highway engineers who supported a national commission hesitated to jeopardize the money already appropriated. Congress in 1919 certainly had no desire to consider a plan that would not take effect for two years. So in spite of warnings that waiting until federal aid expired in 1921 would jeopardize their chances, most supporters of the commission favored such a delay. As a result, the sense of urgency about a national highway commission palpable in early 1919 was frittered away.55

The improving relations between the State highway agencies and the BPR under Chief MacDonald further damaged the push for a Federal Highway Commission. Although many States had endorsed the Townsend Bill early in the year, when AASHO held its annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, on December 8-11, 1919, its members adopted a resolution urging "continuance of Federal operation with the States in the building of roads under the terms of existing law and under the direction of present agencies." After recommending the appropriation of $100 million a year through FY 1924, the resolution went on:

That we favor an adequate national highway system upon which the Federal aid funds will be concentrated. This system shall be selected by the various States in cooperation with the Bureau of Public Roads, and connected at the State lines by the Federal department in cases where connections are not made by the adjoining States.

Realizing that the improvement of a system of national highways will be brought about in much shorter time through the cooperation of the Federal Government and the States under the plan proposed by this resolution, we favor the passage at this time of only such appropriations as will insure the continuation of the Federal aid as provided for in this resolution.

White, in his recollection of the period, recalled the behind-the scenes maneuvering prior to adoption of these resolutions. Following the 1918 vote, he said, "Both sides marshalled [sic] their forces for the next test of strength." He traced the turnaround to a meeting called by Kansas Governor Henry J. Allen (R), a newspaperman who had taken office on January 13, 1919. He invited State highway officials from surrounding States to meet with him in July to plan a campaign in support of Federal-aid and in opposition to the Federal Highway Commission. W. C. Markham, Secretary-Director of the Kansas State Highway Department, was "the principal guiding spirit" during the meeting. White set the scene:

On the date of the Kansas City meeting, there was pending before the Senate Committee on Postoffices [sic] and Post Roads of the National Congress, a bill introduced by the chairman of that committee [Townsend], to destroy the Bureau of Public Roads in the Department of Agriculture, create in lieu thereof a National Highway Commission, and set up a limited mileage national highway system to be owned, controlled, constructed, maintained, and operated by the National Highway Commission. The circumstances were further complicated by the fact that the chairman of the Committee on Roads of the House of Congress [Dunn], was opposed to the principle of Federal-aid to the States in highway building. He was, therefore, naturally, using his position and influence to discourage and prevent further appropriations of Federal-aid road funds. The small group of State Highway Department representatives at Kansas City faced a tough problem. There was no room for compromise. They must fight it out to the finish. They must whip the other fellow or take a beating themselves.

The seven States represented at the meeting developed a memorial petition to Congress in support of Federal-aid and opposing the national highway plan. They circulated it among the other State highway departments that were believed to favor its points. "It was a long and difficult task. Some States readily endorsed the memorial; other States were not so clear in their convictions; they asked for facts, figures, and explanations." This effort was underway when AASHO held its annual meeting in Louisville:

When that convention met, exactly one-half of the States (24 States) had in writing gone on record in support of the continuation of the Federal-State cooperative road building plan as opposed to a national highway plan. Again the convention was faced by an exactly even division of its member State Highway Departments. The struggle to line up deciding votes on this matter monopolized the time of the convention. Convention activities went on as per the printed program, but a substantial number of the delegates (and W. C. Markham was one of them) never did attend any of the convention sessions. They spent their time in hotel rooms, lobbies and corridors, discussing, arguing and persuading, on the Federal-aid versus national highway contest.

By the fourth day of the convention, twelve additional States had signed the Kansas City Memorial. Thus three-fourths of the State Highway Departments committed themselves to the Federal-aid program. The Association reaffirmed its faith in the principle of Federal-State cooperation in highway building.56

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  1. America's Highways 1776-1976, p. 176.
  2. Seely, p. 54.
  3. Seely, p. 56.
  4. Seely, p. 56-59.
  5. Thomas H. MacDonald Papers 1919-1957, University Archives, Sterling C. Evans Library, Texas A&M University, MAC 0213.
  6. "Townsend Highway Bill Reintroduced in Congress," Engineering News-Record, June 12, 1919, p. 1180. The bill was introduced for Senator Townsend by Senator Truman H. Newberry (R-Mi.), who had joined the Senate at the start of the 66th Congress, and referred to the Committee on Agriculture, which referred it on June 3 to the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads.
  7. "Chamber of Commerce for Federal Highways," Engineering News-Record, May 8, 1919, p. 936.
  8. "Secretary Houston Discusses Federal Road Commission Bill," Public Roads, June 1919, p. 3.
  9. "Federal Highway Commission Bill," Highway Engineer and Contractor, June 1919, p. 35-37.
  10. "Mr. Jameson Continues; Mrs. Morrell Begins," American Motorist, July 1919, p. 10-12, 42. (The title refers to the fact that Mr. Jameson was re-elected to the post of AAA president and Mrs. Robert Lee Morrell of New York City was elected president of AAA's Metropolitan Division. "The far-seeing ones also suggested," the article explained, "that the time had come when a woman ought to be included in the vice-presidential list.")
  11. The first two parts of a history of Judge Lowe and the National Old Trails Road can be found at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/trails.cfm and https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/not2.cfm.
  12. Seely, p. 53.
  13. White, p. 12.
Updated: 06/27/2017
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