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Highway History

Origins of the Interstate System

Part 1 of 7

by Lee Mertz

Legend has it that the Interstate began with President Roosevelt drawing three lines East and West and three lines North and South on a map of the United States and asking the Bureau of Public Roads to build it. That probably is a legend but I have no doubt that the President did draw those lines on a map as we shall see.

The first formal inquiry into the possibility of building an Interstate system goes back to Section 13 of the Federal Highway Act of 1938 which states..."The Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads is hereby directed to investigate and make a report of his findings and recommend feasibility of building, and cost of, super highways not exceeding three in number, running in a general direction from the eastern to the western portion of the United States, and not exceeding three in number, running from the northern to the southern portion of the United States, including the feasibility of a toll system on such roads."

But why would Congress put that in the Act? What did they want to accomplish? Congress usually calls for a study when they are feeling a lot of pressure to legislate something. This was the case then. There was a strong "Superhighway" movement and FDR was one of the advocates. The following article was published in the Washington Post February 20, 1935...


Proposals for a new form of empire building a network of superhighways have been seriously considered by President Roosevelt in connection with the $4,880,000,000 works program, it was reported yesterday.

The President, it was learned, has discussed with congressional advisers the possibility of using a substantial portion of the works fund, now awaiting Senate passage, to link the country's international boundaries with smooth, arrow-straight four-lane thoroughfares.

Tentative plans call for three of the master roads connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and two others stretching from Canada to Florida and Mexico. Nearly every State would be crossed by one of the roadways in this vast mosaic pattern.

While the rank and file of Senators and Representatives have been kept pretty much in the dark concerning details of the work program, a dozen or so of the New Deal's real leaders on Capitol Hill in recent conferences heard Mr. Roosevelt enthusiastically unfold his views on how many jobs could be created through construction of superhighways.

The President emphasized the self-liquidating phase of the road program. He explained the Government could buy broad tracts flanking the highways and obtain the benefit from the increased property valuation.

Observers recalled the storm of protest from Republicans against Federal Competition with private business drawn by the guarded testimony last month of Rear Admiral Christian J. Peoples, Treasury procurement chief, before a Senate committee.

Carefully avoiding mention of superhighways, he at first declared the Government would sell gasoline along roads it built. Later he denied the Government would enter the gasoline business and predicted, it, instead, would derive revenue from concessions along its routes.

The clause in the works bill to authorize purchase of land under the power of eminent domain was intended, it was said in informed quarters, to expedite construction of the superhighways. The President indicated he would expect cooperation from States in obtaining the rights-of-way. The roads would be built through back country where land could be acquired at low figures. There was talk of creation of a new Federal corporation to build the highways.

President Roosevelt displayed what friends described as "uncanny knowledge" of American geography in discussing the new traffic arteries. Outlining a suggested southern route, he glanced slyly across his desk at Vice President Garner and quipped;

"We'll have to cut this highway short because Texas is impenetrable"

One of the President's advisers got the impression the right-of-way would be half a mile wide. When the plan was in an embryonic stage last fall, however, Secretary Ickes fixed the width at 1,000 feet and suggested the roads should be landscaped until they were the most beautiful in the world...

So there is evidence that the President had been thinking about Superhighways for some time but there is no evidence that he was thinking about a Federal-aid program to the States. Another article, this time in the New York Herald Tribune on February 16, 1936...





Washington, Feb. 15.-- President Roosevelt said today that he approved the proposal of Senator Robert J. Bulkley, of Ohio, that the Federal Government set up a public corporation to build 10 self-sustaining transcontinental highways as a national-defense and business pump-priming measure.

The President revealed that he was studying the possibility of putting such highways on a self-liquidating basis by charging tolls and disposing of excess lands taken in condemnation. The plan the President is said to have in mind contemplates condemning not merely a right-of-way for the highways but abutting land to a depth of 1 mile on either side of the highway itself. This highway frontage, which presumably would increase in value by reason of its newly acquired accessibility, the Government would dispose of at a profit which would help defray the cost of the projects.


The President argued that private owners through whose land a public highway might run were not entitled to the chance profit arising from the accessibility conferred with the action of the Government. He cited the case of a farmer in the southern end of Columbia County in New York, who was paid $2,000 by the State of New York for a right-of-way through his farm. This, he said, was half the original cost of the farm. The farmer, taking advantage of the two new highway frontages, split his holding into three parts and sold them for a total of $6,000.

It was his thought, the President said, that the State or Federal Government in the case of the projected transcontinental highways, was entitled to the increment in value from highway improvements. This could be realized, he explained, if the Federal Government acquired considerable land on either side of the projected highways, at a fair value and resold it at a profit.

Whether new legislation would be required to give the Government this power to condemn in excess of actual needs, the President said, was one of the phases of the proposal to which he is giving study.


"Senator Bulkley's bill, providing for a United States highway corporation to build transcontinental highways, was referred today by Senator Robert F. Wagner, chairman of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, to a subcommittee for public hearings. The subcommittee will meet Wednesday to fix dates for these sessions." The names of the sub-committee members were given.

"The Bulkley bill would empower the highway corporation to issue bonds up to $2,000,000,000 at an interest rate of 3 percent. The revenues from the sale of frontages and from tolls would be used to amortize the bonds and maintain the highways."

A Washington News article dated February 9, 1938 by John T. Flynn adds more to the background...

New York.--Senator Robert Bulkley, of Ohio, has made a proposal which is certainly worth considering.

It is as clear as daylight that, to bring about any sort of recovery, somebody must start some new sort of business or some extension of an old business.

It is also clear that nobody is in sight right now who has any notion of doing that-at least not in time to do this country any good as a depression cure.

There is one business which is a public business but is also a private one. This is the road-building business. The Government pays for the roads and hires the contractors. But the roads are built usually by private contractors and with materials furnished by private manufacturers.

If there is one thing needed in this country now, in view of the development of the automobile, it is express highways running east and west and north and south. Why, therefore, cannot the Government go into the business of building these highways?

They would cost a great deal of money. It would probably be possible to spend a billion dollars in a year on such a project, perhaps more.

The money to build them could be provided by the issuance of Government bonds. But they would be self-liquidating bonds. No such roads should be built without at the same time establishing a toll system to carry the interest load and maintenance charges and to pay off the principal over a moderately short period of years.

But if such a project were started a few safeguards would have to be observed.

First, the suggestion of Senator Bulkley that old-age pension taxes be used to finance the projects is essentially vicious. These taxes should be reduced to pay-as-you-go basis. The financing of the projects would be the simplest part of the program.

Second, the enterprise should be put under the direction of the biggest, ablest, strongest man the President could find, whose ability to resist political and business corruption is known-a man like Bob Moses of New York.

Who can doubt that this would be infinitely better than building battleships and machine guns?

A search of the records of the day confirms that the idea of superhighways spanning the nation had caught the fancy of the press, the President, the Congress and perhaps the public.

A non-exhaustive search reveals that at least a dozen bills and resolutions were introduced in the Congress between 1936 and early 1938 and at least two hearings were held. Two bills that seemed to have the most standing were introduced by Representative Jennings Randolph, West Virginia, and Senator Bulkley, Ohio. They varied in detail but all proposed construction by the Federal Government as an employment relief measure and most noted the President's support of the idea. Some mentioned the Autobahn in Germany. It is fairly certain that this enterprise was responsible for some of the support generated for superhighways.

All visualized a self-liquidation venture from tolls and many incorporated airports or emergency landing fields in their proposals. There was even a National Superhighway Association headquartered in Atlantic City, N.J. which was very active.

The idea of the Federal Government building transcontinental highways was not particularly new. Congressman William Randolph Hearst proposed such a thing in 1906, but the fever of activity reached its peak in 1938 when Section 13 was added to the 1938 Highway Act requiring the study by the Bureau of Public Roads previously referred to. Before proceeding with events in 1938, it is necessary to step back and take a look at our highway heritage in order to fully understand the events that followed in 1938.

The Federal government did build National highways at one time-the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland westward to Vandalia, Illinois-but the experience was not a happy one. Some of the issues that caused the Federal government to abandon that venture still exist today, so a look at it is worthwhile.

George Washington traveled over the Indian trail that later became the National Road as a young man in his twenties on a mission for Governor Dinwiddie to tell the French that they were trespassers at Ft. Le Boeuf (North of what is now Pittsburgh). A few years later, he was sent again, this time with a small force of troops. His mission was not successful, and he suffered a humiliating defeat at Ft. Necessity. He traveled the route again, this time with General Braddock with a strong military force. This time, they hacked out a road sufficient to drag wheeled canon and wagons. This mission, too, was unsuccessful with Braddock being buried in the middle of the newly constructed road. But that was the beginning of the National Road.

In 1803 as part of the legislation admitting Ohio to the Union, two percent of the revenues deriving from the sale of Federal lands in Ohio were to be set aside for roads, part of it specifically for the National Road from Cumberland to Wheeling, West VA. (Then Virginia). There was some controversy and doubt as to the constitutionality of such an endeavor but confrontation was avoided by States, through which the road was to pass, enacting resolutions asking the Federal government to build the road.

The first segment was opened to Wheeling in 1818. By that time, as more States came into the Union, the idea was applied several times with the plans extending all the way to Jefferson City, Mo. Vandalia, Ill. was as far as construction was completed and that last segment was only rough graded and was never put in service. The National Road had run into difficulty.

The first segment was being heavily used. One account said that the wagons were spaced so close together that the lead horses could eat oats from the wagon ahead. The problem was how to raise revenues to maintain it. The proposal was to place toll booths on it with Federal collectors. This was seen to be so clearly unconstitutional that Presidents Van Buren and Tyler vetoed appropriations for further construction of the western extensions. To avoid the constitutional issue, the road was ceded back to the respective States beginning in 1836. From that time forth, the Federal Government has avoided the construction of roads through or within a State except on Federally owned lands, with the one exception I can find and that is the Dulles Access Road.

The earliest reference to interstate roads that I have found was brought to my attention by Frank Turner. It was published in "Public Roads of the Past" by the American Association of State Highway Officials in 1953. This was a two volume collection of the works of A.C. Rose known as the "Old Road Builder" who documented the building of roads back to 3500 B.C. This particular piece documented the building of the first "Object Lesson" Road in 1897 by FHWA's predecessor agency, the Office of Road Inquiry in the Department of Agriculture. An excerpt from the Director Roy Stone's report says...

The first Federal object-lesson road was built by the Office of Road Inquiry of the United States Department of Agriculture at the Entrance to the New Jersey Agricultural College and Experiment Station at New Brunswick. According to the Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture the work was done during the season of 1897...

...It would greatly increase the value of the interstate roads and stimulate a general public interest in road building if some of these lines (object lesson roads) could be so connected or combined as to form in a measure, a national system, such as was planned and partly built by the Government in the early days of this century. The most effective lines that could be adopted for this purpose would be an Atlantic and a Pacific Coast line, joined by a continental highway extending from Washington to San Francisco.

I mentioned earlier Congressman William Randolph Hearst's proposal in 1906. Another example that shows that the National highway movement was active throughout the years leading to the peak interest in 1938 is "The Proposed Interstate Highway System" published in The Road-Maker magazine in 1913 along with a map. It was prepared by the National Highway Association and would connect the State capitols with sixteen foot wide roads. The system would be 18,000 miles long and would be paid for by a tobacco tax. Richard Weingroff unearthed that one.

This takes us to the Post Roads Act of 1912 which was the forerunner of the first Federal-aid to the States in 1916.

E.W. James provided some insights at age 90 in 1965 in a letter to Mr. Cron:

In 1910 Charlie Moorefield and I were the only new full trained road engineers who came into the B. P. R.(under a different title then).

It was in 1912 that I learned that something tremendously big in the engineering and administrative line was in the making. At that time the U.S., road-wise was still in the mud. The BPR (actually the name was the Office of Road Inquiry) since 1896 had been building demonstration roads, mostly of "sand clay" to interest and encourage people, mostly farmers...

It started really with the Post Road Act of 1912. I chanced to be handy and was asked to sit in (and say nothing) at an informal meeting in Page's office with Page, Pennypacker, his man Friday, George Coleman, Va., and Henry Shirley, Md. The purpose was a completely informal discussion of how to use the Post Road Act, and I learned, which few persons then knew, that that small tentative tryout was really to determine and advise Congress in a final report what opposite national jurisdictional areas should be considered most feasible, practical, and generally best to cooperate with the Federal Government in some huge plan for joint construction of roads. At that time I think no one in the group had a clear idea of the possible magnitude of the concept or the program they were discussing off hand...Next to the States, then 43, came counties (3000+) not administratively feasible; Congressional Districts (475+) open to 475 fights over pork-barrel funds; Improvement Districts; ad infinitum; too varied, and impermanent.

Mr. Page, Director of the Office, and other well-known and active members in such State highway departments as then existed, George Coleman, Va., Henry Shirley, Md., A. N. Johnson, Ill., A. B. Fletcher, Cal., Mr. Rogers of Michigan, and Mr. Green of New York were then considering and promoting the organization of the American Association of State Highway Officials, in order to have an organization with which the Federal Government through the Office of Public Roads, could directly cooperate. This association was finally organized in 1915, about which time the Post Road work was drawing to a close, having been instrumental in constructing what might be called demonstration cooperative roads in Maine, Ohio, Tennessee, Minnesota, Texas and elsewhere, with States, counties, and, as I remember, one improvement district. The Post Road experiment fixed the State as the only feasible cooperative agent.

But the bigger concept was moving ahead, and Congress did not await our final Post Road Act report, but on oral advice, I suppose, passed the first Federal Aid Act (of 1916).

The first Federal Aid Act provided for no system of roads, set no definite standards of design and construction, set forth no specifications, and was virtually wide open at both ends.

The next event that had a great effect on what was to come was the Mexican Campaign. General Pershing chased Pancho Villa back into Mexico. The important thing about it was that that was the first use of motorized equipment in actual battle conditions. The story goes that there were some 2000 vehicles involved and the distance was 200 miles. According to the story, at the end of the campaign, all 2000 vehicles lay strewn along the line of march in various states of breakdown. Nevertheless, the motorization was deemed at least a modest success. What was important was that our involvement in World War I was coming right up and the transportation of our expeditionary force overseas was a huge logistical problem. The military was still basically horse oriented as were our allies and the enemy. But to ship all those horses and the fodder to go with them was considered to be impossible, so a radical decision was made to motorize. Detroit produced thousands of trucks in quick order and it was decided to drive them, loaded with equipment to the ports of embarkation.

The embarrassment was that there were segments of road where they just couldn't get through, either due to mud or lack of any road improvement at all. Trains of flatcars had to be brought in and the trucks loaded aboard just to get around the segment, then road travel would resume. In some cases, this had to be done several times before reaching the port. It became obvious that a system requirement had to be built into highway legislation. The happy side of that set of events was that the motorized American Expeditionary Force was responsible for an early end to the hostilities.

The 1916 Federal-aid program barely got going before the United States entered the war and the program was essentially shut down. By the end of 1918, the country was ready to consider getting the program going again but there was discord among the ranks of the highway departments which the 1916 Act required to be established as a condition of Federal aid. Fred R. White, State Highway Engineer, Iowa, recounted this story to the annual meeting of AASHO held late in 1942:

In the meantime dissention and doubt crept into the Association ranks. Some States still did not have a State Highway Department. They were unable to assume their places at our council table. A number of the States which did not have State Highway Departments were not members of the Association. The Association had not sold itself to them. Worse yet, the Association itself began to waver on the principle of Federal-State cooperation conceived by its founders and written into the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. A movement for a limited mileage system of highly improved highways to be designated, constructed, maintained, operated, and owned by the Federal Government sprouted and grew. This movement found recruits and able advocates in our own ranks. We were thus an Association divided against itself.

The Federal-aid principle had not yet had a chance to prove that it could function. There were the inevitable delays, misunderstandings, and friction of the organizing period of a new and untried plan. The war had intruded and immensely complicated the difficulties. The struggle within the Association went on and became more intense.

It was in this atmosphere that the Association approached its fourth annual convention held in Chicago in December of 1918. The war was over. The boys were coming home. The Nation was beginning to readjust itself to peace-time pursuits. War transport necessity had thrust the highway problems into the limelight. It was inevitable that the battle of Federal aid versus National Highways would come to a show-down at that convention. And it did. On the show-down resolution to endorse the National Highway plan, the convention voted 50-50. It was a tie. With the delegation present and voting from every State represented at the convention, we were split exactly even. By that slender margin and with not a single vote to spare, did this Association cling to its ideal of Federal-State cooperation laid down by its founders.

You will find no account of this incident in the official records of the Association. With rare judgement and foresight the presiding officer suggested that in a matter of this importance and with the Association so evenly divided, it would be well to expunge the record from the Minutes of the convention. Both sides readily agreed. The record was expunged. The convention proceeded with its other business.

Mr. White goes on to describe the atmosphere later in 1919:

On the date of the Kansas City meeting, there was pending before the Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads of the National Congress, a bill introduced by the chairman of that committee, 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, 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 annual convention of the Association to be held at Louisville, Kentucky in December of 1919, was coming up. 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 situation in Congress was still serious; the chairman of the Committee on Postoffices and Post Roads was still sponsoring the national highway plan; the chairman of the House Committee on Roads was still opposing any Federal-aid for highways. The minority members of the Highway Officials' Association (AASHO) continued their sponsorship of the national highway plan, which of course, they had a perfect right to do.

At this critical time, the Bureau of Public Roads suffered the death of its leader, Logan Waller Page. Thomas H. MacDonald, Chief Engineer of the Iowa Highway Commission was the selection to replace him. The President of AASHO, A.R. Hirst, in his outgoing speech in December of 1919, deplored the fact that the Federal Government could pay MacDonald only $4000 per year. MacDonald turned the job down. AASHO sponsored a special Act of Congress to pay him $6000 which passed.

MacDonald made his first speech as head of BPR at that same convention. He advocated many of the same principles that became law in 1921. He defined four classes of highway use-Agriculture, Recreational, Commercial, and Military. He made the case that it would be wasteful to build National highways solely for interstate travel. He noted the phenomenal growth of the cities and felt that improved roads would help to keep people on the farm. He advocated classification into a system comprising 5-7% of all roads. He had done this in Iowa. He felt that insuring interconnectivity between States was the Federal role. He also advocated a higher Federal share for States with large amounts of public lands.

The views he expressed were not new. An excerpt from one of his articles written in 1912 while head of the Iowa Highway Department is revealing:

Any satisfactory solution of the road problem involves a classification of the roads in the state into those of primary and those of secondary importance. So long as all roads are held on a par there can be only slow improvement over the total mileage. By dividing these roads into two classes strictly according to the traffic carried, the road improvement of the primary system will be reasonably accelerated. Iowa has an estimated mileage of 102,000 miles of public highway, but the primary system of roads would probably not exceed ten to fifteen per cent of this amount; that is, with 10,000 miles of improved road, it is estimated that every trading point in the state would be reached from at least two directions by main traveled roads....Carrying this road classification one step in advance, it will be seen that the cross-county roads which would form the primary system of any one county could be so determined as to join with the primary system of the bordering counties; thus taken in the aggregate the primary systems of the counties become the primary system for the whole state, part of which will become the great transtate roads, the remaining roads of the system acting as feeders to these. The latter part of this system will work out automatically once the roads are classified in the counties.

The proper classification of roads is basic and fundamental...It has been pretty definitely established that a system of primary roads must be sufficiently extensive to give service to all parts of the state. It is hardly safe to fix the percentage without further inquiry, but it seems evident from the result in states which have made a careful study of their economic needs, that in the neighborhood of 5 to 7 percent of their total mileage will be included in their primary system.

The step which seems necessary now is a definite plan of cooperation between the states and the federal government, which will insure that the primary systems of each state are connected up with the primary systems of the adjoining states, and that these systems, by agreement between the state and federal authorities, be held to until they are properly improved.

In February of 1920 in an address to the Road Builders Association:

I am impressed, therefore, that we must superimpose upon the classification which is now generally recognized, classes which we may call, for the lack of better names, interstate or national, and special roads. The national roads would serve interstate business and pleasure travel, and in many cases the military requirements also. The special class would include roads of distinct military significance which may have little or no commercial value, and certain special recreational roads. In other words we should have about five classes of roads; the national or interstate, special roads, and the State, county and local roads.

To me, these are unmistakably the roots of the 1921 Act and I believe them to be the personal creation of Mr. MacDonald. He continued:

The Federal aid plan of highway construction has not been permitted to operate without criticism. There are those who would say that it has not measured up to the need of the country-- that it has not resulted in the building of the volume or character of roads which the country required. The criticism has crystallized into a definite proposal, which involves two principles opposed to the principles of the Federal aid plan. The first of these calls for the substitution of a commission to take the place of the Secretary of Agriculture for the administration of Federal aid road work; the second substitutes a policy of complete federal construction and maintenance of a national system of highways, for the Federal aid policy under which the construction is carried on by the States and the government in cooperation.

...We have found by scientific study of the character, origin and destination of highway travel that 90 per cent of the traffic which uses our average highway is of...local character.

The 10 per cent of the traffic, which in normal times, pushes out beyond local limits, across State lines, and which can therefore be properly described as national in extent, is due to tourist travel by automobile, and freight and express haulage by motor truck.

...We must provide the roads for..the (interstate) carriers. But it is not necessary to build an especially chosen national system to reach this desired end. The same result can be obtained, probably in a shorter span of time, under the present plan of Federal and State cooperation; and the roads we construct under that plan will be so located as to serve the local as well as the national uses.

It seems clear to me..that while it must be our national policy to provide roads to facilitate commerce by motor truck- the modern highway vehicle, a commerce which is national in extent, and which is not limited by State borders, we can do so by the development of properly articulated local and State systems better than by building special long transcontinental highways, across tributary territory which for some time may not be able to share in the benefits of the through roads because of a lack of local road development.

There is no support for the assumption that such long through roads are required for the purposes of military defense...but in the main the highway requirements of war coincide with those of peace...

What we must regard as most important in these days...is the prosecution of whatever works will help in the betterment of the conditions of rural life. The promotion of the educational and social opportunities of our rural communities, and the development of the inherent attractions of country life to the end that we may increase our agricultural population...Ultimately the local system, and the attainment of such a national system will not be long delayed under the Federal aid plan, I can assure you, for at this time, in practically every State, Federal aid funds are being expended only on roads which will become important links in such a national system...the Federal aid law requires that any improvement paid for in part by Federal money, must be substantial in character.

The time may come when it will be desirable for the National Government to build some roads, solely with Federal funds, but that time has not yet arrived; and it would be the most serious mistake for the Federal Government to withdraw its support from the States while they are building up their highway organizations and their State laws, and enter into competition with them for the materials, transportation and labor supplies which are already inadequate.

After passage of the 1921 Act, he said to AASHO in December:

...The Bureau does not seek initiative. It does not seek to direct the States but to cooperate with them. There is now a plan of action for the guidance of both organizations that is so clear and so explicit that neither can escape the responsibilities imposed. The Federal requirements are fairly defined and will be sincerely and faithfully enforced.

In 1922 he said:

It is going to take a long time to do this work, but we are engaged upon a very large work. One hundred and eighty thousand miles is probably the minimum mileage that will be required to complete such a system and it may run as high as 190,000 or 200,000 miles.

If we conclude that we are willing to spend from the Federal Treasury $50,000,000 per year...it will take in the neighborhood of twenty years to do the job...If we conclude that we can spend $75,000,000 per year...it will take us fifteen years. If we conclude we can afford $100,000,000 a year for that purpose we can do the job in ten years.

This is the beginning of what I think of as the golden years of the highway program. The foundations were all in place and MacDonald set out to build the State-Federal partnership, engineering professionalism, dedicated highway user revenues at the State level, establishment of independent highway commissions, highway research, highway classification, programming and project development based on economic principles, transfer of highway jurisdiction from counties and townships to the States to name a few of his undertakings. In 1923, he had this to say about commissions:

In the enactment of the commission legislation, the legislatures adopted an entirely new plan...Instead of specifying the many details of factory inspection, the manner and method in which saws and belts should be protected, the legislature condensed them in one paragraph requiring the employer to protect the life, safety, health, and welfare of employees, and authorized a commission or board to draw up rules and orders specifying the details as to the manner in which these things should be accomplished.

These regulatory commissions are in reality a fourth branch of government. They may be said to be legislatures continually in session, yet the power of the legislature is not delegated.

The real distinction which entitles these commissions to a position as a fourth branch of government is not so much their administration as their investigation and research. These investigations are, however, not the academic research of laboratory and study, but the constructive investigation of the administrator. In these fields of investigation and administration the work of the engineer has become all-important...The courts have a place because under our constitutional system the acts and orders of the administrative boards are always subject to court review upon appeal by interested parties...In proceedings before the commissions man-made limitations, legal formalities and precedents are of little significance, and facts and real conditions stand forth simplified to the degree possible. In making their investigations it is necessary that commissions call to their aid men trained in the science of engineering. The regulatory work of such bodies could not be carried on with any degree of success without the investigations and research activities of a staff of competent engineers. It is the logical development that since a large part of the work of these bodies consists of engineering investigations and the weighing of engineering facts the chief executives of the states in selecting men for such commissions have realized that men with engineering training make most excellent commissioners. Thus in the strides which the nation has made in providing for itself service through others the regulatory powers and leadership which a relatively few years ago were lodged almost solely in the hands of the courts and the legal profession, have by weight of requirements gravitated to a very large extent to men who are trained and experienced engineers. This development is an outstanding triumph for engineers, illustrating as it does the leadership attained through a determination of the facts by research and investigation and their application to our modern conditions unhampered by the limitations and mystifying and inaccurate traditions.

A few years later, he assumed the title of "Commissioner" but BPR was never formally constituted as a commission. His dedication to economic principles is illustrated in this excerpt from a 1923 speech:

  1. States in the initial stage of highway development should issue bonds to defer that portion of the annual charge for construction which would over burden either property or the road user.
  2. States where original construction programs are well under way, can, in the main, finance further expenditures for construction by bond issues devoted to deferring the cost of special projects.
  3. States where original construction is practically completed are concerned chiefly with maintenance and reconstruction and should depend on current funds, save in cases of emergency.
  4. The maintenance of interstate and State roads should be a charge against the road user.
  5. Roads serving a purely local purpose will generally require only light upkeep and this should properly be a charge against the adjacent property, which in this case is the first and often the only beneficiary.
  6. No road should ever be improved to an extent in excess of its earning capacity. The return to the public in the form of economic transportation is the sole measure of the worth of such improvements.

The 1921 act recognized the need for system by requiring that all Federal aid be spent on a system comprised of not to exceed seven percent of total highway mileage; "Highways which may receive Federal aid shall be divided into two classes, one of which shall be known as primary or interstate highways, and shall not exceed three-sevenths of the total mileage that may receive Federal aid, and the other which shall connect or correlate therewith and be known as secondary or intercounty highways...the Secretary of Agriculture shall give preference to such projects as will expedite the completion of an adequate and connected system of highways interstate in character."

E. W. James reflects on the system aspects of the Act: "Why 7 percent? I have never had a better explanation than that of Markham, Secretary for years of the Association of State Highway Officials. Of course 5 percent or 10 percent would have been a more natural figure, but why 7 percent? As Markham explained: Senators Oddy of Nevada, long gone and Carl Hayden of Arizona, still on duty at 88 years plus or minus, were both strongly interested and concerned in the whole Federal Aid Road program. They wanted to be sure that their States would have at least two cross State roads, based on their certified public road mileage, one say east and west and one at approximate right angles north and south. Using undoubtedly incorrect or questionable mileage, they figured that 7 percent was the lowest fraction that would give them what they wanted and figured they needed. So they saw to it that 7 percent was written into the law. That's that. Whether Markham was right, I cannot say."

I don't believe Mr. James' story is correct on this. I think the 7% came from Mr. MacDonald's work in Iowa and was based on the size of system that could be improved in about fifteen years. E. W. James continues:

The creation of the 7 percent connected road system raised, however, a much more puzzling and disturbing problem. How was the 7 percent, assumably of the most importance in each State, to be selected? The possible contentions of cities, county seats, counties, Congressional Districts, etc., came at once into this problem in a large way. Could a method of selection be devised that would be feasible, permitting flexible selection by each State that would be practicably invulnerable? That was the question put to me....Robert Eastham of Virginia and Clifford Shoemaker, both of the Bureau, were assigned to assist....Our little committee...was successful in laying out a 7 Percent System of roads that was acceptable to the AASHO.

We first selected from the Post Office Department the only complete uniform set of State maps showing only county outlines. The Post Office used them I think for laying out R.F.D. routes in counties. From the Census Bureau we got population; agricultural produce in dollars; manufactures, mineral, and forest products also in dollars and by counties. We laid the quantities out for each of the five items, each on a separate set of maps, in each State and in each county of each State. Calling total State population 100, we determined the population index for each county. This process was repeated for each of the five significant items. We then combined the indices for all items by counties in each State giving a total of 500. We then divided the combined county indices by 5, bringing the total index figure back to 100 with a single county index representing the importance of that county in the State as a whole.

We reduced these county indices first to circles, which were not distinguishable enough, so we adopted squares as emblems of the indices. When these squares, blackened in, were put into their appropriate counties on a clean map, we had a series of emblems through which diagrammatic routes could be laid out. Routes through the heaviest emblems were routes through the generally wealthiest and all around most important county areas. Road locations could be made catching obvious local control points along these diagrammatic lines, and you had a selection from best to poorest almost staring you in the face.

Finally, to justify the entire system as selected, I called on Fred Mills, one of my handiest assistants....I told him I wanted to find the centroid of the Federal Aid system so far as selected.

He went to work, using an origin of some plain and simple location off the California coast...I asked him where it (the national centroid) fell, and he replied that I couldn't guess. Then he told me that the general centroid of the whole system was in the same county in Indiana (I think) where the Census Bureau computed the center of national population to lie.

At this point we had developed a method for establishing a satisfactory pattern for a nation-wide road system. The provision of law controlling the distribution of funds mathematically among the States, staved off the Pork-Barrel vultures in Congress. Our system of indices establishing essential degrees of importance of principal roads in all States and Congressional Districts within each State kept the vultures away locally....

The next milestone in the chronology of the Interstate System was The First National Conference on Street and Highway Safety held in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 15-16, 1924. It was chaired by Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce. There were other interesting people present. F.A. Delano was vice chairman of the conference. He was FDR's uncle and was prominent in planning circles and highways for twenty years. Later, he was chairman of The National Resources Planning Board and served on the Interregional Highway Committee that developed the Interstate System.

Harland Bartholomew was there representing the City Plan Commission of St. Louis, Mo. He also served on the Interregional Highway Committee and was chairman of the National Capitol Planning Commission where he was very influential in the development of the Washington Metropolitan Area Interstate and the Washington Metro subway system.

Roy D. Chapin, Chairman of the Board of the Hudson Motor Car Co. was also present. His name pops up frequently as having been very influential in the development of early highway legislation. He is also reported to have been present as an observer when General Pershing tried trucks for the first time in the Mexican Campaign. Thomas H. MacDonald, E.W. James, H.S. Fairbank, and A.T. Goldbeck attended for BPR.

In the meanwhile, another problem was pressing for solution. The following is from the report of the Joint Board on Interstate Highways to Secretary of Agriculture Jardine on Nov. 18, 1925. "The Joint Board on Interstate Highways, the appointment of which was approved by the Hon. Howard M. Gore, then Secretary of Agriculture, on February 20, 1925, and which was created at the request of the American Association of State Highway Officials 'To undertake immediately the selection and designation of a comprehensive system of through interstate routes, and to devise a comprehensive and uniform scheme for designating such routes in such a manner as to give them a conspicuous place among the highways of the country as roads of interstate and national significance...'"

More from the report:

At the 1924 annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway Officials at San Francisco, action was taken on November 20, requesting the Secretary of Agriculture to appoint a board composed of representatives of the State highway departments and of the Bureau of Public Roads in the following language:

"This Association hereby requests the Secretary of Agriculture, in cooperation with the several States to undertake immediately the selection and designation of a comprehensive system of through interstate routes and to devise a comprehensive and uniform scheme for designating such routes in such a manner as to give them a conspicuous place among the highways of the country as roads of interstate and national significance."

E. W. James remembered:

With this momentous road system planned and ready for construction, how were we to handle it as a going project? Its parts, as I had early assumed and provided for, were to be numerous, in high figures. The parts must be labeled or distinguished in some way so they could be handled conveniently and filed, yes; but in addition they must be named somehow so the public could see them, on records, maps, and in place on the ground.

In this report (the report to the Secretary) you will find clearly indicated the routes resulting from the Board work. I was secretary of the Board and most of the details passed through my hands at one time or another. (Thomas H. MacDonald was chairman.) At one of the first meetings the general question presented above was thrown into my lap. I knew it must come sooner or later and had given it considerable thought. You will quickly see on scanning the report the conditions we faced in the particular task laid before us. There were two conditions that must be met. (1) The scores of named routes, roads and trails must be eliminated. Such a method of designating so large a system of roads on a fairly established pattern was not feasible. It was too cumbersome, it had a bad background of unintelligent but kindly, serious and friendly efforts by hundreds, maybe thousands of good road advocates and effective road boosters. In opposing such a group we were pushing aside some of the biggest and best support we had for the big road plan. The good would have to go with the bad. Organizations like the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway, the Old Spanish Trail Associations which were sound agencies could not be preserved while three or four score "skip-by-night" agencies were to be ignored and washed out. (2) The second puzzle in the task at hand was to devise a scheme that would take up all the named routes we wished to save, in whole or in part; be flexible enough to permit expansion over a long period, and above all fit the United States as an area without an established road system of old, and now about to create one on a magnificent plan.

Again, from the report to the Secretary: "Although no records had ever been systematically collected in an effort to cover the whole field, there appeared in the official files of the States and of the Bureau of Public Roads evidence that at least 250 marked trails existed in the country. These were sponsored by at least one hundred regularly organized associations supporting some kind of headquarters and issuing maps, advertising, or other promotion material."

It is clear that the Board felt that it was legally bound to not exceed the three sevenths of the "seven percent system" established in the 1921 Act as "primary or interstate highways". In its final deliberations, the Board recommended 2.8 percent of all the highways and roads in the nation be numbered as "Interstate Highways".

At its April 20, 1925 meeting, The Joint Board, among other things, passed the following resolution: "3. The selection of approximately 1 percent or less of the total highway mileage of the State as of greatest importance; of a second 1 percent approximately as of secondary importance; and a third 1 percent approximately as of tertiary importance; and that these suggested percentages be increased in sparsely settled States."

E.W. James:

By that time I had my idea of the second task under control,...I saw that I must show my hand at once, and have so good a solution that it would carry me past the first task of shoving the trail organizations aside.

So I went ahead on that basis. As you know, the U.S. is about twice as wide as it is from North to South, and with this I saw a complete pattern of just what I wished. It stares one in the face, it is so simple and so adjustable. With north-south roads numbered odd from east to west, and east-west roads numbered even from north to south, you at once start a simple, systematic, complete, expansible pattern for a long time development.

Numbered on the 10's; 10, 20, 30, etc., to 90 would provide nine principal east-west routes. Numbered on the 11's and 5's; 1, 5, 11, 15, etc., to 101 on the Pacific Coast, you would provide the 20 base routes for the north-south pattern."

This was the 1 percent system of "Interstate" routes "of greatest importance" in the Board's resolution. Please note that the Interstate System today is 1 percent of total highway mileage.

E.W. James:

with this pattern complete in my mind I had two approaches that I hoped would take the whole job off the slate at once: Paul Sargent, of Maine, and the Lincoln Highway Association. I had been helpful to the Association in the First World War, and Sargent had been Assistant Director of the BPR from 1913 to Page's death in 1918, and I had done an assignment in Maine for him during that interval, and knew him well and his background.

So I got at once in touch with Sargent on my proposed numbering scheme, putting pressure on my proposed Route No. 1, which I suggested as the first route along the Atlantic side of the U.S.A., following as far as possible the old, historic Falls Line roads. As soon as I mentioned the Falls Line Route Sargent said he was with the whole idea, and that the Falls Line Route really began up in Maine, at Fort Kent on the Canadian border. It was fairly distinct to Boston and Providence,... somewhat indistinct to New York, and then along the River Falls Line to Augusta, Georgia. Sargent knew his colonial geography and said he was with my proposals all the way.

Graphic: People representing the states  in a car driven by Uncle Sam.  There is a map on the side of the car. Under the graphic it says 'Hitting on all Forty-eight'.  Over the graphic is says:  'Interstate highways will be numbered for public convenience.  All State roads will be safeguarded by uniform direction and danger signs.  Cooperation between Sttes and the Federal government has made possible this National transportation system'

Having assisted the Lincoln Highway Association in the First World War, I next went to Detroit to their headquarters and laid my scheme before them, very frankly telling them that it would mean the end of the Lincoln Highway Association, the Dixie, and all others. They understood it all; said they were for a big plan for roads across the U.S.; would be with my scheme if I could give the Lincoln Highway recognition so far as possible in the No. 30. I agreed to do all I could to put it across, and so had their support toward washing out all the named routes. They were the strongest of all the Associations and with them with us, who could be against us?

So I built the numbering plan along the lines that I had laid out. The two puzzles were answered by that scheme and is set forth in the Report (the report of the Joint Board on Interstate Highways). The Board accepted my numbering plan as presented.

The next problem that the Joint Board considered was the question of actually designating the various routes. The question of marking the routes at once raised the whole question of signs, signals, and markers. Mr. Frank Rogers suggested the form of a shield for the number, and I was responsible for actually drafting the shield which has been used, providing space for the designation of the necessary number and also of the individual several States. At this point, on April 21, 1925, a Committee on Signs, Signals and Markers was appointed, of which I was Chairman. The Committee was composed of Mr. Frank Rogers of Michigan, Mr. Hinkle of Indiana, and myself.

Shortly after the U.S. numbered system was officially designated, the attached map was reproduced in American Highways, the AASHO publication, from a newspaper cartoon. It portrays the "1%" portion of the system, i.e., those routes from coast-to-coast and border-to-border. Note the similarity to a current national map of the Interstate System.

This Golden Age lasted until the Great Depression. It was characterized by phenomenal growth of automobiles and their use which provided an ever growing base of user revenues for the States. "Completion" was the watchword, which meant providing a "permanent" improvement to each component of the Federal-aid system. The system was improved from the "top-down" with the major roads receiving first attention. The first coast-to-coast route completed occurred late in 1927. By 1930, "completion" was nearly achieved.

Cooperative "Transport Surveys" were done with several States beginning with Connecticut to gather data for the classification of roads and as research tools. These became successively more sophisticated with the origin and destination concept being developed. Two urban studies were done. The first was Cook County in Chicago, the second was Cuyahoga County in Cleveland. MacDonald saw the disorder concerning the jurisdiction over highways in urban areas as a reminder of how things were with townships, counties, and states in the earlier days.

The Golden Age ended with the stock market crash in 1929 and the settling in of the Great Depression. The first impacts were felt at the State level when legislatures, being pressed for resources began to take highway-user-revenues and divert them to other uses. In Nov. 1929, President Hoover called into conference industry, public and private, asking for as extensive a program of public works as possible. In April the Congress increased Federal authorizations by 66%. In December, Congress appropriated $116 million of which $80 million was allocated to Federal aid roads. Between Dec. 2, 1929 and Dec. 23, 1930, $330 million was apportioned: $22.3 million for 1931 for direct Federal. It was expected that the whole program, including States' money would provide employment for 100,000 men.

In May 1931, MacDonald described highways as income producing investments and talked against hysterical expansion of the program for unemployment purposes because it couldn't be turned on and off like a spigot.

In April 1931, the following editorial was printed in American Highways:

The lack of employment for many willing hands induced President Hoover, early in the summer (of 1930), to call together many "captains of industry" in a vain effort to "keep the wheels going round" and maintain the high standard of wages. Everybody promised, but many wheels stopped. Then he consulted the Governors of the States about public works, and in order to stimulate the road work, the Secretary of Agriculture was requested to advance the proration of the Federal funds for the fiscal year of 1932. This sounded all right but it left the States to wait nine months for their pay and many State Treasuries were empty.

This is the situation that confronted the State Highway Departments when they came into annual session on November 17 (1930), at Pittsburgh, Pa...

...Following the convention, members of the Executive Committee went to Washington and after consultation with the (President's) Emergency Committee, suggested that if the Federal Government would advance funds to the States to be returned from future authorizations covering a period of five years, they could advance the program quite perceptibly.

As a result, $80 million was appropriated as an advance to be paid back out of future authorizations, and it could be used to match regular Federal-aid funds.

In December of 1931, MacDonald said that the goal of completion of interstate routes had essentially been achieved thus putting the program at a crossroads. He said that it was up to the Congress to decide whether the future of the program was to bring in more local rural roads or urban roads, or both, or whether to continue the program at all.

In response to increasing State diversion of highway-user revenues, MacDonald began to advocate Planning Surveys for all States as a means of providing the legislatures and the public with the facts to, hopefully, make better decisions.

In July of 1932, before the Presidential election, American Highways published the following article:


Six months late and allowing less than a year in which to make the expenditure the Federal Government has appropriated $120,000,000 as an advance to the States for road construction on the Federal Aid Highway System and also $16,000,000 for roads in the National Forests, Parks, Indian Reservations and Public Domain.

A short digest of the salient features of this legislation is as follows:

  1. The funds are prorated to the States by the same method as the regular Federal aid.
  2. This fund is available as State funds and may be used to match regular Federal aid.
  3. No amounts apportioned under this Act shall be advanced except for work on the Federal Aid Highway System performed before July 1, 1933.
  4. The amounts advanced must be reimbursed to the Federal Government over a period of ten years commencing in 1938...
  5. All contracts covering the expenditure of this fund must contain a minimum rate of wages pre-determined by the State Highway Departments which rate must be included in all proposals for bids...

The article voiced the worry that so much money was being advanced to the States requiring pay-back out of future authorizations that little would be left for construction in future years.

The following also appeared in the same issue:


William Anderson, Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota said:

The revolt of the taxpayers is a fact. All about us we see it and hear it. Whole counties are aflame with it. Great crowds are being hurriedly mustered to march upon county courthouses, city, village and town halls and even on the district school meetings. Budgets are being slashed on every hand. County nurses, agricultural agents and many other once respected and desirable public employees are falling to right and left.

In January 1933, this article appeared in American Highways:


Grover C. Dillman, State Highway Commissioner, Michigan said:

...In determining this important question of public policy--the place of road building as an agency of employment during the depression--we must not lose sight of the central fact that it is imperative for the future of our American civilization to replace the dole with work, and that of all the means of providing work (other than the normal upward swing of the business cycle, which puts workers back on their normal jobs), road building is from almost every standpoint the most satisfactory.

He spoke of the many ways and types of projects that could be done:

In addition, there is the possibility so often discussed, of constructing a series of national super-highways, from east to west and north to south, perhaps with separate lanes for high-speed traffic and heavy slow-moving trucks. The Boston Post Road and the New York-Trenton Boulevard, in the East, and Wider Woodward Avenue, in Michigan, and the Dunes Relief Highway, in Indiana, are examples of what is demanded by present-day traffic.

Note the reference to "Superhighways." AASHO became very concerned about the use of the highway program for employment relief in 1933 after FDR came to office. It was felt that the work of 40 years was at risk. This was in the April 1933 issue of American Highways:


The State Highway Officials are greatly concerned that no provision has been made by the Federal Government for the continuance of the highway policy of cooperation between the States and the Federal Government that was adopted in 1916 and has been in continuous effect now for 17 years. Neither has any provision been made for continuing the work on public roads through the national forests, parks and other public lands.

Each Congress since 1916 has provided for the continuance of the Federal aid program for a two-year period until the Congress which has just adjourned which provided no such legislation. Senate bill No. 36 which would have assured the continuance of the Federal aid program was passed by the Senate but failed to receive consideration in the House, although favorably reported by the House Committee on Roads.

The position of the State Highway Officials is further jeopardized at this time by the very large diversion of revenues from the gas taxes and license fees, heretofore devoted to roads, which have been commandeered for other purposes. One of the potent arguments advanced for these diversions in many States has been the fact that no Federal aid legislation had been provided to insure the continuance of the cooperative program.

On the assumption that no large public works program is adopted, it is suggested that a Federal aid authorization of not less than $100,000,000 be provided for the fiscal year 1935. This recognizes the necessity for balancing the budget for the fiscal year 1934, and skips one year's authorization. This would permit the distribution to the States of their pro-rata share on or before January 1, 1934, and would insure a 1935 construction program of very moderate size, and would also insure the continued functioning of the highway administrative structure of the State highway organizations and the Federal Bureau of Public Roads. Unless this is done as the minimum, we are facing disaster to, and the breakdown of the whole national scheme of administrative organization, which has been built up over a period of more than 40 years and upon which depends the preservation of the tremendous investments that have been made in improved highways and the maintenance of these highways in a reasonable condition for use.

The withdrawal of the Federal Government definitely from this field, even temporarily, will mean a further diversion of the funds coming from the gas tax and motor vehicle license fees to other than road purposes. Regardless of whatever else is done, the Federal authorization for the fiscal year 1935 is essential. This should include a reasonable amount for national forest and park roads as has been customary in the past.

In the event a large public works program is decided upon to be supported by a bond issue or other method of financing, not involving the balancing of the regular budget, in addition to the first proposal, there is suggested a program of highway construction to cover a two-year period. This will do much to stimulate confidence in the future of employment in this field and will lead to greater efficiency of expenditure than with the same total amounts made available for one year.

The amounts that under the two-year plan can be effectively used are:

  1. $100,000,000 for construction upon the primary roads of the Nation including necessary extensions into the municipalities.
  2. $100,000,000 for grade crossing separations and the removal of highway hazards...
  3. $50,000,000 for use on secondary or feeder roads....
Updated: 06/27/2017
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