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Highway History

Origins of the Interstate System

Origins of the Interstate Part 5 of 7


Congressman Mott, Oregon, a member of the House Committee on Roads also addressed the Convention and had a lot to say about the invasion of the Congress's authority by the Executive Branch and of the demise of the National Resources Planning Board. He said that he had a prepared speech on what they (AASHO) ought to do about post-war planning but decided not to give it and proceeded extemporaneously. He stressed the need for programs to transition to peacetime activity:

You will notice I said the Congress and the country must do this and that I did not say the Government must do it...Many of them (the people) seem to be of the notion that the Government means an administration in power, and particularly the executive agencies of that administration...in my opinion this planning is a job that should be done by the Congress and the country. And I mean just that.

...I say to you that it is incumbent upon you to prepare and to formulate your plans now for post-war road construction in cooperation with the Congress, which will enact the basic law under which those plans are to be carried out. And I say to you that the principal reason why you should do this and do it now is because if you don't do it, these executive agencies will do it for you, just as they did in the days of the WPA.

I am sure I need not explain to you how this was done at one time or how it may be done again. I simply warn you that unless you insist upon exercising your rights and privileges as citizens of the United States, and unless you are resolved henceforth to keep your own Government and not permit it again to be transferred to the bureaucrats in the executive agencies, the bureaucrats will take over the post-war road building program just as they took over the depression road building program, and you will have another WPA.

He talked at length of the usurpation of power of the executive branch bureaucrats:

The Congress has been able to recapture very little of this usurped authority from the bureaucrats because, until the convening of the 78th Congress, at least, it lacked an independent majority large enough to pass the necessary remedial legislation.

Then when the war came, it was necessary for the Congress, as every previous war Congress has had to do, to pass broad war powers acts, and that has resulted in the creation of still more new agencies. These new executive agencies have gone even further than the old ones and they have made orders, directives and proclamations which affect the activity, the industry, the business, and the very life of all the people of this country, and in instance after instance they have done this without any authority of law whatever.

Nearly all of this new bureaucracy, nearly all the new agencies representing it, have been busily engaged in post-war planning ever since this war started. Most of them had no statutory authority to engage in planning but they have nevertheless engaged in planning and some of them have completed their plans and are ready to put them into effect whenever the opportunity offers; and their plans-mark you-do not exclude road building.

The best known, perhaps, of all these executive planning agencies was the National Resources Planning Board, and, I am sure, you all remember that amazing outfit. You probably have read a part of its latest report, its "cradle to the grave" report, under which the future life of all of our citizens was mapped out and planned and controlled and regimented, not only from the cradle to the grave, but for a considerable period beyond. And you may recall that this National Resources Planning Board was not created by any act of Congress. It was established without any authority of law whatever. It succeeded in worming itself into the structure of the Government and, from time to time, in securing appropriations to carry on its work, which so far as law was concerned was entirely illegal.

You may recall particularly, because you are in the road building business that when the President vetoed the Defense Highway Bill a couple of years ago, he vetoed it, not upon the advice of the Administrator of Public Roads, and not upon the advice of any agency of the Government which had been created by the Congress; he vetoed that bill on the advice of the National Resources Planning Board, no member of which knew anything about road building.

I had always opposed that Board, as well as every other planning board which had no authority in law to act, and I voted against appropriating money for it each time I had an opportunity to do so. I don't know whether I had anything particularly to do with its final demise but, as you all know, the present Congress when it came to appropriating further money to prolong the illegal life of this agency, denied it any further finances and it is now non-existent as a board. But individually it is not non-existent, because you will still find members of the National Resources Planning Board in a half dozen other agencies of the Government and they are still planning-planning to regiment the country in the post-war period, when they almost succeeded in making the depression a permanent institution.

Now I want to bring up the old WPA road building and planning program because you are all so familiar with it and to recall to your minds just what planning by an executive agency, without authority of Congress, can do, when such planning is put into practice.

You all remember how the WPA roadbuilding plan worked. More money was spent on that program for road building than was spent in the regular, constitutionally authorized way. Roads were built, of course. They were built, primarily, not to solve the transportation problem of the country, but they were used very largely as a vehicle for boondoggling. You will remember that Mr. Harry Hopkins, who was the head at that time of WPA, heartily defended boondoggling. He is said to have declared upon one occasion that the reason the American people didn't understand or appreciate boondoggling was that they were "too damned dumb."

Now it is perfectly possible, unless we do our own road planning now, for an agency like WPA to be revived and to take charge of our road building program in post-war emergency...

...Much of this planning we know little about because recently an executive order was issued which prohibited any of these agencies from making a report to a committee of the Congress, or even a report to an individual member of Congress, unless the agency first obtained the consent of the Bureau of the Budget, where most of the planning activity is concentrated...

He went on to read the Executive Order in its entirety.

...The Roads Committee reported out and passed House Resolution 243, which gives the Committee the right to investigate these agencies encroaching upon the jurisdiction of the Congress....a number of other committees of the Congress have been obliged to put themselves in the position, by special acts of Congress, of investigating committees having the power of subpoena, so that they can call these executive planners in and make them tell what they have been doing, notwithstanding any executive order to the contrary.

It is ironic that Congress put the National Resources Planning Board out of business by denying them an appropriation in 1943 before the President delivered the Interregional Highways report to the hill. Frederick A. Delano, the President's uncle, was chairman of that board and served on the National Interregional Highway Committee. There is no question in my mind that the National Resources Planning Board heavily influenced both the 1939 Toll Roads and Free Roads report and the Interregional Highways report.

In January 1944, MacDonald spoke about the "Proposed Interregional Highway System as it Affects Cities" to the American Society of Civil Engineers annual meeting. He elaborated on the economic, social and physical problems of the cities with such knowledge and understanding that it is a classic on city planning, and thus the summary that follows doesn't do it justice without losing substance. This one is worth reading in its entirety. It reveals not only his understanding of the city problems and urban planning but also the sincerity of his belief that interstate highways were the solution to those problems. He dealt with the complexity of the multiple governments of metropolitan areas. He felt that the process would work if the cities really wanted it to and the quality of the planning process was key to achieving that, and the attendant public acceptance. He felt that the Interstate System should begin in the city centers and work outward for the maximum benefit.

...the interregional system of highways has potentials for beneficial effects upon urban areas beyond any tools that have as yet been devised if the use is designed and directed by superior intelligence. But the same tool may be used to produce disappointing, if not actually bad, effects.

...Long before the war added its many difficulties, American cities were plagued by traffic congestion, sectional decadence of property values, blight, menacing tax delinquency, inadequate public transport facilities, growing deficits between costs of city government and revenues, high tax rates and a loss of confidence of investment capital in desirable housing ventures.

There is nothing new in this incomplete inventory of urban problems. They have long been recognized by public officials and by students of urban conditions. In addition to the efforts to improve the long established routines of city administration, there has gradually come into use, in varying degrees, two additional tools with which to meet certain of the city problems. These are first, zoning, and second, city planning...The principle of constituting the planning body largely from the officials who have the legal responsibility and authority to carry the various elements of the adopted plan into effect, also carries the implication that a competent technical staff and experienced consultants should be established as a continuing unit of city government. Until city planning becomes a legally established tool for the determination of administrative policies, it cannot be a dependable remedy for certain city ills.

...The actual development of the metropolitan area sections of the interregional highway system, with the coordinated additional expressways, if located and designed in harmony with present needs, and an intelligent conception of the city of one and two decades in the future, have inherently a compelling force not present in either zoning as practiced or theoretical planning. The development of the system is a tool of high potential value to secure a more desirable city and, in common with all tools, depends for the actual results upon the soundness of the conception which determines the scope of its use.

...The interregional system of highways and ancillary motorways intended to serve the modern city, must be designed to meet the needs of the whole metropolitan area...In each metropolitan area there are large numbers of governmental units, upon which are superimposed additional administrative units, each having legal authority and responsibility within independent or overlapping subareas, and each possessing a greater or lesser degree of autonomy...

This is the core of an impossible area administrative problem in the absence of a legal organizational method to integrate common interests.

The storm center of the urban problem is the matter of decentralization--the explosion of the city beyond its fixed corporate limits.

In this setting, the proposed interregional highway system looms as perhaps the most plausible solution to the transportation deficiencies of the modern urban area. If the cities so determine, the interregional highway system can provide an unparalleled opportunity for rebuilding along functional lines, following rational master plans.

...If the plan is given effect, values in decadent areas will be progressively restored and those in the central business district will be preserved by the conversion of all urban land to its best use. Destructive and uneconomic decentralization will be checked and nucleated...

...Provision must be made for terminal and parking facilities as an integral element of the major highway and street plan. This is in keeping with the recent recognition that an over-all service from origin to destination is necessary for the full realization of the speed, economy and convenience of efficient highway and street service.

...If the interregional highway system is to be truly effective for the uses for which it is designed, it must be conceived only after a careful and complete functional study of the city organism. It may then be possible to devise a rational plan of future land use that will assign more or less specific areas to each of the principal classes of use - residential, cultural, business, industrial, etc. Having planned such rational distributions of land use, it may be possible to obtain the public consent necessary to the establishment of legal controls and the machinery that will assure an actual development over a period of years in conformity with the plan...

But whether or not there is acceptance of a rational course and control of development, the provision of interregional routes will exert a powerful influence in the shaping of future development of the city. This beneficial force should be so applied as to promote a desirable development or, at least, to be consistent with a natural development...

Thorough study of the problem indicates that the sections of the recommended system within and in the environs of the larger cities and metropolitan areas are the most important in traffic service and yet the least adequate in their present state of improvement. These routes include those around, as well as those into and through the urban areas. If priority of improvement within the system be determined either by the benefits resulting or the urgency of need, it is to these sections that first attention should be directed.

Our cities are worth preserving. The gradual remodeling of the existing amorphous city structure into neighborhood cells is both logical and natural. The city will always form the vital nucleus serving the essential needs of the metropolitan region. Because the building of highways and streets exerts such a profound influence on urban life, the proposed interregional highway system may well constitute the key to the functional rebuilding of our cities. But the cities themselves must recognize that while opportunity is at hand, they must exploit it to the fullest, if they are to survive. Like the Greeks, they must consciously endeavor to create acceptable and convenient surroundings for life.


In January of 1944, the President transmitted the Interregional Highways report to the Congress. Presumably the timing was designed to influence the highway hearings soon to begin. He said:

On April 14, 1941, I appointed a committee, known as the National Interregional Highway Committee to investigate the need for a limited system of national highways...to advise the Federal Works Administrator as to the desirable character of such improvement, and the possibility of utilizing some of the manpower and industrial capacity expected to be available at the end of the war.

...By Public Law 146-78th Congress, Section 5, Commissioner of Public Roads, Thomas H. MacDonald, was authorized and directed to make a survey of the need for a system of express highways throughout the United States...and to report to the President and to Congress, within six months after the date of the Act...The Act was approved on July 13, 1943.

The purposes of this directive by the Congress were identical with my own in requesting the investigation which has been made by the National Interregional Highway Committee...The Commissioner of Public Roads has informed me that he concurs without exception in the report of the committee, and desires that it be accepted as his report, complying with the direction of Congress in Public Law 146.

I am glad to endorse this suggestion...

Early actions by the Congress in authorizing joint designation by the Federal Government and the several State Highway Departments of a national system of interregional highways is desirable, in order to facilitate the acquisition of land, the drawing of detailed project plans, and other preliminary work which must precede actual road construction.

These advance steps taken, the program can serve not only to help meet the nation's highway transportation needs, but also as a means of utilizing productively during the post-war readjustment period a substantial share of the manpower and industrial capacity then available. A program of highway construction, will, in addition, encourage and support the many diverse economic activities dependent upon highway transportation.

From personal experience, as Governor of a State and as President, I hope that the Congress will make additional studies in regard to the acquisition of land for highways.

...As a matter of fact, while the courts of the different States have varied in their interpretations, the principle of excess condemnation is coming into wider use both here and in other countries...

The report recommended a 33,920-mile system. As stated earlier, the House bill under consideration at that time already had a 40,000-mile system in it for hearing purposes. The report also recommended that the program begin in the cities and work outward since that was where the greatest need for traffic relief existed.


AASHO President S.C. Hadden summarized the original proposal of a year earlier calling for One billion dollars per year for three years on a two dollars Federal for one State basis to take effect after the war but to be available for obligation immediately. He said that there was a new element to be considered now, namely, the interregional highway system recommended by the President which the Congress had put in the bill for hearing purposes. He noted that there was not unanimity among the States on that system. He renewed AASHO's long-standing request for the Federal government to abandon highway user taxes in favor of the States. AASHO felt that the fuel tax, levied in the Depression as a temporary emergency measure to provide employment, should either be abandoned or the Federal government should expand the highway program such that all highway user revenues would be returned to the States. He reported the results of a recent national needs study that totalled $11 billion. He supported the interregional system provided that it was simply a route designation problem and that no special fund was provided and that flexibility among States as to standards was provided. He said that AASHO wanted only one Federal-aid system and one Federal-aid fund as in the past. Some States wanted the new kind of highways represented by the interregional system and others felt that they had no need for them and therefore ought to be able to choose.

He said that despite provision of special funding and urgings from Congress and BPR, the States could not prepare post-war plans until the Congress committed itself as to the size of the program and BPR issued its regulations, otherwise, they had no way of knowing what to plan and design for. Almost all highway departments presented testimony. The States were clearly divided on issues. Finances were at such a low ebb that many States saw the 1/3 State, 2/3 Federal matching ratio as a necessity to get going again after the war. Others saw it as a precursor of loss of independence and sovereignty to the Federal government.

Herman A. MacDonald, Maine, and C. H. Purcell, California, testified that the urban program was overdue. The urban motorists paid a lion's share of the highway user taxes and generated a majority of the highway travel. Mr. Purcell was a member of the President's Interregional Highway Committee that recommended the Interstate System to the President and the Congress.

Before passage of the 1944 Act, President Hadden warned the AASHO members that they would not get all they asked for:

Having reached the conclusion that it is necessary to sell and resell, and keep on selling, this partnership between the Federal and State governments in road construction we decided to feature this subject in some of the formal papers prepared for presentation to this convention. We took cognizance of the growing opposition to going to Washington for money, and we noted also that many who opposed the spread of the Federal aid idea to other activities than road building have a tendency to conclude that the best way to prevent this spread is to uproot all present forms of Federal aid. Even some great newspapers have opposed Federal highway aid for the admitted reason that it was the first and most satisfactory example of this phase of governmental policy. We heard just enough of this sort of reasoning to become concerned about the future of Federal aid for highways so we decided to have some papers prepared which will review the benefits of this policy from the standpoint of the States, the Federal Government and the Congress...

...The fact that our pending legislation was introduced in Congress during the first week of April, 1943, and we were unable to get this subject set for public hearing until the last day of February of the present year (1944) will serve to accentuate the coolness with which Congress received our proposal for a greatly augmented program.

He recounted the history of the partnership and paid tribute to it and to Thomas H. MacDonald.

It will be recalled that we recommended to Congress a Federal grant of not less than $1,000,000,000 a year for each of the three years following the end of the war for highway purposes. Congress was unwilling to make such a large appropriation at this time and we have to be content for the present with half that amount. Even so, at the reduced level the program should become permanent and not merely for a three-year period. Moreover, after the interregional system has been designated, as we trust it will be, it may be possible to secure a supplementary appropriation of large size for expenditure exclusively on that system without interfering in any way with general and basic State and local highway development. Again, if the State highway departments show that they can go into the urban communities and make improvements as successfully as they have demonstrated their ability to construct them in the open country it seems highly possible that important additional grants for urban developments may be forthcoming. This presents a distinct challenge to all of us to exert ourselves to the utmost to expend to the complete satisfaction of the public whatever funds may be appropriated at this time for the urban extensions of our State and Federal road systems.

...Strong opposition in Congress exists to the use of Federal funds for the acquisition of rights-of-way and this seems to us to be unfortunate. We should continue our efforts to convince the members of Congress that such use of Federal grants is not only legitimate but is necessary if we are to make the type of urban improvements which are long overdue and which are so urgently required...

...Recently there has appeared organized opposition to our legislative program from some elements of the petroleum industry. We hope and believe that this condition will neither long continue nor reappear for it is quite obvious that unless we are successful in our efforts to recapture for highway use the entire proceeds of Federal taxes on highway use the States will have no alternative but to advance their taxes on motor vehicles and motor fuels, especially the latter.


Congressman Robinson summarized the testimony for AASHO. There were a total of 110 witnesses and 3,100 typewritten pages of testimony. Some excerpts:

The significance of the hearings was brought sharply into focus by Public Roads Commissioner Thomas H. MacDonald, who pointed out that the legislation proposed "is not temporary, but will mark the progress of road construction for the next quarter of a century."

Out of the enormous volume of testimony on this bill-a measure which may become the first concrete action by Congress in post-war planning-there emerges substantial agreement on six cardinal points:

  1. An urgent need exists for a highway development program after the war to overcome accumulated deficiencies in the road system, to catch up on construction and reconstruction deferred during the emergency, and to meet the nation's anticipated transportation requirements.
  2. The Federal program must recognize the sovereignty of the States, preserving intact the principle of Federal aid which has characterized road legislation without interruption for nearly three decades. This includes the allocation of Federal aid funds among the States on a formula basis, matched by State funds, and administered by the Public Roads Administration in a coordinate relationship with the States.
  3. The program must encourage continuance of competitive bidding on construction and major reconstruction projects under the contract system.
  4. All projects shall be approved for Federal aid in conformance with a definite classification of road systems, and on the basis of selective improvements to meet transportation needs of the economy. These needs are, in general terms: (a) the construction of modern expressway facilities adequate to carry large volumes of traffic between, into and through densely populated areas; and (b) improvement of the farm-to-market systems, both the primary and secondary, to standards that will permit safe and economic use
  5. Congress should enact in a single, comprehensive bill all necessary post-war Federal legislation in the highway field, dealing with every phase of the problem.
  6. It is necessary for the Congress to act without delay. Highway projects, if they are soundly planned, take a great deal of time, due to the complex legal, financial and engineering problems which must be solved. But only after national policy has been clearly determined, and the extent of Federal aid indicated by authorization, can the States and communities make full progress in their post-war road construction programs.


Joint Federal-State designation of an interregional system of highways was endorsed by a great majority of the witnesses...

While the American Automobile Association proposed the definite earmarking of 60 percent of the Federal funds for interregional projects, and this position was supported by some of the New England States, the general weight of testimony favored leaving the allocation to the States, within the limits of the Federal-aid legislation, working in cooperation with the Public Roads Administration.

The representative of only one State-Colorado-testified in opposition to the interregional system. Alabama spokesmen said they believe the system is sound, but that funds under this bill should be left free for most urgently needed road work. A South Dakota representative endorsed the interregional program, but opposed inclusion of enabling legislation for it in this bill.

While agreeing to the necessity for development of arteries linking population centers, farm spokesmen took a stand against overemphasis of urban problems, and requested that full consideration be given to the needs of the secondary and feeder roads directly serving the farm population.

The American Farm Bureau Federation representatives objected to funds for "superhighways", but was assured that "this committee is not at all in sympathy with the building of "superhighways." It seems to us that most of the highways this bill contemplates building are, in a large sense, farm-to-market roads."


In July of 1945, the American Highways reported the last gasp of the superhighway craze:

H. R. 50 (Randolph) authorizes construction of $12 billion system of transcontinental superhighways engineered by the Army and financed by U. S. guaranteed bonds issued by a "Transcontinental Streamlined Highway Corporation". The transcontinental highway system would include one superhighway from Boston to San Francisco; two extending from the Great Lakes region and New York to Florida; one from Minnesota to Laredo, Tex.; one from Florida to San Diego, Calif.; and one between San Diego and Vancouver Island.


The passage of the 1944 Highway Act began a new era for the highway program in many ways. AASHO did not get the billion dollars per year that they asked for. It was half that. The Act provided that no funds could be paid out until a formal declaration of the end of the war emergency was made, but apportionment took place immediately and obligation to projects could begin. AASHO had asked for that feature in order to allow detailed project planning. Presumably, if the States had had the money, they could have proceeded with construction but deferred asking for payment until after the war emergency.

The Act was revolutionary in that, for the first time, funds were earmarked by program, that is, the Federal-aid highway system (so-called primary), secondary and feeder roads and the Federal-aid highway system in urban areas (so-called urban extensions of the primary system).

The Act provided no Interstate funding and simply authorized designation of the most important routes on the existing Federal-aid system which had, since 1925, been called interstate when the U.S. numbering system was established. The Act specified that Interstate was to be a part of the regular Federal-aid or so called primary system.

Commissioner MacDonald told how things were going under the new legislation when he addressed the annual meeting of AASHO early in 1946. He noted that just a little more than a year had passed since passage of the Act and the funds had become active only four months before. He described a new comprehensive reorganization of BPR to deal with the completely new program and recommended that the States do likewise. For the first time, District (now Division) offices were established in all States. He announced a new formal agreement with AASHO for joint review of all regulations and standards before issuance and the establishment of urban and secondary advisory boards. He noted that urban Interstate designation had gone poorly with some States submitting none at all and announced suspension of further designations for the time being. Two thousand miles had been tentatively designated. He thought that a reservation of 2000 miles for later designation would be adequate. The urban Interstate designations were a problem for the highway departments. A well established pattern existed for the rural designations by virtue of existence of the top 1% of the Primary system on which the Interstate recommendations were based going all the way back to Toll Roads and Free Roads and to the 1925 designation of the U.S. numbered "interstate" routes. No pattern existed for urban areas where the highway departments were inexperienced. This was further confused by the authorization by the Congress of special funds for the urban extensions of the primary system in the same 1944 Act. The relationship between the urban extensions and the urban Interstate was unclear.

He gave the status of the secondary system. Only a little more than 6,000 miles had been approved out of 151,762 submitted.

In a few States the counties are offered only the minimum degree of participation required by the 1944 Act, i.e., a voice in the selection of the routes to be designated in the Federal-aid secondary system, without subsequent county participation in the formulation of the program or in the actual construction. In other States there has been established in the State Highway Department a division of Secondary Highways with an engineer in charge who has full authority to cooperate with local highway organizations and to delegate to them as much of the responsibility for planning, engineering and construction as each county is organized and equipped to undertake. This type of cooperation is patterned after that which has been successfully established between the State highway departments and Public Roads.

He stressed the need for a greater emphasis on management in the highway departments as opposed to construction in order to administer the new highway program:

In many cases the State administrative organization is poorly adapted to perform the greatly increased tasks of the immediate future. In the main these States still have the organization structure set up more than 25 years ago, except for additions through the natural process of accretion. The result is an obsolete type of organization, inadequate and ill-suited to proper and well managed operation. In such cases the only possible solution is a major reorganization which will achieve the modern, efficient and integrated structure essential to present-day administration.

At the same annual meeting, Congressman Robinson paid tribute to AASHO's role and effectiveness in the passage of the 1944 Act but warned them that they were on trial in the urban program, construction standards on the Interstate, and the Interstate/Federal share. He warned that the Congress left the details of the degree of participation of the counties and the cities to the States lacking any certain knowledge of what else to do. He noted that after a trial period, the legislation could be changed if necessary:

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 authorizes the designation of a National System of Interstate Highways not exceeding 40,000 miles in extent. No special fund has been provided for use solely on this system but both the funds for the Federal-aid system and those for urban highways may be used in its improvement. Because of variation in conditions among the States no attempt was made to specify what portion of available funds should be applied to the Interstate System.

These will be the most important roads of the nation and should be improved to the high standards justified by large traffic volumes. Any considerable lack of uniformity among States in service to traffic would be a serious defect in the system. The standards for the Interstate System adopted by your Association are indicative that you fully realize the need for a uniformly high degree of improvement, and afford the best assurance that it is safe to leave this matter in your hands. However, should one or two States fail to keep abreast of the others in this important matter it might be necessary to consider introducing corrective measures in the law.

Full benefit from the National System of Interstate Highways will be realized only when it is completed in all of its parts...Sharing of the cost on a generally 50-50 basis is the teaching of our past experience in building the Federal-aid system. I have seen no indication that equal sharing of the cost...will not be equally satisfactory. Should it become necessary to increase the ratio...action can be taken when that event proves the need. In any case, I anticipate no eventuality that will suggest a complete Federal assumption of responsibility for the cost of construction...

His theme throughout was a willingness to test and experiment with this new program and a willingness or perhaps a determination to make changes in the light of experience.

But the post-war program was not going well. President H.A. MacDonald addressed the AASHO convention early in 1946:

In the corridors of congestion and confusion of our urban territory we hope, under the new Federal-aid bill which for the first time recognizes these barriers to a free and safe flow of traffic, to remedy this situation substantially. It should not, however, be seized upon by large cities as an opportunity or an attempt to turn over all their highway and traffic problems to the State.

It is becoming increasingly evident that in carrying out the vast post-war program there are certain difficulties which will be encountered-the high cost of construction, the reluctance of contractors to bid large projects because of the uncertainties of labor and materials cost, and the attempt being made to subject the highway construction program to control by some authority that could automatically stop highway construction or start it up depending on the unemployment situation.

As President I have taken the liberty in behalf of the Association to write to the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy appealing for the prompt discharge of engineers from the military and naval services of our country so that we may not be hampered by lack of trained personnel in our construction program.

Late in 1946 Commissioner MacDonald described the post-war program as the third period in the partnership when the program was altered beyond its normal course:

The first of these was the result of the desperate efforts to supply employment...The second period was ...the war years..

He noted that obligations were very, very slow:

We are in a third period...The Federal-aid projects put under way since the bars were taken down (the end of the war) approximate 40 percent of our estimate of the program that would have matured with the funds available under normal postwar conditions...The evidence indicates that any further extension would not have been justified, since 28 percent of the projects are lagging due to deficiencies in one or more of the necessary elements (labor, management, equipment and materials). In general, additional awards would only have increased this percentage of lag.

We are, as yet, a long way from being out of the woods, and in the many years of cooperative effort between the State highway departments and Public Roads there has never been a time when mutual helpfulness and tolerance were needed as they are now...As public officials responsible for highway administration, it is our duty to inform the public at large, and more particularly the legislative branches of the State and Federal governments, of the problems currently confronting the integrity of our highway plant. Fortunately, to serve this purpose we have the factual data from the highway planning surveys...

At the late 1946 annual meeting, President M. J. Hoffman talked a good deal about the disruption of the highway program because of the inability of the industry to transition quickly to a normal post-war economy. He noted that, of a billion dollars apportioned, only about one third was obligated. He recommended that Congress be asked to extend the time period to avoid lapse of the funds. He worried about the possibility of a cutback of funds in future legislation because of the inability to obligate. He spoke of forces at work in the Congress advocating a reduction of the Federal program, repeal of the Federal gas tax and the limitation of Federal funding to the Interstate.

He noted that the Association had gone on record in the past in favor of repeal of the Federal gas tax but counseled that the Association ought to change its position because he felt that insisting that the Federal share be paid out of general revenues would seriously endanger the program.

This year a number of the States have made encouraging progress in developing workable relationships with city and county agencies of government to carry out the provisions of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944. Due to the delays occasioned in actual construction work we have not as yet demonstrated our ability to meet the test which these new and important provisions of the law impose upon us. It is of the utmost importance to the future of the highway program that the States meet the situation successfully, through close cooperative relationships with their city and county agencies. We must justify the confidence which the Congress has expressed in the ability of the State governments to administer the Federal aid program for all elements of a statewide highway transportation system, urban and rural alike.

At the same annual meeting, Congressman Robinson again reminded the members of their duties. He spoke of the slow beginning of the post-war highway program but felt that the legislation should not be judged by that but by the principles that it laid down:

The 1944 Federal Highway Act determined as a matter of national policy that the United States is not going to embark upon any elaborate and extravagant super-highway program. The members of this Association are familiar with the various proposals brought forward during the decade prior to World War II in spanning the continent in colossal gridiron pattern with ribbons of concrete. The Transcontinental highway idea found strong advocates...Congress rejected this proposal. However, Congress was fully aware of the need of an integrated nationwide system of modern highways. The 1944 Act provides that kind of a network.

...The national policy has been set. We are embarked now on a program under which the Federal Government and the States, working jointly, will develop a national system of interstate highways. The need for this system is urgent. We should therefore forget about transcontinental super highways and concentrate our attention, energies and available funds upon the program established by law.

He said that the Act reaffirmed the long-time policy of dealing only with the highway departments against a very strong movement to pass money directly to the cities and the counties. He felt that the urban provisions were perhaps the most important in the whole Act and that it was incumbent upon the highway departments to demonstrate that the Congressional decision in that regard was a wise one.

He said that it was imperative for the States to develop a cooperative planning process with the cities because with the limited urban funds available it would take many years for solutions to evolve. Lacking a systematic process there would inevitably be mis-allocations of funds such that inequities would develop.


As though to respond to Congressman Robinson's admonition on the need for the development of a cooperative urban planning process, AASHO published a series of articles on Community Planning, Urban Development, and Housing by F. Stuart Fitzpatrick, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It was in the April 1947 issue of American Highways. The series dealt very competently with the whole issue of transportation and urban redevelopment. Commissioner MacDonald spoke frequently in urban planning forums such as in early 1947 to the Joint Council of Planning Boards in Essex County, New Jersey, where he referred to the home interview technique as an extension of the Planning Surveys and noted that one had just been completed in Newark. He wrote an article for the American City Magazine, "The Case for Urban Expressways":

The opposition that has developed in several cities to the construction of expressways and other boldly planned highway improvements is not surprising.

He noted that there had always been opposition to each new era of highway building.

It seems that history is to repeat itself about express highways for our cities. A number of our cities are debating an important question: "Shall we build highways which will enable traffic to move into and through the city quickly and safely, or shall we try to get along with things as they are?..."

One of the most important purposes of the current highway program is to unsnarl urban traffic tangles as quickly as possible by providing facilities commensurate with traffic requirements. This purpose will be defeated if city officials and other local authorities spend years in debating whether the need for an expressway through the city warrants the cost, or whether this thoroughfare or that thoroughfare should be developed as a controlled access highway.

Objections raised by opponents of expressway plans are based upon the contention that (1) the width of the right-of-way required for an expressway necessitates razing a large number of dwellings at a time when the city is in the throes of an acute housing shortage. (2) depressed sections of the expressway would be "big ditches" which in effect, would disrupt the customary activities of the community by creating a barrier between neighborhoods, and (3) it would be less costly to widen streets which, if moderately improved, would serve present traffic needs. The loudest objection is that express highways cost too much.

On the other hand, no matter how urgently a highway improvement may be needed, the homes of people who have nowhere to go should not be destroyed. Before dwellings are razed, new housing facilities should be provided for the dispossessed occupants. This question of housing should be accepted as one of the major planning problems when a city decides that it needs and wants an expressway.

It is not true that depressed expressways are "big ditches" or barriers between neighborhoods. Overpasses at selected street intersections are a salient feature of expressway design. These overpasses, by separating through traffic from local cross movement and eliminating the need for stop-lights, tend to speed up the movement of local traffic on cross-streets, and thus increase the ease of communication and business interchange between adjacent neighborhoods.

As to the contention that expressways are too costly, and that it would be cheaper to widen existing thoroughfares, there is much that could be said in rebuttal.

He spoke of the higher traffic capacity of the expressways and the economic consequences of stagnation and blight.

The redevelopment of our urban areas is a whole book within itself, and highway planning is one of the most important chapters. What is or is not done will affect every property owner in concentrated population and industrial centers.

In the fall of 1947, MacDonald spoke to the Business Men's Conference on Urban Problems of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 holds greater promise of aid to the cities than any other recent national legislation, because it supplies the two essentials of a definite long-term administrative pattern and financial assistance reasonably comparable to the work that can be actually accomplished under existing conditions. To evaluate this new legislation it is necessary to review the Act. The Federal Highway Act of 1944 alone, among all highway legislation in the countries of the world, aims at the achievement of an integrated development of the major classes of streets and highways to effect an ultimate national traffic network. In this, its principal characteristic, it abandons the limited objectives of the Federal Highway Act of 1921 and all State legislation of the earlier period, to recognize, and provide for, the revolutionary changes that have occurred in a quarter of a century in the character of highway improvement needs.

Individuals narrowly concerned with the interests of cities on the one hand, and persons shortsightedly regarding rural interests on the other, with some show of superficial warrant, might have condemned the exclusion of (the cities in) these first modern highway charters. Nearly all of the laws enacted not only did not provide for the improvement of streets in cities, but actually by specific exception prohibited expenditure of the funds they (the cities) created for any work inward of the fringes of cities. And, all alike, they excluded from the systems of main rural highways by far the larger portion of rural road mileage (secondary), and that, the part most intimately located in relation to rural homes.

The fact is that in the earlier years at least, scarcely a voice was raised in opposition. City people, well satisfied generally with the condition of their streets, cheerfully paid in road-use taxes the lion's share of the cost of the inter-urban rural highways, which actually they desired above all else. And rural people in general accepted the practicable improvement of the longer part of their several routes to town as the more important part of the interminable task of road building to everyman's gate.

But, whereas the States have been slow to provide funds under State control for the improvement of city streets and secondary rural roads, a tendency, emerging earlier, to apportion increasing parts of the State-collected road-user taxes to government subdivisions for expenditure on city streets and local rural roads, has developed more rapidly.

..."Urban area" is a new legal concept which disregards the boundary lines of governmental subdivisions and encompasses municipal and suburban satellite areas in a single district defined by traffic. It recognizes the expansion of the city as a fact accomplished.

Of greater interest to the larger cities doubtless, is the designation, announced on August 2, of the complete intercity network of the national system of interstate highways. This network, comprising 37,681 of the 40,000-mile eventual extent of the entire system, includes 2,882 miles in cities, forming the principal extensions into and through the connected cities. The remainder of 2,319 miles has been reserved to permit addition in the larger cities of distribution and circumferential routes, essential as terminal connections of the system. Designation of this further mileage in cities, now under way, requires the close cooperation of city, State and Federal authorities...

The great difference between the new and the old programs, as far as the cities are concerned, is that the cities are to be as closely associated in the new, as they were definitely excluded at the inception of the old program.

...No longer tenable is the idea, once prevalent, that cities are places to be avoided or by-passed by through highways...

The task of designating additional urban routes of the interstate and Federal-aid systems is the essential first act of this program (the development of a highway plan). It is a task that can be greatly facilitated by traffic origin-and-destination surveys, and one, indeed, that cannot properly be completed in the absence of such surveys...

There is altogether too much fear of the so-called decentralizing effect of expressways. The type of decentralization now in progress is inevitable, expressways or no expressways. Our cities are expanding, de-densifying, to use the action term. In the expressways now planned we see only the beginning of provisions of the strong, new transportational bonds that are needed to tie the future wider spread of the metropolitan areas to the urban centers. Concern may be more constructively directed to the extension of municipal limits to encompass the actual spread of urban aggregations, or (perhaps more properly and) to other measures, financial and legal, administrative and planning, which will conduce in other ways, as positively as expressways within the scope of their potentialities, to the cohesive and harmonious development of the inevitably enlarging metropolitan areas...

...Each one of the problems which can be met by more efficient internal transportation requires land. Controlled-access arterials, improved transit, better terminals, sufficient parking areas, parks and parkways and all other of such elements that will be characteristic of the re-designed modern city - must reconvert space now used for less important purposes. It is fortunate, and not a catastrophe, that people are establishing their homes outside the central city areas. The space thus vacated is needed for other public purposes. It is a happy circumstance that living conditions for the family can be re-established and permit the social as well as economic decay at the heart of the cities to be converted to a public asset. It is certain that the cities face a bright rather than a disastrous future if faith and courage are at the helm.

MacDonald chose urban planning as his topic at the 1947 AASHO annual meeting in New York City:

It is desirable that major effort in system selection activities be applied to the selection of the Federal-aid system in urban areas ...Preliminary instructions have been sent out to our Division Engineers to proceed with this important step.

He noted that the designation of the rural Interstate was complete.

The additional designation of interstate highway routes in the cities will proceed simultaneously with the further selection of routes for addition to the Federal-aid system in urban areas. The latter selection will embrace the former, and in addition will include the routes of substantial importance as arteries within the urban areas. The result will be a large expansion of the existing Federal-aid mileage in the urban areas, and of course a corresponding increase in the scope of application of the Federal urban-area funds.

NOTE: The designation of the remaining urban Interstate did not take place until 1955, almost ten years later.

He gave a detailed accounting of the status of the program. The shortage of trained personnel remained critical.

The results already obtained from the Nation-wide highway planning survey should convince even the most skeptical that local as well as national transportation policies must be determined upon the collection, analysis, and use of factual data...

He urged the highway departments to make contact with rail, air and water officials and invite their participation in the planning process.

In a large and unfortunately increasing measure, the great tidal movements (in urban areas) are inefficiently accomplished in private motor cars. In large but undesirably decreasing part, they are served by mass transit facilities...We shall have to learn to think of mass transit as highway traffic, and as a form of highway traffic especially in need of improvement. Whatever we can do to promote the patronage of mass transit and reverse the past trend toward the preferential use of private automobiles will be a contribution of great benefit in the solution of urban traffic problems. Unless this reversal can be accomplished, indeed, the traffic problems of the larger cities may become well nigh insoluble. We will make this highly desirable contribution only if, in the planning of our urban arterial improvements, we incorporate the special provisions that are needed for the service of express mass transit in its several appropriate forms...

...The States of New York and California have set high standards in the (planning) reports they have prepared. Before the next legislatures meet the other 46 States must be equally well informed, and we have the responsibility to the Congress to provide them with equally adequate information for the Nation as a whole. This is the important task ahead.

The highway program continued to languish. AASHO President C.W. Phillips spoke of dissention among the ranks of the highway constituency and the need for developing the next highway legislation even though they were far behind in the utilization of the authorizations of the 1944 Act:

...As we are now far along in this post-war program, we again are faced with a serious problem, and that problem is-what may we expect after the present appropriation of Federal Aid is programmed? The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944 seems to have the framework to cover all fields of highway needs-regular Federal aid, urban, and secondary. Yet in our anxiety to develop one particular type in which we are most interested, we are prone to be fighting among ourselves. My earnest conviction is that we should first dedicate ourselves to the need for all types of highway transportation...How much better it would be if all groups would coordinate their efforts in one movement for highway transportation instead of organizing as individual groups for one specific type of transportation. After the amount of money available for highway use has been determined, then representatives of urban, rural, and the connecting highways should agree on an equitable allocation for the three. To me, it is this lack of unanimity of purpose that keeps the public in a state of confusion. Any highway administrator has to make an equitable distribution of funds for all types of roads if he has a well-balanced system. So it is or should be with our nation's highways. We find certain groups of highway users interested in arterial highways only. We find other groups interested in expressways in cities, and still others who are interested only in the rural roads-and yet it is the responsibility of the State to have an adequate system for all, dependant upon the amount of revenue received. This confusion is bringing about a fight by some to decrease the highway user tax. If all highway user revenue was being used for highway purposes we would have a system of roads for all, which would be satisfactory, and the fight of one against the other would not exist. While this fight is going on, activities other than highways continue to benefit...

...We would not have the splendid system of arterial highways across our nation had it not been for the ability to plan ahead and have the Federal Government join the State in its obligation. Despite this, there is a concerted effort to break this contractual relationship between the State and Federal Government. This is where the full support of all highway user organizations is needed. The future outlook is far from being optimistic, and unless and until, all interested parties can sit down around the table and plan the future of highway development, just so long will this pessimistic outlook be prevalent. Automobile manufacturers, petroleum and rubber producers are beneficiaries of this great transportation system of ours. Why then can't representatives from these, together with the highway engineer, sit down around the table and work out an overall formula for the future of highways?

In January of 1948, in a speech to the Road Builders', MacDonald stressed the fact that the highway program was in trouble and falling further behind. He presented statistics to show that heavy expenditures of the highway dollar on maintenance at the expense of new construction and replacement was uneconomical but the reality was that the industry could not absorb more new construction money until the contracting industry capacity and materials shortages were solved, making it necessary for the time being of spending more on maintenance.

...There has been criticism or at least disappointment, expressed at the rate at which the postwar highway program has been advancing. It is true that funds have not been expended at the rate they have been made available, but nevertheless a very substantial program is under way. There is considerable evidence that work has been offered somewhat in excess of the rate at which the construction industry can absorb new projects...

...Steel has been the most difficult material to obtain; deliveries have been slow and uncertain...

...Poor management - failure to start the work on time, and failure to push the work - is reported as the direct cause or contributing cause for unsatisfactory progress on 31 per cent of the projects which are behind schedule...the real reason for unsatisfactory progress is that the individual contractor has been awarded more work than his organization can handle simultaneously...

...Powered equipment and the rate at which its use is expanded on highway work has become the most important factor in production.. we cannot increase the rate of highway construction very much faster than the equipment industry increases the rate at which it supplies its highway-contractor customers with replacements and repair parts...

Let us not follow the delusion that there are any easier conditions for the production of new construction just around the corner. So long as private capital investment holds at anywhere near the current rate there will be the same critical shortages for which we should not compete with public funds. While the public actually has a capital accumulation of tremendous importance in the contractor's organization and his equipment, which must be kept intact and operating, we should not attempt to expand the highway program at current prices, and we must therefore place our greater reliance for the immediate future upon intensive maintenance to keep our highway plant in operation...

H. R. Baldock, Oregon, outgoing AASHO President in 1948, deplored the inability to get the post-war program going and the danger of lapse even though the Congress had extended the 1944 Act funds twice. He felt that toll roads would come to the fore unless the highway departments could demonstrate that they could build modern highways, solve the urban problem and put the funds under obligation:

... Last year the Congress extended the time of taking up the federal funds one year; the 1948 Road Act extended it another year and, unless the States make better progress, I would not be at all surprised that it would have to be extended the third year to prevent certain of the States from losing federal funds. Personally, I would not be in favor of this. If any State cannot so conduct its affairs as to accomplish a three-year program in five years, it deserves to lose the money and should not object to its allocation among States which can spend it.

He spoke of the efforts in the Congress to reduce the program level to $300 million or less:

...Finally in compromise, and just before the Congress adjourned, the conferees of the Senate and the House agreed upon an authorization of $450,000,000 for two years. Under the circumstances, and based upon the record, I believe this was a major victory, but let me warn you that, unless States are able to make materially better progress in the next two years, it is my opinion that we will not be able to get another authorization of funds two years hence.

...We must immediately put our house in order and show by our deeds and not by our words only that we can meet this challenge. We cannot let grass grow under our feet; we must do it now.

...Failure to proceed forthrightly may, in fact, jeopardize the continuance of federal aid for highways.

...The phenomenal growth of traffic, particularly in and around the urban areas, has resulted in a marked demand for an expressway type of construction. The shortage of federal and State funds for road building and the tremendous demand by groups of people every where for their alleged share of available funds to modernize highways have resulted in the promotion of a number of miles of toll roads in various parts of the country.

There are two schools of thought, one believing that the imposition of tolls - a procedure generally used and abandoned years ago - is an obsolete method of financing and, in fact, now constitutes double taxation. Other groups claim that, be that as it may, it appears impossible to secure sufficient State and federal funds to allocate the great sums required for the specific projects in question because of the opposition of groups in other portions of the State. It is said that this opposition does not materialize if projects are financed through the sale of revenue bonds amortized by the collection of tolls and that the people who need the improved facilities so badly are more than willing to pay the additional charge in order to realize the benefits now rather than wait for them in the indefinite future.

...Therefore, in general, it would seem that toll roads represent an additional charge against the road user, either directly or indirectly, and that their promotion should be discouraged. Certainly their use should be a major exception and not the rule. It would seem better to obtain more dollars to expedite the building of free roads. I recommend that the Association oppose the construction of toll roads on the federal-aid system and reaffirm the wisdom of the provision of federal highway legislation establishing the principle of freedom from tolls.

At the annual meeting of AASHO in 1949, MacDonald again took up the worsening highway situation. He recounted the tremendous increases in traffic and loads on the highways and the mounting deterioration of the highway system resulting in an increasing backlog of reconstruction. The percentage of new projects reaching plan approval stage were declining. The moratorium in the war years caused increasing maintenance costs that were currently eating up matching funds. He stressed the need for increased State taxes and use of bond issues to catch up. He stated that toll roads were no way out of the dilemma. The industry was, for the first time, ready to take on a bigger construction program but State financing was the problem. There were hints of a declining national economy:

Against these service requirements and indicated potentials must be measured the progress in highway improvement. Taken by itself the Federal-aid operations of the latest fiscal year are encouraging, but relative to needs the whole program of construction and maintenance is inadequate and unbalanced.

During the four years since the end of the war, there has been completed and opened to traffic a total of nearly 50,000 miles of Federal-aid highways. Another 19,000 miles are programed for construction. These figures constitute an enviable record, particularly in view of the many difficulties that have confronted the highway construction industry in this postwar period.

He noted a declining annual percentage of plans developed through the approval stage. He gave a status of each class of funds:

The urban program has not kept pace with the primary and secondary programs. Projects completed to date account for less than the first postwar fiscal year apportionment of urban funds. Although 80 per cent of the urban funds apportioned for the fiscal years 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1950 have been programed, less than 60 percent have been covered by approved plans.

Interstate system improvements...accounted for about 30 per cent of the total amounts (of urban and primary). About 23 per cent of the primary funds and nearly 46 per cent of the urban funds are for interstate system improvements...The rate at which interstate system improvements have been programed during the postwar period thus amounts to about 1,000 miles annually.

By way of comparison with this actual progress, the report Highway Needs for National Defense indicates that a capital investment averaging probably more than $500,000,000 annually will be required for the next 20 years if the system is to be brought to a state of adequacy during this longest reasonable period.

The Joint Economic Committee of the Congress in July of this year requested the Governor and highway officials of each State to submit to the Committee a report of highway deficiencies in their State. A report prepared under direction of the Committee indicates that 44 States estimate their highway deficiencies to be in excess of $29 billion dollars.

He recounted the many reasons that the program got off to a slow start after the War:

As we entered the 1949 construction season the situation had changed greatly. Materials and equipment were in general readily available in adequate quantities although spot shortages of steel and cement are still being reported occasionally. The labor supply was much improved in both quality and quantity. Workmen more experienced, more energetic and more dependable could be obtained. Instead of being troubled with a shortage of labor we are now being asked expedite highway construction work in certain areas where unemployment threatens to become a serious problem.

As a consequence of these improved conditions bid prices decreased steadily during the first six months of this year...

An important deterrent to progress this year has undoubtedly been the inability of some of the States to provide matching funds for the available Federal funds...

Because of the cessation in highway construction during the war years and the increase in both volume and weight of traffic since then, the Federal-aid highway system has been wearing out or becoming obsolete at a much faster rate than reconstruction has been performed and permanent improvements made. This resulted in extremely heavy maintenance costs and has necessitated recourse to low type reconstruction and improvements as temporary expedients to keep traffic moving. As Federal funds cannot be used for maintenance, the abnormally large expenditures have caused further disparity between the Federal-aid funds available and the State matching funds available for new construction and reconstruction on fully adequate standards...

In summary, we might be tempted to become complacent because of the very considerable dimensions of the current construction program. But an honest evaluation of the rate of highway improvement compared with the necessities can leave only one conclusion-that we are seriously losing in the battle with traffic...

Among the problems which are demanding priority of consideration is the inadequacy of current revenues. We cannot provide for the traffic in expanded quantities and increasing weights in the postwar period with prewar revenues. We cannot solve our most serious traffic problems by toll roads. The very fact that the worst congestion occurs within the metropolitan areas rules out the toll road because of its operating characteristics. Further, the financing of roads with revenue bonds is an expensive expedient. Toll roads financed with revenue bonds should not be confused with roads supported by faith and credit of the public...We know from our records that we obtained the most rapid extension of the first systems of modern roads now in service in many States by bond issues which have been comfortably carried by a fraction of the expanding revenues, and there is no valid reason now why this process cannot be repeated where necessary.

MacDonald reviewed the worsening highway situation late in 1949 with the American Roadbuilders'. He noted that a whole new set of design standards had come into being because of the requirements for increased speed, traffic volumes, truck weights and safety. He referred to these as an integrated set based on research on driver behavior whereas in the past, each standard stood alone without consideration of the other functions involved. He then reviewed the condition of the system against those standards and defined the result as highway needs. He also listed the legislative deficiencies of the highway departments to carry out the 1944 Act. He described the Interstate System as being the main routes of the primary system and being the highest priority for improvement because it would carry the greatest traffic and thus have the greatest pay-off. He ended by estimating the cost of up-grading the whole system at $4 billion per year over 15 years, an increase of 27% in the size of the highway program. He predicted that without an increase, the performance of the system would decline.


In October of 1949, D.C. Greer, President of AASHO, announced a new policy which for the first time advocated a separate funding category for the Interstate System:

The American Association of State Highway Officials, in a special meeting in Chicago, Ill. on November 21, adopted an important and far-reaching statement of national policy on new Federal-aid for highways...

...After long and earnest discussion, the Association adopted a statement of national policy on the matter and therein advocated an annual program approximating $810,000,000 per year in Federal funds. The new recommendation for the first time, would make provision for work on the Interstate System of Highways, as such; setting up a special category in the amount of $210,000,000 per year Federal funds, to be matched on a 75-25 basis by state funds. This contrasts with the 50-50 matching on the primary, secondary and urban programs. The Interstate funds would also be available on a new formula of population...

No State was to receive less than 3/4 of 1 percent.

At that same meeting, there was some resentment exhibited concerning the large expenditures the Federal government was making to repair war damage in Europe while allowing the highway system to deteriorate in this country. The following editorial in American Highways, which was a reprint of a member's testimony in 1944, is an illustration:

In 1944 a member of this Association, testifying before the House Committee on Roads relative to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944, made the following comment:

May we direct attention to another fact, which, while not pleasant, would better be faced, and that is that the expenditure of Federal money will not cease with the winning of the present war. Doubtless many demands will be made upon the Government for the contribution of American funds for use in the rehabilitation of devastated areas and the reconstruction of ruined public works and privately owned industrial establishments in various places all over the earth. While many of these demands, perhaps most of them, will emanate from foreign sources, it is not unlikely that many voices in support of such loans or grants will be raised among our own people. Let us remember that not only state and local highways but also state and local highway revenues are among the war casualties, and it would be well for us to consider repairing such damages here at home before even considering what we might do in helping to repair the war damage in other countries.

This observation was pertinent when made in 1944 and it is pertinent in 1950 as we approach the subject of new legislation for Federal aid for Highways for the fiscal year 1952 and beyond.

American Highways reported House action on the 1950 highway bill that proposed earmarked money for Interstate for the first time:

On February 22, 1950, the Honorable Will M. Whittington, Congressman from Mississippi and Chairman of the House Committee on Public Works, introduced H. R. 7398, a bill to continue Federal aid for highways. Congressman Whittington included in this bill most of the recommendations set forth in the policy statement of the American Association of State Highway Officials, as approved in Chicago in November, 1949. Major deviations from the policy statement had to do with the amount proposed. H. R. 7398 proposed a total of $570 million for the Interstate, Primary, Secondary and Urban Systems; whereas, Association policy recommended a total of $810 million for these four categories...

...On March 30...Chairman Whittington introduced what is known in the Congress as a "clean bill", H.R. 7941, which is the original bill H.R. 7398 as modified by testimony set forth during the hearings.

The clean bill was reduced to $500,000,000 with an additional $70,000,000 for Interstate at a 50-50 match. Senator Chavez had a bill under consideration in the Senate, but as of April, no action had been taken.


The highway program finally got rolling by 1950. Commissioner MacDonald reported to the highway officials of the North Atlantic States that there were no shortages of material, construction prices were falling, and construction was proceeding at a record rate. The Federal-aid program was the largest in history in 1949. He also introduced a milestone proposal to realign the Federal-aid process into two phases - surveys, plans, cost estimates and rights-of-way and second, the actual construction. With this new system, project agreements could, for the first time, be entered into for pre-construction project planning.

In a speech to the American Road Builders' in March, he gave the same optimistic outlook but said that needs were growing faster than it was possible to provide facilities. He said that a 4 billion dollar program was necessary to reverse the rising portion of the highway dollar devoted to maintenance. He repeated his proposal to divide programming into two steps: surveys, plans and right-of-way and second, actual construction. He felt that this would encourage the development of a back-log "shelf" of plans. He noted that the greatest highway deficiencies were on the Interstate and that experience proved that highways strategic to Defense had to be built in peacetime. He quoted President Truman's budget message to the Congress urging increased emphasis on the Interstate as critical to the National defense:

These facts were clearly recognized by the President "...major development of our highway system is required to overcome obsolescence and to handle safely and efficiently the steadily increasing traffic loads. This is primarily the responsibility of States, counties and municipalities. The Federal Government must, however, continue providing financial assistance to the extent necessary to assure a basic system of national roads, built to uniformly adequate standards...Increased emphasis,...should be placed upon the Interstate Highway System, a limited network of routes which is of greatest national importance to peacetime traffic needs as well as to our national defense."


After several post-war years of being unable to use the money at the rate authorized, the program had finally begun to roll and the urban and Interstate programs were beginning to receive vigorous attention. For the first time since World War II the highway industry was in a position to take on a bigger program. AASHO proposed an expansionary bill which the House went along with, but before the Senate could act, the Korean War had started. An editorial in the American Highways in October of 1950 gives the details:

The day following the passage of the amended Federal-aid Highway Act by the United States Senate, the Washington Star, one of America's leading newspapers published an editorial on the Senate action...:


The Federal-aid Highway Bill was the first big authorization measure to come before the Senate after the start of the war in Korea. It thus provided something of a test of willingness to cut domestic, non-defense expenditures - cuts which in part would offset the huge new defense budget requested by the President.

The Senate did not measure up to the test. In response to a plea from the President, its Public Works Committee - in charge of the bill - cut out some $240 million to be spent over a two-year period. Senator Byrd, Senator Bridges, and Senator Douglas, working for the same ends but not always as a team, persuaded the Senate to go further than that and reduce the bill by another hundred million or so. But the bill passed by the Senate yesterday, and which now goes to conference with the House, still calls for spending more money than the Budget Bureau recommended and is still a substantial increase over what is being spent now-although what is being spent now was appropriated when there was no war in sight, no tremendous increase in military expenditures and no big tax increase in prospect.

The Senate should have cut the authorizations below peacetime expenditures, if only as an indication to the country of its realization of the very serious fiscal situation that lies ahead. It failed to indicate any such realization....But in a test of bona fide economy, the Senate failed.

Lets face the grim fact that this is indicative of a serious situation regarding American highways - the importance of the American highway in peace, or war, has not been made clear to the people of this country.

The House acted on new road legislation early in 1950, and passed a bill very much in line with the national policy of the American Association of State Highway Officials. The Senate, however, did not get around to acting on the matter until late in the summer, when the whole world atmosphere had changed. In addition the Senate version was quite different from that of the House. For the first time in this writer's experience, responsible Newspapers and radio commentators have referred to the new legislation as "pork barrel legislation," with all the connotations implied in that term. This is something new in national highway matters...The above editorial is from a responsible and respected newspaper, and yet, it shows clearly that our roads and the part they play in our national life are not fully understood...

Our peacetime economy is built around highway transportation; in war, our very survival depends upon it. And yet, the people have not been made to understand these facts. Why? Where have we failed?..

When MacDonald addressed the AASHO convention in December 1950, he felt that an increase in transportation services was necessary in order to serve the rapidly growing economy. He cited two policy mistakes of the past: the cessation of the highway program in wartime and the disregard of the State legal load limits by military cargoes. He spoke of five developments that were contributing to pressures for increased highway transport: decentralization of industry, decentralization of parts manufacture, decentralization of central cities, decentralization of population to the west coast, and growth of the population of automobiles. He outlined the military requirements as being the Interstate routes with emphasis on urban, since it was difficult for the military movements to get through cities. He outlined the changing statistics on the transportation requirements of fruits and vegetables, milk, livestock and the changing population and the resulting effects on the highway system. He made the case strongly that the highway program had become so critical to the economy that it should not be turned on or off because of other national goals such as unemployment. He outlined the critical deficiencies of the Interstate System with emphasis on bridges and obsolete alignment. It is interesting that in this period the Interstate was regarded as in place and needing improvement instead of a brand new system to be built and "completed" from scratch. The two demands of the military sparked by the Korean War on the one hand and civilian needs on the other coupled with the critical condition of the Interstate presented a grave national problem. The rate of new construction was falling so far behind demand that an ever increasing share of the highway dollar was going for maintenance with a disastrous long range outcome. He urged drastically increased planning survey activity to gather the data and document the situation requiring a heavy increase in the highway program. He anticipated controls due to the war and wanted to have the facts ready.

Alarmed and concerned by the outbreak of war, AASHO made these two resolutions, among others, in December of 1950:


Whereas the world economic, political and military forces are so violently unbalanced that they are thrusting the United States into a life and death struggle for its survival as a free nation; and

Whereas the nation's economic and military strength springs largely from its vast transportation systems and is directly proportional to their strength; and

Whereas the United States and all of its people and its agriculture, industry and commerce are now utterly dependent upon motor vehicle transportation and the highways and streets over which they travel; and

Whereas this system of transportation is now in a seriously weakened condition resulting from inadequate maintenance and construction during the depression and neglect during the last war occasioned by restrictions placed upon construction and maintenance because of the totally unsound theory that the highway plant of the nation may be neglected during a war period; and

Whereas the highway and street systems of the country are so inadequate that they cannot sustain our nation's defense and economic requirements if they are again classified as being highly expendable; Therefore be it

Resolved, That the American Association of State Highway Officials in convention assembled in Miami, Fla. December 4-7, 1950, does direct the attention of all Federal and State government agencies to the pressing need for continuing an accelerated program of highway construction and maintenance...


Whereas the recent alarming turn of events abroad emphasizes the pressing need for increasing the transportation capabilities of the nation; and

Whereas the completion of the Interstate System of Highways will greatly contribute to the execution of the defense program; Therefore be it

Resolved, that the American Association of State Highway Officials in convention assembled in Miami, Fla. on December 4-7, 1950, urges the Congress and the several States to do everything possible to expedite the construction of the Interstate System of Highways...

At the 1951 AASHO meeting, MacDonald gave a report on the number of projects that were delayed because of the failure of steel deliveries because of controls imposed by the war. He noted that the highway program was being criticized for asking for more steel than the historical program justified. He defended the requests on the grounds that the nature of the highway program had changed completely because of the 1944 Act so that history was not a good measure. He gave a complete rundown on the status of the program. He gave essentially the same speech as the year before in regard to highway needs running far ahead of the rate of replacement. He decried the concept that mile-by-mile needs for steel could be made in Washington.

An excerpt from a report in the American Highways journal illustrates the difficulties the program endured during the Korean conflict:

From the very beginning, the highway officials have been faced with a difficult philosophy on the part of certain Federal agencies administering the steel program. That is, that highway modernization and reconstruction is not essential under the present circumstances. Confronted with this philosophy, actual accomplishment in the interest of the highway program has been difficult, if not impossible. Allocations made thus far to actual programs, particularly in the structural steel category, have been far below estimated minimum requirements, and the problem has been doubly complicated by the fact that allocations in all too many instances meant nothing more. Acceptance of highway steel orders for actual delivery have been far below the allocated steel tonnage, which was, in turn, far below the estimated requirement. Thus far, the highway program has managed to struggle along, but the future is indeed a gloomy one. A strong resolution on the subject was adopted by the general session meeting in Omaha in October, 1951. What the developments will be in 1952 it is impossible to predict at this time, but certainly this much should be obvious that our highway plant, the conveyor belt of defense production, is no more capable of meeting these international demands than were our production facilities and, as our production plant has been, and continues to be, expanded, so must our highway plant be expanded. If the highways break down, the other efforts will fail...


Thomas H. MacDonald made his last speech as Commissioner of Public Roads to the AASHO meeting in December of 1952 at Kansas City. There is no indication that he had any inkling of his impending retirement. The speech was titled "A Choice of Guides."

He advocated taking the case of the deteriorating highways to the public, especially the Interstate, in the face of growing highway use both by automobiles and trucks, as an avenue to achieve legislative change. He was alarmed at the rate of deterioration of the highways and the looming National emergency of the Korean War. He had learned that the highway program does not fare well in National emergencies. He knew that the States at long last had the capacity to take on a bigger program to stem the tide but the war was interfering:

The Problems, both quantitative and qualitative, confronting highway officials, have grown to current dimensions in a period so short, there has been no opportunity for general public analysis and understanding. These are now required. Only the compelling authority exerted by an informed public opinion will activate coordinated efforts by all of the official representatives of the public, - the legislative, the judicial, the executive agencies throughout the reaches of local, state and federal government. The validity of our form of government is dependent upon the action of those who are delegated by the public to represent them in the making of laws which must set in motion any public undertaking. On the record of the past we have faith that if information of the character and integrity essential to a clear understanding of the current highway problems is placed before our legislative bodies, their action will be responsive. To supply our law-makers with full data from continuous engineering and economic surveys and studies is the most important single duty we have as highway officials. We now have methods to serve the purpose, refined by actual use, upon which firm reliance may be placed as supports for unassailable conclusions.

The search for truth is old - it characterizes man's efforts to advance. As long ago as the latter half of the second century A.D., the philosopher Lucian is reported thus:

Then***this choice of roads and guides is quite a serious matter; we can by no means just follow our noses; we shall be discovering that we are well on the way to Babylon instead of to Corinth. Nor is it advisable to toss up, either, on the chance that we may hit upon the right way if we start upon any one at a venture. ***I cannot think we ought to gamble recklessly with such high stakes, nor commit our hopes to a frail craft, like the wise men who went to sea in a bowl; ***And as to the perils of blundering into one of the wrong roads instead of the right one, mis-led by a belief in the discretion of Fortune, - it is no easy matter to turn back and get safe into port when you have once cast loose your moorings and committed yourself to the breeze; ***Your mistake was at the beginning; before leaving, you should have gone up to some high point, and observed whether the wind was in the right quarter, and of the right strength for a crossing to Corinth, not neglecting, by the way, to secure the very best pilot obtainable, and seaworthy craft equal to so high a sea.

It is important before deciding upon the guides to follow in determining our recommendations for legislation or new administrative policies, to review the factual and research data from the studies of the State Highway Departments and the Bureau of Public Roads which will provide a sound foundation for public understanding of our critical highway situation and clear some of the foggy ideas now prevalent.

He went on to point out that even though automobile ownership had increased rapidly after the war, the highway problem was exacerbated by the increased speeds of cars and numbers, sizes and load carrying abilities of trucks which were rendering vast mileages obsolete due to narrow widths, steep grades sharp curvatures and other geometric and physical deficiencies. He reviewed each of these characteristics in detail. He noted that the old design standards of the twenties were carried well past the thirties because of the emphasis on hand labor and minimum use of materials to stimulate employment.

"...there is ample evidence that highways today are only fractionally as adequate for today's traffic demands as they were two decades ago." He noted that many States had performed "needs studies" and that in general they showed that the annual outlay for highways was less than 60% of that required."

He cited California as following good procedures:

A logical pattern is evolving in California which has the validity that only experience can give. The experience there confirms the rapidly changing qualities of the problem. In bare outline, the State Legislature in 1947 established a Study Committee composed of its own members to survey the highway problem on a State-wide basis. The Committee called on the Automotive Safety Foundation to provide a technical staff. In close collaboration with the State Highway Department and some technical personnel from the Bureau of Public Roads, a comprehensive report was developed which provided a sound foundation for the recommendation of the Committee to the Legislature, and for the highly important subsequent action of the Legislature. The Highway Department, the counties and cities were given a new highway improvement charter and authority for coordinated action.

...A new study is now urged, with special reference to the cities and urban areas. A logical fourth study is the secondary or farm-to-market road requirements. After these, there is the continuing need to review annually the whole inventory as the only reliable guide for program planning.

There is no new or unproven method involved. The idea has been urged since 1934 when the first outline of the highway inventory was circulated by Public Roads for the planning surveys. The President and the Secretary of the Association sent urgent recommendations to all the States in August, 1951, to undertake an inventory of road needs. The Executive Committee and the Association itself have approved the idea. The States have responded with data that have been used by the Association in support of Federal-aid highway legislation before the Congress, but the studies have not been uniform or continuous and thus do not carry the weight of conviction they should.

...There should be maintained in each State a unit to produce an annual report on highway needs. The Automotive Safety Foundation, whose staff has been responsible for many of the best State reports, should continue this activity and also be requested to help develop a standard manual on procedure and content of the "needs studies and reports". The Foundation can render most important services in a consulting capacity on request of any State. The reports which have been prepared in collaboration with a number of States, have pioneered the development of an essential administrative tool which how should be accepted and used continuously.

...The use of continuing surveys and analysis as a basis for determination of annual programs and financial policies, is relied upon heavily by all successful corporations. An announcement of an expansion in plant always reflects competent market analysis and other research by expert organizations. This approach can be modified and used by each State highway department through a competent planning survey division.

The highway departments are being forced into transportation activities far beyond the traditional functions of road building and maintenance. There is no way to avoid these new responsibilities and yet retain the authority and prestige which the highway departments have acquired by meritorious performance.


I mark 1952 as a critical year because it marks the beginning of more favorable times for the highway program. There was a new President representing the first change of political party in twenty years. World War II was behind us and the Korean War was sputtering out. The highway program had been through a long hard time from the Golden Years of the twenties. The Great Depression really wiped it out even though a lot of money was thrown around. It was just beginning to get back on its feet when World War II shut it down almost completely. After the war, it couldn't get going, not from a lack of money but from a lack of personnel, materials, contractors, machinery, and so on. The highway system was in a state of accelerating decay by 1952. But the highway departments and the industry were in a position to take on a much bigger program. The public was beginning to be aware of the highway crisis. The mood of the Congress was changing as illustrated by Senator Spessard Holland's speech to AASHO in December:

...Practically every witness appearing before the Public Works Committee this year stressed the need for stepping up the work on the National System of Interstate Highways, not only as a defense measure, but also to keep up with increasing demands of the National economy, and to promote greater safety. It is recognized that portions of this system have received a larger percentage of Federal-aid funds in recent years, and that the system bears the greatest burden of traffic, at all times and particularly during periods of national emergency. It consists entirely of vital mileage on the primary aid and urban aid systems, which forms an inter-connected system of interstate trunk routes, which now totals about 38,000 miles and is to be increased to 40,000. Congress took cognizance of the increasing importance of this system and authorized an additional $25 million annually to be expended exclusively on the Inter-State System. Apportionment to the States will be on the same basis as the funds for the primary system and subject to the same matching provisions. Though the amount authorized is small, this new item is the initiation of what may become a beneficial and additional program on the most important of our highway network.

I hope that this Association may seriously consider throwing its weight heavily behind the enlargement of this new program with an eye to early completion or modernization of the National Interstate System. I believe that there is probably no other way by which you can render such great service to the security and economy of this nation, as well as to the safety of the millions of citizens who use the trunk highways in ever increasing numbers, as by giving ardent all-out support to the effort to speedily complete and modernize the Interstate System.

This was an interesting twist where a Congressman was urging AASHO to get behind a highway program.

...There are many serious problems that must be worked out to improve our highway system and protect our investment, since the highway usage is running far ahead of the highway improvements. The capacity of our highway system is diminishing due to the wearing out of older roads without sufficient replacement or reconstruction to keep step with the wear and tear. We are also failing to keep up with obsolescence and are making insufficient progress with new construction to meet the increasing demands upon the highway system, which are due largely to the vastly increased number of automobiles. In other words, as an overall picture, I fear that we are losing rather than gaining ground in our program for modernizing our highway system despite the fact that the critical importance of our highways to the economy of the Nation is now recognized by everyone. It has been clearly shown that highway usage increases at about the same rate as the expansion of the National economy.

...all methods of financing highway construction by State and local governments must, from time to time, be fully re-examined as to their continued availability and their effectiveness. It is my hope that the Senate Committee on Public Works will conduct exhaustive hearings on the financing of toll roads, turnpikes, and expressways, early in the next Congress to try to find a clearer pattern or patterns for the solution of this problem which relates so closely to the completion of the Interstate System and also other major links where traffic is heaviest. Some suggest that the present Federal Aid Act should be amended so as to allow Federal Aid on such projects. On this I am certainly not ready to make any commitment, but the subject deserves study because of its great importance.

...Some of our most serious problems of highway transportation are in connection with urban areas. The large increase in the number of motor vehicles using the highways and city streets has created bottlenecks in urban areas, some of which could be removed or lessened by proper traffic studies and law enforcement.

Congressman Dempsey gave extensive statistics to make the case that the accident record on the Interstate System was totally unacceptable and urged an accelerated program to up-grade it. He characterized the current authorization of $25 million as "feeble" and decried diversion by the Federal Government of highway user revenues. He advocated $450 million per year for the Interstate alone but felt that Congress wouldn't go that high. He said he intended to introduce legislation providing $200 million per year for the Interstate. (Note that the Interstate was still regarded as a system in place in need of upgrading.)

The President of AASHO, Bertram D. Tallamy, noted that 1952 was the year of the H Bomb. He said that the U.S. had been on a wartime footing for more than a decade and expected that the highway program would have to proceed on that basis for at least another ten years regardless of the outcome of the Korean War. Congress had passed the largest Federal-aid bill in history and he expected steel controls to be eased by summer. He called attention to the $25 million earmarked for Interstate as being a first. He cited figures to show that only 2800 miles of this most heavily used system were satisfactory. He discussed the declining condition of the highway system in general and recommended that every State and the Congress initiate a comprehensive study of highway finance. He criticized the high rate of Federal diversion of highway user taxes and recommended that AASHO continue to oppose Federal highway use taxes. He advocated getting together with the trucking industry in promoting better highways. He took note of the phenomenal rise of the toll road movement. Shortly thereafter, he directed the building of the New York Thruway.

The April 1953 issue of American Highways' lead article heralded the installation of F.V. du Pont as Commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads and another announced the retirement of Thomas H. MacDonald after 34 years of service.

In his retirement from the public service, it can properly be said that it marks the end of an era of highway progress of proportions undreamed of at the time he assumed office. Unquestionably, America's leadership in the highway field, and highway progress in the years to come to a considerable degree, will be a reflection of the vision and integrity of Thomas Harris MacDonald.

Updated: 06/27/2017
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