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Highway History

Origins of the Interstate System

Origins of the Interstate Part 3 of 7

In December of 1934, MacDonald reported progress on the NIRA program in this excerpt from the Contractors and Engineers Monthly:

...employment under the appropriations of the National Industrial Recovery Act was responsible in 1934 for a considerable increase in the total employment...

The most striking trend indicated by the figures is the drop in employment on independent State construction. In this connection it is to be noted that the decline in State contribution to construction has been even greater than these employment figures would suggest, on account of the fact that in 1931 the States bore the expense of a considerable portion of the employment attributed to Federal and Federal-aid work whereas in the succeeding years they have contributed in progressively smaller percentage.

Drop in State Employment Must Be Halted

The transfer of State support from construction to maintenance work as Federal funds have been supplied to carry the construction cost is also one of the notable indications of this employment record. But the salient point is the evidence that the additional provision made for highways during the period by the Federal Government has been offset by withdrawal of support by the States.

It is important that these facts be generally understood at this time because the Federal Government has given notice in the Hayden-Cartwright Act of its intention hereafter to return to the Federal-aid plan of contribution to road work. That plan will substitute for the direct grants of the recent past, a shared expenditure, which will impose upon the States an equal obligation. The contemplated Federal contribution will be considerably less than those of the past year or two. Therefore, if a material reduction of the highway program is to be avoided it will be necessary that the States return to the work at least the measure of support they recently have withdrawn from it.

In the light of the figures presented in the employment tables, the wisdom of the provision of the Hayden-Cartwright Act that seeks to halt further diversion of motor vehicle revenues from road work is quite apparent.

The following is an excerpt of a milestone speech delivered to the AASHO Convention in November of 1934. Clearly, MacDonald was disturbed by the types of projects that were being built under PWA (The Public Works Administration). He was concerned about diversion of highway-user revenues to other purposes and control of such funds being taken away from the State highway departments. He was concerned about paying for non-revenue producing projects with highway user revenues. He was not as concerned about financing losers in urban areas as rural because the high urban traffic volumes would support economic winners. I believe that this speech was the kick-off of the statewide planning process in a systematic and continuing way:

To a group wearied by the constant drive and tension of the past year, the idea of continued pressure cannot be welcome, but much less welcome is the alternative that other agencies far less qualified to carry the load effectively, shall supplant the State and Federal highway organizations, until at least their whole strength has been exhausted.

Appreciation of the efforts made is carried in the report of the Executive Secretary of the Executive Council to the President under date of August 25 in the following words: "In the Federal classification, public roads have been outstanding in speed, accounting for half of the Federal expenditures but only a third of the Federal allotment."

He noted that the 30 hour week required by law amounted to 24 hours in highway work because of weather, etc. It should be changed to 40 to approximate 30.


For nearly two decades the concentration of effort toward the improvement of the limited network of main roads represented by the Federal aid and State systems has been the central pillar of our highway policy. This policy has been based upon the principle of "the greatest service to the greatest number", and to the sustaining of this fundamental tenet every sound-thinking lawmaker, highway executive and engineer has given his wholehearted and unselfish effort. Occasionally there are attacks upon this policy, usually traceable to some specific self-interest which seeks a benefit, which would in the end prove temporary, by departing from this plan of improvement of traffic routes in the priority fixed by their potential relative service.

He cited in detailed statistics from a cooperative statewide transport study just finished in Indiana to prove his points:

The great group of generally lesser roads that constitute 89 per cent of the total mileage and serve less than 34 per cent of the total traffic, have an average traffic of only 51 vehicles per day and earn in taxes paid by their traffic only $70 per year to offset an average annual maintenance expense of $187...the question that remains for future determination is whether, to what extent, and precisely where, further improvement will produce the greatest return.

The example made possible by the very excellent Indiana study is typical of the conditions existing in the great majority of our States; and it affords a complete answer to selfish uninformed criticism of highway policies.

The course we have been following (under the National Industrial Recovery Act) has been fairly clear. The choice of the most important roads has been rather obvious. What we have been doing is what the President calls "doing first things first". That we have done it rather well the generally appreciated usefulness of the Federal aid and State highway systems testifies without the factual aid of the many traffic surveys.

We now approach more difficult decisions. As each additional mile of highway is improved, the choice of succeeding mileage for improvement becomes progressively a matter of narrower and narrower margins. And the future extensions of improvement will be in a class of roads on which there can be expected no such growth of traffic following the improvement as we have experienced on the roads with which we have hitherto been dealing. All the facts at our disposal indicate that the further extensions of improvement must enter the class of land service roads, as distinguished from the general-use highways with which, as State and Federal officials, we have been primarily concerned in the past. And, since no amount of improvement will convert a typical land-service road into a road of general use, the only traffic increase to be expected is that which may result from the development of a denser population or more active industry on the land immediately served. No great waves of new traffic will come flooding to these roads, such as we have in the past experienced on the main roads. So there will generally be no counting upon future traffic growth to justify any serious mistakes of over-development that may now be made.

These things are emphasized not to discourage the further extension of improved mileage, but simply to stress the high importance of informed and intelligent planning of the work to be done. We must continue the work we have begun in the secondary and feeder road field. It will be justified not entirely on grounds of direct service furnished to the immediate users of the roads, but on the grounds of general social and economic necessity, and it will have to be tied in closely with general social and economic trends, some of which are even now forming.

The task involved is one for which there are no agencies, other than those represented in this Association, that are fitted. It is one that should be accepted with the determination to carry it through from the beginning in strict accordance with economic and social principles.

As a first step it seems to me there is need in every State of a traffic survey directed to the discovery of the roads additional to those already constructed, improvement of which may be justified on reasonable grounds of economy or social usefulness. If authority to undertake such studies does not at present reside in any of the State highway departments, such authority should be sought at the coming legislative sessions.

For such planning purposes, as you know, the last Federal Act makes available up to 1 1/2 per cent of the funds apportioned to the States; and there is no better use to which such sums can be put in the present stage of highway development.

At recent sessions of the State legislatures there was a decided tendency toward the enactment of laws transferring to the control of the State highway department all or large parts of the mileage of roads remaining under the authority of local officials. Under the pressure of a temporary necessity to find ways of relieving heavily taxed property holders, there is a tendency to couple with the administrative transfer a shifting of the entire burden of financing the local road work to the shoulders of the users of roads, whose tax payments are at the same time diverted in part from road users to others having no relation to the highways.

Of the advantages of the administrative change there can be little question; but in the taxing provisions that may at this time be attached to it, there are, to my view, grave possibilities of injury to the future of the highways. No student of highway economics can fail to recognize that the principal benefit of the great bulk of the local road mileage is to the land to which it gives access. No one with knowledge of the small amount of travel on most of these roads can believe that their improvement can be supported by taxes on road users exclusively; and the attempt to do so can, in the long run, lead to only one of two results or a combination of both; either the killing of the hope for a desirable measure of local road improvement or the depreciation of the investment already made in the main roads.

By and large, the action of our legislatures is consistent with what is understood to be in the public interest. In respect to the highway program of the future, they will respond properly to facts presented for their guidance. The trouble is that they are beset on all sides by selfish and misguided counsel, and there is on the side of truth and real wisdom a lack of effective advocacy and marshalling of facts.

It is for the purpose of supplying such facts that the making of traffic surveys of the type suggested is indispensable. The counsel of the State highway departments in their respective States ought to be directed toward the deferring of far reaching legislative action with respect to local road administration and finance until the essential facts can be thus obtained.

There is, however, another matter of equal importance, that may perhaps be presented in fewer words. This is the urgently needed improvement of main routes in and near cities, and the refinement of other heavily traveled highways needed for the promotion of safety.

When, a few short years ago, we began the systematic improvement of the main rural roads, the portions of our whole street and highway network that were most adequately improved were the city streets and the adjoining rural highways. We have now progressed in the rural road work to the point where it may be said that a reasonably satisfactory condition exists on the long rural stretches of most of the State highways. Meanwhile, however, traffic has grown, in and near the cities, to such proportions that the once relatively adequate facilities there provided have become generally the least efficient sections of the entire system. On the rural roads improved in the earlier years, when the speed and density of traffic permitted lower standards of road design than can be justified today, there are also curves and other features that must be revised to adapt the improvements to modern requirements. As their early improvement would suggest, many of these roads are today the most heavily traveled of the rural thoroughfares.

The expeditious modernization of these municipal and main highway facilities with the reasonable extension of the secondary road improvement are the two most useful employments to which we can devote our energies and our resources in the years immediately ahead.

Unlike the secondary road improvements there can be no question, in regard to these other needs (urban and main line rural upgrades), as to either their direct benefit to the traffic or the ability of the traffic to pay the cost. Also, unlike the secondary road improvements, the problems they present are not dissimilar to those that have long been the every day concern of many, if not most, of the State highway departments. In respect to this class of improvements, the safety of human life is as strong an impelling factor as economy of service in the narrow sense, and they center in large part in the financially hard pressed municipalities. In many cases they must be indefinitely postponed unless revenues other than those previously available are devoted to them.

It is our obligation as well as our opportunity, out of national adversity to secure finer and more permanent highway facilities as our contribution to national progress.

Clearly, he could see the urban and secondary programs coming and was worried about being prepared for them.

During these years, the movement advocating the building of "Superhighways" flourished. The building of roads through the State highway departments simply did not create the perception that the Federal government was doing all it could to relieve unemployment. FDR himself was a convert as indicated by the news articles at the beginning of this article which began to appear in 1934-1935. It is fairly clear that the Interior Department was seen as the Federal agency to take the lead in such a national superhighway program.

The relief program was still going strong in 1935 as indicated by this article by MacDonald in the Sunday edition of the New York Times in August:

Of the $600,000,000 provided by the two acts (The National Industrial Recovery Act and the Hayden-Cartwright Act) only $33,256,885 remained available for new projects on June 30, 1935.

Augmenting the public works highway funds for the coming year, an additional allotment of $400,000,000 from the $4,000,000,000 provided by Congress for work relief has been apportioned to the State highway departments. The total allotment is divided into two parts of $200,000,000 each, one part to be used for highway construction and the other for elimination of hazards at railroad grade crossings...other highway funds will be allotted directly to the States by the Works Progress Administration.

The traveler by highway may yet see highway developments that will be conceived on an interstate or a national basis. Such development is indicated along intercity roads where population density and traffic point to the necessity of a moderate program of new highways or parkways caring for recreational travel of a character now denied to the traveler upon our most heavily traveled roads. In some cases, as with the Shenandoah Parkway of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a new climate greets many travelers coming from sections where they have sweltered in summer heat.

We know, however, that when the program is completed changing conditions and the greater highway travel of prosperous times will still require a national effort to keep abreast of traffic demands. This fact was recognized by Congress in the resumption of Federal aid to highways in 1936 following a plan similar to that used in former years, improved and broadened in several essential features to provide for new conditions. With the coming of continuing and large-scale business activity the highways will be in a position better to carry their share of the activity than they were several years ago when business decreased so sharply in volume and the enlarged work relief highway program was begun.

MacDonald frequently made mention of the necessity for the regular Federal-aid program to develop into the cities and to the rural secondary roads as in this article by him in the Michigan Roads and Construction Magazine in September of 1935:

The problems to be solved by State and Federal highway administrators have taken on much broader aspects within the last few years. Formerly attention was centered almost entirely on the rural sections of the State and Federal-aid systems. No other course was practicable and we have no regrets over a policy that provided the greatest benefits to the largest number of people in the shortest possible time.

We have reached a point in our development where we can no longer ignore the needs of traffic flowing from the main highways into and through cities and from feeder roads to the main highways. At the same time we must continue improvement of the main rural highways to bring them up to a standard consistent with traffic needs.

However, we cannot continue our planning on the basis of the inadequate knowledge that is now available. A thorough inventory of our road system with regard to its present conditions of improvement and detailed knowledge concerning the kind and volume of traffic over it is needed. The amount and the cost of needed improvement of each class can be determined only with such information. When these facts are known we will be in a position to determine what the total program should be and to give proper proportion to its various parts.

The bureau is now planning surveys in cooperation with the various States to obtain information to serve this purpose.

The increasing rate of deterioration of the highway system in spite of the huge sums pumped in by the Federal government for relief purposes was documented by MacDonald in a speech to the North Atlantic States of AASHO early in 1936 excerpted as follows:

There can be only one honest conclusion drawn from these facts which are neither guesses nor estimates but are the summaries of the official records painstakingly gathered. The trend is markedly to divert the special road user taxes from the State highway departments and at the same time to add mileages beyond their ability properly to improve and maintain.

The dishonest answer is that we have enough roads and can take a road building holiday. This in the face of the fact that the average annual special taxes 1932-1934 were in excess of one billion dollars, paid by the road users with the sole justification that these special taxes are levied and collected for the maintenance and extension of highway services and facilities.

In all seriousness, I record the fact that because of the public pressure for a rapid increase in the mileage of surfaced roads, the highway officials have been forced to spread the funds so thin that a very large part of the capital invested is now in jeopardy. Here are the facts. The so-called stage or progressive method of road construction was, and is, sound, if its processes are carried into operations properly timed. Low cost surfaces must be strengthened and reconstructed within their reasonable life; otherwise their annual maintenance mounts to excessive costs while their salvage value is rapidly lost.

The State and Federal highway departments in adopting the policies to the extent they have, understood the underlying economics and proceeded in the faith that the increased earnings from the roads thus improved would prove a profitable investment and that they would be permitted to follow the logical course of using the increased income to strengthen and raise the low cost types to standards that can be economically maintained, but the earnings are being diverted and new mileages to be improved are being added.

To make the picture more definite, here is a statement of the conservative reconstruction needs of the highways only under the jurisdiction of the State highway departments.

He presented needs estimates by type of facilities stretching as far as 40 years into the future.

There can, however, be no disagreement with the general conclusion that the annual construction and maintenance program that the State highway departments must carry on without the addition of a single new mile, is greater than for the pre-depression period 1925-1929... These are the requirements due to normal depreciation only. The factor of obsolescence, due primarily to increased volume and speed of traffic, will add another large increment of multiple-lane roadways, railway and highway grade crossing eliminations, and miles of realignment. The element of uniform safeness must be given major weight.

To this picture of the immediate and future requirements of the State highway department for annual support funds, must yet be added a like analysis of the needed development of local roads. Where these two are brought together, the magnitude of the unsoundness of diversion of the road user funds from the highways should be apparent to any one who can be convinced by facts.

No one realizes more fully than I, the utter futility of expecting a generalized statement for the nation as a whole to carry conviction to the public and the officials of a State. It is for this reason that the Bureau of Public Roads is vigorously urging upon each State highway department the complete survey of highway status, finances, and needs. Only in this way can the State highway department hope to save the rapidly developing adverse situation. This is their responsibility for highway progress. When a complete report is made, then the responsibility for action rests upon the Governor, the legislature and the public at large.

The policies of private industry are determined usually by a few individuals entirely familiar with the details of the business, many of whom have spent a lifetime in the service. In the conduct of this great industry of road improvement, the highway officials are dependent upon the action of State and national law making bodies. There is a single fact which ought to be kept before every member of these bodies. For the past three years the average cost to the average motorist for every special tax which he has paid is under $43 per year. This includes State and Federal special taxes and licenses, and even Federal excise taxes on the manufacture of motor vehicles. This job of providing road service cannot be done for any less cost and more likely it will increase.

Political campaigns are being made in certain States to reduce motor vehicle license fees. There are earnest efforts being made by industry to lower or remove excise and gasoline taxes. In the face of the needs for support funds, these are moves that are not in the interest of the public or eventually in the interest of those who favor the reductions. There is the further fact that under the Federal law a reduction below the amounts used for highway purposes from these special taxes in 1935 will result in a loss up to one-third of the Federal aid funds to any State where a reduction occurs. The fight of those who are interested in the future of highway progress must be against diversion, not against reduction.

The Depression held on stubbornly. The records show that, despite the long list of initiatives tried by the Roosevelt Administration, the unemployment rate never went below 17% until 1939 when the beginnings of World War II began to stimulate the economy.

In the summer of 1936, MacDonald toured Europe examining highway planning, construction, and administration. He had visited England eight years earlier and had visited a new highway just outside London. On this trip, he found that same highway congested due to development that had grown up along it. He drew some conclusions as he addressed the American Automobile Association (AAA) on his return:

That illustrates to me the fallacy of by-pass policies we are pursuing here. We can depend upon the utility with decreasing efficiency of a by-pass road for perhaps five years. Then we will have more traffic on the by-pass, and more congestion of new industrial establishments and other occupations of the land than upon the main streets that we are designing to by-pass completely. So we must take a leaf from that book of experience and, if we are to have efficient by-passes, build them much different than England built hers, or than we are building ours. As soon as we provide more adequate highway facilities contiguous to a large population, we assure development of the land along the highway, and we must perfect the design of a through road by adding service roads alongside that give access to the through road only at intervals. I believe this is sound.

In Germany, the Autobahnen really got his attention:

Germany stands out among all the countries of Europe in magnificent conception of a national system of major highways. This development contemplates a system of approximately 4500 miles, of which upwards of 1,000 miles have been actually constructed. Roughly, the system contemplates three routes, north and south, and the same number east and west across the nation. This description is only approximate since the routes composing the system are designed to connect the population centers and carry traffic continuously between the borders of the nation. The construction consists essentially of two lines of roadway each approximately 30 feet in width and entirely separated from each other by a center grass strip. These roads are known as the "Reichsautobahnen" or National Auto Roads. No cross traffic of any character is permitted. The ordinary roads are generally carried over the "Autobahn" and separations are effected at points on intersection with railroads as best fit the design standards. No provision is made for foot traffic and no bicycle or pedestrian traffic is permitted upon these auto highways. They are designed for high speed and exclusively for the use of the motor vehicle. Here again the same principles are used in the design conceived by Germany for this system of ultra-modern through highways of providing ample width of roadways with opposing traffic separated by an unpaved strip and no cross traffic at grade to interfere with the continuous flow. The highways which have been completed are wonderful examples of the best modern road building. The road from Munich to Salzburg in Austria is one of the most delightful drives of the world.

In by-passing the cities and staying out of the towns and villages, something is lost. Those who wish to see and understand the people of the country, lose this opportunity. On the other hand, if the ordinary traffic of commerce and the intercity movement are carried on these highways, this will relieve the other roads of much of the traffic burden and make them more comfortable for touring. In general, the existing roads, particularly in the vicinity of the larger cities are not comfortable for the tourist because of the large amount of mixed traffic including everything from large motor truck trains down to ox-carts, bicyclists and pedestrians.

When he addressed AASHO in December 1936, he had more to say:

Since conditions are so dissimilar, what relationships are there, then, which we can take as warning or which we can emulate?

The most important is that we must grasp this highway problem in this country more firmly. We must raise our standards to the new levels demanded by the universal utility of the motor vehicle. Two distinct programs are indicated. First, the systematic rehabilitation of existing highways by the actual incorporation of new construction to promote safety and greater utility...The second program is the long-time plan which will be based upon the principles illustrated by these examples from other countries, and by wide experience in our own country. The highway transport surveys now under way are basic...If the program of the next five to ten years is to provide the public with highway service that is not now even approached in any State, it must rest on this transport survey foundation. The underlying soundness of planning a belt line intercepting highway plus radial roads on new right of ways to serve the metropolitan areas, and introducing the new feature of providing this complete service only for the passenger motor vehicle, is supported by the traffic studies heretofore made. These studies indicate the overwhelming preponderance of passenger motor vehicle movements in the metropolitan area, particularly on week-ends and holidays. To provide free flow highways leading from the cities well into the country, and to permit the distribution of vehicles on these radial highways, from and to their own quadrants in the city over one or more belt line highways, will add immeasurably to the potential utility of the motor vehicle to the urban dweller, and such development will be supported by this increased use.

This conception goes further, however, and recognizes that the trend of the world is toward a greater recognition of social values. The motor car is one of the instruments from which we are not securing the potential social services in the nightmare of congested streets or highways at times of peak traffic...These radial roads will be reserved for automobile traffic. There is need in some limited sections of the country for the extension of such roads until they connect with those radiating from other large centers of population to form continuous routes wholly disconnected from our present system of highways. To the extent that other traffic, such as pedestrians or bicycles, may use such routes, separate ways must be provided. But the design must go a step further than does the design of the German, the French or of our own roads, and provide for the complete separation of local from through travel by parallel service roads. The exclusion of local travel, as on the German roads, is unthinkable. In fact, the exploding of the cities by the development of small acreages for homes is dependent upon the rehabilitation and for the long term plan, we must accept as an essential the separation of grades at major highway intersections. This is one of the most important factors in stepping up the safe utility of our existing highways.

In a symposium sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers in July of 1937, he had more to say on the subject:


There is more or less discussion in which the term "super-highways" is use without any adequate definition of what is intended by this term. Perhaps, it is more frequently used in connection with a very limited number of transcontinental highways designed for high speed and with multiple-lane roadways to carry traffic from coast to coast.

The German system of super-highways embodies this idea. In that country a system of about 4,500 miles of highways (which gives approximately three lines across the nation in each direction) is constructed on entirely new, wide rights of way without access from abutting lands, except at infrequent intervals. This travel section is composed of two roadways about 30 feet wide, separated by a parking (median). Both the horizontal and the vertical alignments are exceptionally good. All cross-traffic is directed over or under these highways. No detail that comes within the purview of highway engineering that will make a safer or more efficient highway has been omitted. The most advanced highway design techniques has been embodied in this development. The economic utilization is not so clear.

In the United States there is need for a considerable mileage of highways having similar characteristics, but the disposition of this mileage, to be most efficient, must be planned on the basis of the careful studies now going forward. The system of German roads is being built in advance of, and to promote the development of, highway transport. In the United States the situation is just the reverse. Highway builders are proceeding on the principle that the utilization of the highways must produce directly the revenues with which to finance their construction. As long as the United States adheres to this method of financing, the building of super-highways must be limited to areas where the present and prospective traffic will justify it. As a trend of highway development, it is apparent, from the important beginnings already made, that a considerable mileage of motor super-highways will be developed, that their location will be carefully integrated with the population centers, and that the layout will not be on the transcontinental basis.

From the development abroad and in the United States, one can conclude that super-highways will be created, but only in the vicinity of metropolitan areas and for connecting those that are separated by relatively short distances. The first function has already been served to a considerable extent by parkways. It is logical that there will be further developments of the type of the Blue Ridge Parkway designed to connect the Shenandoah and the Great Smokey Mountain National Parks. The development of such parkways recognizes the large use of motor vehicles for recreational purposes.

MacDonald surely envisioned the coming of limited access highways but only where demand could support them and not a nationwide system.

In setting the background for the Interstate System, there was yet another activity gong on in the thirties that needs to be documented because it had a significant effect on the ultimate establishment of the Interstate System. It is what I believe to be the beginning of formalized city planning at the National level. City planning is an old profession and one can find cases where roads and streets were use as elements of a city plan and, more specifically, as tools to implement a plan. But I know of no instances where city planning became a national issue and an instrument of policy until the Roosevelt administration.

It began with the report "Our cities" in 1937:


This is a report to President Roosevelt by the Urbanism Committee, a subgroup of the National Resources Planning Committee, the forerunner of the National Resources Planning Board.

The parent committee was composed of Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior and Chairman; Harry H. Woodring, Secretary of War; Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture; Daniel C. Roper, Secretary of Commerce; Francis Perkins, Secretary of Labor; Harry L. Hopkins, Works Progress Administrator; Frederic A. Delano, relative of FDR; Beardsly Ruml, originator of income tax withholding; and others.

"In previous reports of the National Resources Committee, much attention has been given to the problems of rural America. The report of the Urbanism Committee is the first major national study of cities in the United States where over half of our people live and where a large proportion of the Nation's wealth and the Nation's problems are concentrated."

The study was undertaken at the request of the U. S. Conference of Mayors, the American Municipal Association, the American Planning and Civic Association, and the American Society of Planning Officials.

In reviewing this report, several questions came to my mind:

1. Is this the beginning of the Federal preoccupation with direct aid to the cities?; 2. Was this the beginnings of the formal establishment of the role of professional planners in urban transportation planning?; 3. Was this the beginnings of the Urban Highway Program?; and 4. Was it the roots of the 3C Planning Process that became a statutory requirement in 1962?


The Foreword lists four national trends that produced unplanned and unexpected changes in the patterns of national life:

  1. The rapid shift of population from rural to urban. They were using 1930 census data, and by that time, the population was about half urban.
  2. An unprecedented mobility, giving rise to metropolitan districts rather than distinct cities.
  3. A concentration of enterprise in urban areas.
  4. Urban areas had doubled and the populations had trebled since 1890 (40 years), requiring institutions and instruments of social change in order "...to keep the seething millions from trampling one another down in the workaday urban world."

Fourteen emerging problems were identified:

  1. "The most drastic inequalities of income and wealth are found in the urban community."
  2. "...the lack of articulation among the various industries within our urban communities." (This apparently means no governmental control over economic decisions.)
  3. "Rapid obsolescence of physical plan and plant..."(This refers to everything, including housing stock.)
  4. "Competing forms of transportation have left their disrupting imprint on the national urban pattern. Located originally on natural waterways, American cities found their sister towns rising up during the canal era on new water routes. With the coming of the railroads these canal cities met in their turn, a similarly disastrous fate. Then came competing railroads, and the cities again began to rival one another with excessive subsidies and cut throat competition for rate reduction. Nor have we yet reached the end of this process. The motor truck and the passenger bus have long since entered the field of competition, and now the airplane begins to affect the national distribution of our urban centers and even the local pattern of our cities."
  5. "The unparalleled growth of cities has been accompanied by uncontrolled subdivision and speculative practices and by the most fantastic real estate booms which have meant dramatic profits to a few, but tragic personal losses to others and burdensome delinquent properties to the community; and this on a scale affecting the economic situation of the entire Nation..."
  6. "Urban housing is one of the most burdensome problems the country now has to face and it calls for the Nation's most serious consideration..."
  7. "Urban public health is endangered particularly in blighted areas and among low income groups..."
  8. "The city with its diversity of ethnic, religious, and cultural strains is the haven par excellence of many widely varying types of personalities...how to weave these vivid and varigated cultures into a positive civic program of intercommunication and cooperation is one of the challenging problems of the coming decades."
  9. "While free primary and secondary education is now widely available in urban areas, city youths in all too many cases are still barred from higher educational opportunities they might well utilize because they must all too frequently supplement the family income by going to work..."
  10. "Juvenile delinquency, organized crime, and commercial rackets are among the vexations of the city..."
  11. "Urban finance is another emerging problem...our larger cities...have larger budgets than the states that contain them...The problem of municipal finance is becoming even more complicated with the extension of Federal and State taxation to support the newer functions of government such as social security and extensive public works."
  12. "Another of the city's wealthiest tasks is the adjustment of the traditional scope of urban powers...the American city is still the legal creature of higher authorities (States). The city is in many ways the ward of a guardian who refuses to function."
  13. "Our overlapping medley of independent governmental units was intended for a rural and a manorial society...Twenty two of our 96 metropolitan districts containing...one fifth of all our inhabitants straddle state lines..."
  14. "...we are still faced in some of our cities with systematic evasion of civil service laws, irresponsible political leadership, and official tolerance of discriminatory or questionable administrative practices."

"All in all there has been more widespread national neglect of our cities than any other major segment of our national existence...America must now set out to overcome the continual and cumulative disregard of urban policies and administration and to take into account the place of the urban community in the national economy."


  1. "...the United States both study and act upon the problems of chronically depressed urban areas...until the fundamental issue of adequate and secure income is met."
  2. "The Federal Government should continue its policy of cooperation with and assistance to the social-welfare programs of urban communities...the Committee recommends the equalization between country and city of as many material and cultural opportunities as possible."
  3. "A section for urban research should be set up in a Federal Agency...A clearing house of urban information should be set up in the Bureau of the Census...A...study should ...be undertaken...by BOB (the Bureau of the Budget)...to bring about closer coordination of Federal activities in urban communities."
  4. "...creation of a Federal agency to make loans and grants to local governments for ...public works, housing, public utilities, land purchases and similar outlays."
  5. "...establish a ...Federal public works Authority...responsible for...a specific and detailed nation-wide program of public works, and for the encouragement and cooperation in public works planning, between national, State, and local agencies."
  6. "The Federal and State Governments should extend...financial assistance...for rehousing the low-income groups...to the end that the urban slum may be outlawed."
  7. "A permanent national planning board should: (a) extend encouragement, cooperation, and support to State, regional, and local planning agencies; (b)...systematize, and improve the long range programming of public works in cooperation with State, regional and local planning agencies; (c)...lend encouragement and cooperation to industrial communities...to review systematically and plan constructively...industrial structure; (d) to prepare, in collaboration with State planning boards and appropriate Federal agencies, the broad general plan of a coordinated transportation system directed toward an economically more effective and socially more desirable urban pattern and distribution of economic activities; (e) 'To make further inquiry into the probable effect on urbanization of the wider distribution of electric power." (apparently there was some belief that the provision of electric power to rural America might slow down urbanization.)
  8. "...inquiry...of the entire subject of conflicting fiscal policies and taxation in local, State, and Federal Governments."
  9. "The Congress should...give advance consent to ...interstate compacts enabling the several communities within the same metropolitan region, but in separate States to deal jointly with the regional aspects of health, sanitation, industrial-waste regulation, the control of public utilities, planning, public safety and welfare, education, recreation, and other governmental functions of regional scope."
  10. "The Federal Government should cooperate in programs directed toward crime prevention."
  11. (a) "States and urban communities availing themselves of Federal grants-in-aid should be expected...to conform to minimum personnel standards under the merit system... (b) The Federal Government should extend...efforts in vocational training for public service occupations. (c) The United States Civil Service Commission should furnish eligible lists to local authorities...and prepare model personnel standards...with a view to encourage exchange of personnel among...levels of government."

The following is a quote from the body of the report:

The principal problem at present is how to control and manipulate the existing transportation network either to preserve or to reshape the existing national urban pattern and the urban community or region. Instead of utilizing the transport system and the rate structure to influence the flow of goods and people, and the distribution of economic activity and urbanization according to some previously conceived national plan of development, we have permitted our transport facilities and rate structure to accentuate existing advantages and disadvantages. A new policy must be adopted, designed to make our transport system and rate structure a flexible tool instead of a rigid cast for future urban development.


  1. This study does indeed seem to be an early, if not the earliest, comprehensive review of the urban problem.
  2. There was a very strong belief that planning in and of itself could solve the urban problems.
  3. The heavy role of the national planning societies in the study is interesting.
  4. It is clear that the belief was that the States were unresponsive to the urban areas and the urban problems, and, therefore, it was up to the Federal Government to provide resources and to direct the efforts.
  5. It is surprising the degree to which they felt that transportation was the lever to shape the future of urban areas.
  6. The degree to which they felt that professionals and professionalism were required to do the job is fascinating.
  7. The degree of advocacy of governmental intervention into such a wide variety of social, economic and physical functions is surprising.
  8. This is perhaps the beginning of the wave of "urban planning fever" that swept the country in the late fifties and sixties.

Shortly after this report was published, a Federal urban renewal program was established.

In September of 1937, MacDonald addressed the 23rd annual meeting of AASHO:


The speech was about the dilemma that the highway departments were in because of diversion, transfer of huge mileages of secondary roads to State supervision, the use of the highway program for other goals than traffic (unemployment for instance) and the many proposals floating around (like superhighways). His main theme was that only the careful analysis of the facts gathered in the Planning Surveys would lead to rational solutions that could then be sold to the legislatures and the public. He noted that the data gathering was about complete and that analysis was about to begin. It is interesting that at this time, the Planning Survey was regarded as a one shot deal just as the original highway program was considered to be a program that would be "completed" just as "completion" has been the goal of the Interstate.


In 1937, President Roosevelt wanted to cancel the 1939 highway authorizations because he felt that the States had received so much PWA money that the authorization was not needed. In the same message to Congress, he asked for repeal of contract authority in the highway program. He said he found the process of committing the Federal government to contracts before consideration of the source of funds to pay for them as fiscally irresponsible and incredible.

In December of 1938, Representative Wilburn Cartwright, Chairman of the Committee on Roads in the House, addressed the AASHO annual meeting:

In November of 1937, President Roosevelt called for a reduction in Federal highway spending and change in authorization and appropriations procedure. The special session of Congress last year failed to act on the President's request for cancellation of 1939 authorizations...

As required by the Hayden-Cartwright Act of 1936, on December 31 last, Secretary Wallace apportioned to the States the money authorized for 1939 Federal aid, totalling $195, 000,000. However, at the direction of the President, he sent a letter to the Governor of each State requesting that no projects involving 1939 funds be submitted until Congress had had time to consider further the President's request for cancellation of the authorizations.

The President based the Federal budget for the 1939 fiscal year on the assumption that Congress would comply with his recommendations for cancellation and reduction.

On January 6 of this year, I took the bull by the horns and introduced a bill, H.R. 8838, to provide for continuation of Federal highway aid without any reductions through the fiscal years 1940 and 1941.

Soon after the record of the hearings was printed the Committee reported out the bill with the recommendation that "do pass". It did pass, by a unanimous vote and without important amendment in the House, but with some reductions in the Senate. The principles of the legislation, however, were kept intact, and a total of $357,500,000 of Federal funds was authorized for roads for the fiscal years 1940 and 1941. This was an important victory for roads!


The outlawing of highway enemy No. 1 (Diversion in the 1934 Act) means that additional thousands of dollars will be reserved for use in the construction and improvement of roads. It means that when super-highway legislation comes up in the next Congress we will be better able to find ways and means to finance the construction of modern roads in the places where volume of traffic and high accident rates make such a step imperative.

During the past several Congresses bills have been introduced to provide a system of super-highways for the United States. Super-highways in this country have been looked upon by most people as a beautiful dream that would not come true for many years. The House Committee on Roads has looked more to building our primary highways and getting the farmers out of the mud before launching on such an ambitious scheme. Personally I have been and am for super-highways as soon as we are ready. The House Committee has had hearings and printed reports of testimony pro and con for distribution.

In the Hayden Cartwright Act (1938) passed this year we provided: "The chief of the Bureau of Public Roads is hereby directed to investigate and make a report of his findings and recommend to the Congress not later than February 1, 1939, with respect to the 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 in a general direction from the northern to the southern portion of the United States, including the feasibility of a toll system on such roads."

This subject will be up in the next Congress and some definite action will probably be taken.

I was in Germany this summer and when I think of super-highways, I think of Germany, for, regardless of what we think of him as a man, we must give Fuehrer Hitler credit for building a system of super-highways in his country which are second to none in the world today. It is undoubtedly true that the construction of these highways was prompted by the same motives which are behind Germany's huge expenditures for armament and for the building up of her army to the limit of her manpower. The super-highways will become very important assets to that nation in the event of another war in Europe. In the meantime, however, they are providing the German people with innumerable peacetime commercial, industrial, social and cultural benefits.

I think that the United States should have a highway system second to none. Our highway engineers such as Thomas H. MacDonald and Charles M. Upham have long served as teachers to road builders in other parts of the world. The safety features which are built into the German super-highways are, in fact, those which have long been recommended by American engineers. The world's best and most efficient road-building machinery and materials are manufactured in the United States. Our financial structure is certainly superior. It is , therefore, not an idle boast for us to say that we can do better anything that Germany can do well.

However, I do not advocate that we start immediately to construct a super-highway system like that in Germany. It would take many years to build a complete system which would link the entire country and cost billions but we can begin now to design and lay out this system and to construct super-highways in those areas where traffic is heavy and congested. In this way we will be able to attain, in the next decade or so, the beginnings of a system of highways and super-highways which will be adequate for the needs of our country.

I think I should emphasize at this point that the Roosevelt administration was not a strong advocate of the Federal-aid highway program, but it was a strong booster for national super-highways and for new programs to help the cities. Its support of super-highways is illustrated by the following presentation to AASHO by S.W. Marshall, the chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike:


Some 50 years ago, as the outcome of a railroad builders' war between the Vanderbilt interests in New York State and the Pennsylvania Railroad in Pennsylvania, the South Penn Railroad was organized and financed, the major part being by Mr. Andrew Carnegie and William Vanderbilt. They actively surveyed the line, they laid (this must mean surveyed) about 5,000 miles of it, and eventually determined upon a route of about 220 miles from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh.

They started work on the construction of this road. They built embankments, they did a great deal of the drainage work, and they started work on eight tunnels. Suddenly the work was abandoned. The railroad war was called off, and the work that had been done for old South Penn Railroad lay dormant for 50 years.

In 1935, the Pennsylvania Legislature authorized a WPA project, a more or less white-collar project, to resurvey this line and determine and prepare a report as to the advisability of using it as a high-speed highway. During 1935 and 1936 and the early part of 1937, this work went on, and a report was presented to the 1937 session of the Pennsylvania Legislature. That was of such importance that the Legislature considered it thoroughly and enacted an Act creating Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. The Act became effective in May, 1937, and on June 4, the Governor appointed the first Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

A line generally was determined upon, the type of construction, the work in the several tunnels, the highway work was generally worked out and planned by the Pennsylvania Department of Highways in the latter half of 1937 and in the early part of 1938. The...Commission...attempted to finance an entirely new project, namely a superhighway to be paid for from revenues paid by the users of that road as the rode back and forth upon it.

There was nothing like it in the United States. And private financiers raised one eyebrow when the proposition was presented to them. However, a syndicate was formed who agreed to take the bond, but through a legal technicality found that they could not do so.

The Commission then turned to the Federal Government, and after a great many conferences, we received the approval of a 45 per cent grant of the cost of the project from PWA, and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation agreed to underwrite the remaining 55 per cent in the way of bonds. The Commission...suddenly found themselves in funds in the amount of $61,000,000. That was on the 10th of August, 1938...

I drove this highway early in 1943 while in military service. It was a beautiful spring day and the sun was shining brilliantly. I felt that I had just entered a different world, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and I was on the Yellow Brick Road. I had never seen anything like it.

This completes our look back at our heritage in the highway program and brings us to where this chronology began; the requirement by the Congress for BPR to evaluate the feasibility of building a system of superhighways.


Before getting into the details, here is a brief recap of the situation: A movement advocating Federally constructed National coast-to-coast highways existed as far back as highway legislation goes. It was strengthened in the 30's by the demands for Federal programs to stem the Depression and provide employment. President Roosevelt himself was an advocate of such a scheme and was quoted widely in the press and discussed such a proposal on more than one occasion with selected groups of Congressmen. No less than 14 bills to build such a system were introduced. At least two were sponsored by the Administration. In parallel, there was a growing concern for the condition of the cities. The migration from rural to urban had reached alarming proportions by the mid-thirties. The wisdom of the times was that the rural environment was wholesome and that the cities were dens of iniquity. Decay of central cities was becoming rampant. FDR established the National Resources Planning Committee to study national problems and the Urbanism (sub)Committee to specifically look into the urban problem. It published "Our Cities" in 1937. It dwelt heavily on city planning as the way to solutions and the use of highways as a tool for change since it envisioned the public rebuilding of vast blighted areas.

Congress ordered BPR to study the national toll road problem in 1938 as a reaction to all of the pressures for legislation. BPR prepared a comprehensive response using for the first time the results from the planning survey studies.


Two original drafts have been found, one by Mr. Siegle dated January 16, 1939 and a memorandum by Mr. Fairbank dated November 15, 1938 which outlined a suggested Administration policy and recommendations to go with the report to Congress. The latter is quite different than what the President transmitted to the Congress in April of 1939. What follows will develop those differences and speculates on the reasons for them:


It is very comprehensive and is unmistakably what became Part One of "Toll Roads and Free Roads." It is titled "The Feasibility Of A System Of Transcontinental Toll Roads". It is practically word for word and is filled with the same charts and maps that appeared in Part One of the final report. It was a straight-forward response to the Congressional mandate and did not show any indication of an impending Part II.


Mr. Fairbank's memorandum is very informative about the reason for a Part II "A Master Plan For Free Highway Development", but it doesn't explain the differences between his draft and the final product. Excerpts and summarizations follow:

"In compliance with...Congressional direction a report is in preparation (Mr. Siegle's report) which will indicate the best locations for six highways conforming to the terms of reference, and will undoubtedly prove conclusively the improbability of their successful operation as toll highways." A map (from Mr. Siegle's report showing the best locations for the routes was discussed: "The routes indicated on the map have been chosen with the cooperation and agreement of all State highway departments."

This was the same map of the six highways appearing in the final report.

There was considerable discussion of the merits and usefulness of the data from the State-wide highway planning surveys from 46 States. The maps and charts appearing in the final report and deriving from the surveys were discussed.

It is already clear that the Bureau must return a negative report on the feasibility of the proposed toll roads; but the interest aroused in Congress and among the people generally in the provision of better and safer highways for the growing interstate and inter-regional traffic will not be satisfied with a mere negative report. A view that there is outlined hereafter a Master Highway Plan, for adoption as an Administration policy, and public announcement in advance of the submission of the report of the Bureau of Public Roads to Congress on February 1, 1939.


The Proposed Master Highway Plan comprises:

  1. A classification of all rural roads of the country into groups of several orders of traffic importance, to be initiated by the Federal government and carried out by joint action of the Secretary of Agriculture and the several State highway departments, on the basis of information supplied by the Statewide highway planning surveys.
    (Note that only rural roads were contemplated in the above statement.)
  2. The formulation of a comprehensive policy of the Federal government governing its participation in the cost of improving the several classes of roads and defining the objectives of such Federal participation.
  3. The establishment of general standards for improvements of the several classes of roads effected with Federal financial assistance; and
  4. The enactment of Federal laws and regulations, to apply on all roads improved in whole or in part with funds of the Federal government, prescribing maximum weights, speeds, and dimensions of vehicles, and minimum requirements in respect to the power and tractive ability of vehicles and their braking, lighting and tire equipment, all consistent with the established standards of highway design.


All existing rural roads and proposed new roads should be classified in groups as follows:

  1. National Superhighways;
    (The suggested title in the final report was "The Primary Highway System of the United States" but the system was referred to throughout that report as interregional highways. Also the word "Primary" was not the title of a highway system then. There was only one system and it was defined in law and known simply as the Federal-aid System.)
  2. State Highways
  3. Secondary and Feeder Roads
  4. Tertiary or Land-service Roads
    1. Roads that should be improved
    2. Roads that should not be improved

(Category IV was dropped from the final report.)

Class I, National Superhighways, should comprise a system of direct inter-regional routes, following the alignment and incorporating the improvement of existing highways wherever feasible, but departing from existing roads wherever necessary to obtain direct alignment and high standards of curvature and gradient. Such a system may be limited to not more than 1 percent of the total mileage of all highways and roads in the United States, but it should be unlimited as to mileage in each State. Such a system would serve approximately one-eighth of the total traffic moving over all rural highways. It would include all of the important lines of long distance travel and, except for short sections radiating from the larger cities, all of the roads on which there is (at) present (an) approach to congestion of traffic.

(The one percent probably comes from the original one percent consisting of trans-continental routings laid out and approved in 1925 as part of the U.S. numbered system. The estimate that the system would serve one eighth of the travel is interesting since the current Interstate serves in excess of twenty percent of the traffic, but it is reasonable when it is considered that the system proposed here would be exclusively rural.)

A tentative indication of such a National Superhighway System, including approximately 26,500 miles, is shown on the attached map, marked Exhibit G. The close agreement between the routes of this system and the distribution of population is shown in Exhibit H.

(The map was not present with the draft, but it is safe to assume that it is the same map that appeared in "Toll Roads and Free Roads". The mileage is close-26,500 vs. 26,700. This map is unmistakably the precursor of the Interstate System as, as I believe, was the trans-continental routes mapped in 1925 as the top one percent of the seven percent system.)

It is on the existing roads that lie approximately along the lines of this system that there is the greatest inadequacy of existing improvement. Developing early as the principal roads of each locality they were the first roads to be improved, and they retain today in large part the alignment of the original improvement, with curvature, grades, and sight distances seriously inadequate under present conditions of traffic movement...

The one immediate requirement, common to all sections, would be the acquisition of right of way ample to permit future expansion of the highway facility and wide enough to prevent the choking of traffic flow by the ribbon development that occurs progressively along all heavily traveled highways. There can be no question that such a superhighway system, open to travel without payment of tolls, would immediately be heavily used in all its parts, attracting traffic from less favorably located and amply proportioned existing roads. Such roads, relieved of their present overburden, would be enabled better to serve the remainder of local traffic for which, with moderate improvement, they will be suitable.

Such a National Superhighway System would meet every present and future requirement of the longer ranging industrial and business traffic, would accommodate practically all of the super-local tourist traffic, would accommodate practically all of the super-local tourist movement, and in case of war would serve fully the long-distance traffic needs of the national defense. Both the proposed National Superhighway System (Exhibit G) and the proposed toll road system (Exhibit A) have been discussed informally with officers of the War Plans Division of the General Staff of the Army, eliciting comment indicative of pronounced military preference for the larger system.

The Class II State highway system was discussed and would have been limited to 10% of total mileage. Class III would also have been limited to 10% of total mileage in each State. Class IV would have been selected from the remaining roads but limited to 20% leaving 60% not eligible for Federal aid and, the recommendation was, a significant portion of that should be abandoned.

(This would have been a way out of the problem confronting the States at that time where vast mileages had been transferred from counties and townships to the States with no revenue to go with them.)

Updated: 06/27/2017
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