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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 69 · No. 6 > The Battle of Its Life

May/Jun 2006
Vol. 69 · No. 6

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-2006-004

The Battle of Its Life

by Richard F. Weingroff

Even as construction continued at a record pace, the Interstate System needed a rescuer-and found one in Rex Whitton of Missouri.

In December 1962, Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton challenged the American Association of State Highway Officials to finish half the Interstate System by the midway point in the program, which was then expected to end in 1972. This exhibit was created to illustrate the challenge.
In December 1962, Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton challenged the American Association of State Highway Officials to finish half the Interstate System by the midway point in the program, which was then expected to end in 1972. This exhibit was created to illustrate the challenge.

On November 8, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy (D—MA) defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the presidential election. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his successor were from different generations and political parties, but Kennedy-the first President born in the 20th century-shared Eisenhower's concern about the future of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

In 2006 the transportation community celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate System. The third in a three-part series, this article examines the birth of the Interstate System, from the grand ideas to the day-to-day challenges of executing the country's largest public works project.

Challenges for the New Administration

Several problems confronted policymakers. Even as construction moved at a record pace, a looming fiscal crisis threatened to derail the schedule, if not the program. According to the 1961 Interstate Cost Estimate (ICE), Congress would have to provide an additional $11 billion to maintain the schedule. Controversy dogged construction in urban areas. The press repeated tales of alleged corruption and bungling that had given the program the disparaging label "our great big highway bungle."

Amid calls for an end to the problem-plagued Interstate program, Rex M. Whitton became the third Federal Highway Administrator on February 10, 1961.
Amid calls for an end to the problem-plagued Interstate program, Rex M. Whitton (shown here) became the third Federal Highway Administrator on February 10, 1961.

President Kennedy would have to address these issues before calls to end the Interstate program grew too loud to ignore. He selected Governor Luther H. Hodges of North Carolina to be Secretary of Commerce. Within that agency, the new Federal Highway Administrator of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) would be Rex Whitton.

Whitton's career with the Missouri State highway agency had begun in 1920 when he accepted a job operating a level on a survey crew for $110 a month, plus field expenses. He became chief engineer in 1951, leading to his role as president of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), as it was called then, in 1956. Whitton represented AASHO before Congress during this critical year and oversaw revision of the 1945 geometric design standards for the Interstate System. The new edition was approved in July 1956 and quickly adopted by BPR. Whitton also had ensured in August that Missouri would have the first project to go to contract after President Eisenhower approved the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

The illustration shows a closeup portion of the globe with two ribbons of road being paved with concrete as two parallel ribbons wrapping around the earth. Two illustrated cement mixers are working their way toward each other pouring out concrete pavement. Text overprinted in the upper left corner says, 'Concrete,' and in the lower right corner reads, 'Two 12 ft. lanes could be paved around the earth.' The illustration shows a map of the United States with a callout circle focusing on the State of Delaware. Text overprinted in the upper left corner says, 'Right of Way,' and in the lower right corner reads, '1 ½ Million Acres Acquired: More Than the Area of the State of Delaware.' In front of the map are three male figures. The one on the left is wearing a hardhat and looking at a long scroll of paper. The man in the center is wearing a tie and glasses, looking down at a thick book. The man on the right is talking to the man in the center and using a pointer to point at the circle containing the State of Delaware.
To illustrate the magnitude of the "greatest public works project in history," BPR prepared these illustrations in 1961 showing how much concrete, right-of-way, and reinforcing steel would be needed.

Whitton's first speech as Federal Highway Administrator was to a meeting of the American Road Builders Association (ARBA) in Atlantic City, NJ, in March 1961. The Interstate System, he said, "can and must be completed by 1972" as scheduled. He saw three challenges. The first was the funding problem, and the second was the "scandals" that were undermining public support. The third was "public apathy, or at least a lack of full appreciation of the urgent need for the highway program and the benefits it is bringing." Increased public education was essential in the face of the negative publicity, he said. "There is no instant panacea for the trouble besetting the highway program," but he promised to "give the job everything I have."

The Funding Problem

The funding problem would be addressed promptly. In February 1961, President Kennedy wrote to Congress, "Our Federal pay-as-you-go highway program is in peril." He justified the special message by citing the "vital contribution" of the program to security, safety, and economic growth, as well as national defense. He opposed "stretching out or cutting back" the program, two options that critics had suggested.

He explained that in 1959 President Eisenhower had signed legislation increasing the gas tax to 4 cents per gallon as a temporary measure that would expire July 1, returning the tax to 3 cents. The reduction, President Kennedy wrote, "was vigorously opposed by the previous administration. It is opposed by this administration with equal vigor." Overall, he recommended tax changes that would add $9.7 billion over roughly a 10-year period, or about $900 million per year, for the Interstate program.

The President also addressed urban development issues. He wrote that he had directed Commerce Secretary Hodges and Housing and Home Finance Administrator Robert C. Weaver "to increase their joint planning at every level, to improve coordination of urban renewal and freeway construction plans in the same area, and to invite the cooperative efforts of State and local highway and housing officials and private experts." In addition, Kennedy encouraged legislation to help families displaced by highway construction to find "reasonable housing at reasonable costs"-a problem that "has been largely overlooked," he wrote.

Congress acted quickly. On June 29, exactly 5 years after President Eisenhower had approved the 1956 law, President Kennedy approved the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1961 with, he said, "the greatest pleasure." The new law made the 4-cent gas tax permanent and adjusted other excise taxes to support completion of the Interstate System on the basis of the latest ICE. It also adjusted remaining authorizations for the system to a total of $25.2 billion over 9 years. With State matching funds, the legislation accounted for $27 billion in funding for the remainder of the program through fiscal year (FY) 1971, the same amount Congress had thought in 1956 would be the total cost of the program.

After Kennedy's signing of the 1961 act, completion of the Interstate System was never again in doubt.

Construction accelerated throughout the early 1960s. By the end of 1962, 23,023 kilometers (14,300 miles) of the Interstate System had been opened. A year later, 26,726 kilometers (16,600 miles) were open.

President Kennedy gave Whitton one of the pens used to sign the legislation. "It is not an expensive pen," Whitton would recall, "but it is the most important one I ever owned, for it was an instrument of writing a solution to the highway financing crisis which has bothered so many of us for several years."

Getting the Message Out

In April 1961, President Kennedy issued a proclamation declaring that the week of May 21-27 would be National Highway Week. It was an opportunity for Federal and State highway officials, and the Nation's Governors, to remind the public of the "vital role of highway transportation in our way of life."

Whitton began a public relations initiative to counter the bad press the Interstate program was receiving. The campaign included his appearance at highway openings around the country, each an opportunity to gain positive publicity in local newspapers. By the time he left office in December 1966, Whitton had attended more Interstate openings than any Federal Highway Administrator before or since.

As he traveled the country, Whitton continued to meet with the press to share his optimism about the future awaiting the country in the early 1970s when the Interstate System would be completed. Typical was an article he wrote that appeared in Sunday newspapers around the country for the Commerce Sunday Feature Service in August 1964, which ended, "Today, wherever we look throughout our country, we find that the Interstate System is spurring new industrial and commercial development, creating new jobs, and generating new economic growth for the benefit of all Americans."

The Great Highway Robbery

These efforts coincided with continued negative press coverage. For example, the investigative journalist Jack Anderson wrote about "The Great Highway Robbery" in the February 4, 1962, issue of Parade magazine. He quoted Representative John A. Blatnik (D-MN), who headed the Special Subcommittee on the Federal-Aid Highway Program, as saying, "Corruption permeates the highway program and stigmatizes the whole road-building industry." The committee's counsel, Walter May, suggested throwing a dart at a U.S. map. "Wherever it sticks, we can find something wrong with the new highways."

The coverage usually cited examples of graft, payola, abuse of right-of-way appraisals, and poor judgment brought to the attention of the Blatnik Committee, often involving a small number of States.

In response, BPR strengthened program controls. In July 1962, it established an Office of Right-of-Way and Location, to be headed by longtime employee Edgar H. Swick. The new office would be responsible for route location and ensuring that right-of-way would be acquired properly and at fair cost. In addition, former FBI agent Joseph M. O'Connor would direct a new Office of Audit and Investigations, which would probe allegations of fraud, land speculation, collusion, and other irregularities, as well as audit State claims for reimbursement of the Federal share of project costs.

At the same time, BPR was cooperating fully with the Blatnik Committee, the FBI, General Accounting Office, and State investigative units. Beginning in May 1961, the committee issued reports on its findings. The reports covered such topics as highway construction practices in two States, right-of-way acquisition in a third State, and the relationship between road contractors and State personnel as well as disposition of right-of-way improvements in another State.

In June 1962, Chairman Blatnik summarized his committee's findings in a speech to the Western Association of State Highway Officials. "The areas in which we have found...faults are only a small fraction of the total of this great program," he said. He warned the highway officials not to overrate "the unjustified conclusions and editorials in the newspapers." Instead, they should note congressional support for the program, especially in comparison with the attitude in 1959 when "wild speeches" were being made in the House about "extravagance, inefficiency, waste, graft, and so forth." Now, he said, lawmakers knew that any incidents they heard about from constituents would be investigated and resolved.

The Blatnik Committee, combined with policing efforts by BPR, the State highway agencies, and investigative agencies, defused the crisis. The allegations would resurface in later critical articles and books, but the danger to the program was over.

The President's Message on Transportation

In March 1962, Commerce Secretary Hodges and Housing and Home Finance Administrator Weaver reported to the President on redressing urban transportation problems. The major objectives, they said, "are the achievement of sound land-use patterns, the assurance of transportation facilities for all segments of the population, the improvement in overall traffic flow, and the meeting of total urban transportation needs at minimum cost."

Their report recommended that beginning July 1, 1965, approval of Federal-aid highway projects in any metropolitan area should be contingent on a finding by the Commerce Secretary that the projects "are consistent with adequate, comprehensive development plans for the metropolitan area or are based on results of a continuing process carried on cooperatively by the States and local communities" so that the Federal-aid system "will be an integral part of a soundly based, balanced transportation system for the area involved."

With mass transit increasingly operated by public agencies rather than the for-profit companies that had dominated the field in the 1950s, the report continued, Federal funding to subsidize needed service was vitally needed. "Mass transportation must be viewed as a public service and often cannot be a profit-making enterprise," it said.

The illustration shows a portion of the globe, with five strands of rebar swooping from the earth up to the moon and wrapping around the moon. Text overprinted in the upper left corner says, 'Reinforcing Steel,' and in the lower right corner reads, 'The One Half Inch Rebars Used Would Go 17 ½ Times the Distance to the Moon.' A worker in a hardhat is shown with the rebar on earth.

To illustrate the magnitude of the "greatest public works project in history," BPR prepared these illustrations in 1961 showing how much concrete, right-of-way, and reinforcing steel would be needed.

In April, President Kennedy submitted a message to Congress on "The Transportation System of our Nation." The message covered a wide range of topics, including freight shipments by land, air, and water; international aviation and maritime issues; and labor relations related to transportation workers. The message began: "An efficient and dynamic transportation system is vital to our domestic economic growth, productivity, and progress. Affecting the cost of every commodity we consume or export, it is equally vital to our ability to compete abroad. It influences both the cost and the flexibility of our defense preparedness, and both the business and recreational opportunities of our citizens."

President Kennedy recommended that Congress establish a long-term program of Federal aid to urban mass transportation ($500 million over 3 years) in the form of direct grants to public agencies for rights-of-way, fixed facilities such as maintenance sites and terminals, rolling stock (subway cars), extension and rehabilitation of existing systems, and creation of new systems.

Because highways would remain an "instrumental part" of urban transportation, the President asked for changes in U.S. Department of Commerce policy and Federal law to bring urban Federal-aid highway construction more in line with the comprehensive development plans for metropolitan areas. In addition, he cited Secretary Hodges's estimate that 15,000 families and 1,500 businesses were being displaced by Interstate construction each year. With Federal urban renewal programs as a model, President Kennedy submitted legislation "to authorize payments not to exceed $200 in the case of individuals and families and $3,000...in the case of business concerns or nonprofit organizations displaced as a result of land acquisitions under these programs."

Addressing the Urban Crisis

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962, which President Kennedy signed on October 23, completed action on the highway portion of his transportation message.

Section 5 addressed the growing concern, cited by the President and by a number of critical articles, about relocated individuals and businesses. Before approving a project, the Commerce Secretary would have to be assured that the State highway agency would provide advisory assistance for displaced families. He also was required to approve Federal-aid participation in relocation payments by the State to displaced residents and businesses. The dollar limits proposed by the President were adopted.

The most important provision was Section 9, "Transportation Planning in Certain Urban Areas." It addressed the President's call for a means of ensuring that Federal-aid highway and mass transportation programs would be part of a comprehensive and balanced urban transportation plan. Section 9 of the 1962 Act added Section 134 to Title 23, United States Code, which launched modern transportation planning by calling for "a continuing comprehensive transportation planning process carried on cooperatively." What became known as the "3C" process remains the core of Section 134, which now contains nearly 20 subsections.

To address the new planning requirements, State and urban officials formed ad hoc planning committees to reflect the "cooperative" element of the 3C process and hired consultants to gather and process data. Neither Section 9 nor the BPR's instructional memorandum on implementing it required formation of a permanent planning organization; however, the metropolitan planning organizations of today, required by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973, would evolve from these early efforts to comply with the 3C requirement.

Rex Whitton participated in more opening ceremonies for Interstate highways than any other Federal Highway Administrator. Here he is shown marking the opening of Virginia's portion of the Capital Beltway (I-495) on April 2, 1964.
Rex Whitton participated in more opening ceremonies for Interstate highways than any other Federal Highway Administrator. Here he is shown marking the opening of Virginia's portion of the Capital Beltway (I-495) on April 2, 1964.

A Challenge to AASHO

When AASHO gathered in December 1962 for its annual meeting, Whitton included a challenge for State highway officials in his annual speech. Given the continuing criticism of the Interstate program, Whitton pointed out that "nothing succeeds like success." Each Interstate highway, he said, "is its own best advertisement" of the benefits of freeways. Building the Interstates as fast as possible "is the best means we have to combat the carping critics and mudslingers."

With the Interstate program funded through FY 1971, the halfway point was 1964 for the 15-year program. Therefore, Whitton challenged State highway officials to complete 50 percent of the Interstate System, or 32,200 kilometers (20,000 miles), by the end of 1964. He urged the States to focus on projects that would link longer route sections, especially those connecting large cities. Such routes, he said, "best demonstrate to the public the benefits of the system-time saving, travel ease, and safety."

The Quiet Crisis

With this challenge before them, State highway agencies continued construction at a fast pace. But even as the new highways became an integral part of the American way of life, the image of the Interstate System suffered. The ideas that informed the decade-such as stewardship of the environment, guarantee of civil rights, expansion of the role of women, and the questioning of authority-meant that no amount of public relations and optimistic predictions about highways without stoplights could overcome the negative image the Interstate System had received in its first years.

A turning point came in September 1962 with the publication of a book, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which had nothing to do with the Interstate System. Silent Spring, which described the effect of chemicals such as DDT on the environment, was an immediate international bestseller and made the environment a major national concern. After Silent Spring, the public began to see the relationship between human endeavors that, however well intended, had adversely affected the environment. This "quiet crisis," as Interior Secretary Stewart Udall called it in 1963, would require a "new conservationist" in the form of ecologists, botanists, and biologists.

The quiet crisis would soon become another concern that highway engineers had not anticipated. For BPR and the States, the location of highways had not involved concerns about the environment. Rather, road builders sought the best routing to provide traffic service at the lowest cost with the least disruption to homes and businesses. Now, new criteria would have to be considered. Less than a year after Silent Spring's publication, BPR announced in August 1963 that beginning January 1, 1964, the States would be required to certify, for each Federal-aid highway project, that they had considered its possible effects on fish and wildlife. Discussing this change, Whitton said, "We do not seek to despoil the countryside." He added that "our responsibility...is to spend the highway user's dollar wisely," but the new environmental emphasis demonstrated that "we do not have closed or calloused minds."

Although Whitton would present the new requirement as a "conservation" measure, it was one of many steps the highway engineers would take-willingly in some cases, not so willingly in others-in the wake of Silent Spring to adjust to an evolving public awareness that meeting transportation needs had environmental consequences that should be considered along with congestion relief, economic development, safety, and other traditional factors.

Representative John A. Blatnik was appointed to head a Special Subcommittee on the Federal-Aid Highway Program in September 1959. He came to the post expecting to find widespread corruption, but came to believe any problems were largely isolated. Representative Blatnik, second from right, is shown here on September 14, 1971, cutting the ribbon to rename the I-535 Duluth-Superior Bridge the 'John A. Blatnik Bridge.'
Representative John A. Blatnik was appointed to head a Special Subcommittee on the Federal-Aid Highway Program in September 1959. He came to the post expecting to find widespread corruption, but came to believe any problems were largely isolated. Representative Blatnik, second from right, is shown here on September 14, 1971, cutting the ribbon to rename the I-535 Duluth-Superior Bridge the "John A. Blatnik Bridge."

President John F. Kennedy

In October 1963, President Kennedy approved the Federal-Aid Highway Amendments Act of 1963, a technical corrections bill that contained an important change in the design of Interstate projects. The 1956 law had called for Interstate projects to be designed to meet traffic demand in 1975. As that year came closer, Federal and State highway officials and key Members of Congress began to worry about construction of highways that would soon be obsolete. Therefore, the 1963 act required design for a 20-year period commencing on the date of plan approval. (The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1966 made another key change in design standards by requiring that "such standards shall in all cases provide for at least four lanes of traffic.")

A few weeks later, on November 14, 1963, President Kennedy helped open the Maryland Northeastern Expressway and the Delaware Turnpike (I-95), which were separate State toll roads that met at the State line. More than 10,000 people attended the ceremony, staged at the State line, for what would prove to be the only time a President has participated in an Interstate opening. The President said of the new turnpike: "It symbolizes...first of all, the partnership between the Federal Government and the States, which is essential to the progress of all of our people; and secondly, it symbolizes the effort we have made to achieve the most modern Interstate highway system in the world, a system which, when completed, will save over 8,000 lives a year and $9 billion in cost. And third, it symbolizes the effort which we are giving and must be giving to organizing an effective communication system here in the United States of America."

As the President spoke, civil rights protestors marched on the Delaware side within a dozen feet of the platform. One protester held a sign that read: "Mr. President, you're opening highway No. 95. Now, help us open public accommodations."

After concluding his brief remarks, President Kennedy joined Governor Elbert N. Carvel of Delaware and Governor J. Millard Tawes of Maryland to clip the ribbon opening the road.

Eight days later, on November 22, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX.

A year after that, in January 1965, during a ceremony in the lobby of a Hot Shoppes restaurant on the turnpike, Governor-elect Charles L. Terry, Jr., of Delaware, unveiled a bust of the late President by sculptor Maurine Ligon of New Castle, DE. With the unveiling, the highway in Delaware and Maryland was officially renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway.

"Separate," Not "Equal" Transportation

The new President, former Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, would play an important role in ensuring civil rights for African-Americans and other minorities, but he had little effect on the Interstate System. Indeed, the system had been planned long before the civil rights movement gained broad public and political acceptance.

The period when the Interstate System was conceived in two reports to Congress, Toll Roads and Free Roads (1939) and Interregional Highways(1944), was very different from the world facing the Interstate builders. In accordance with the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that had rendered "separate but equal" facilities acceptable, public accommodations along the Nation's roads throughout the South and adjacent States were racially separate. Elsewhere, de facto segregation was common.

Neither of the key reports discussed race. However, in drafting them, the then-head of BPR Thomas H. MacDonald and his top assistant, Herbert Fairbank, explained that one of the most beneficial roles of the Interstate System would be revitalizing America 's cities. The urban world MacDonald and Fairbank wrote about in the 1939 report was one in which the automobile had encouraged "the outward transfer of the homes of citizens" and businesses to the suburbs. Urban homes were now "occupied by the humblest citizens" who lived along the fringe of the business district-"a blight near its very core!"

The Maryland Northeastern Expressway-Delaware Turnpike opened on November 14, 1963, with President John F. Kennedy helping to cut the ribbon before a crowd of 10,000. Left to right: Governor Elbert N. Carvel of Delaware, Kennedy, and Governor J. Millard Tawes of Maryland. The turnpike was renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway in 1965.
The Maryland Northeastern Expressway-Delaware Turnpike opened on November 14, 1963, with President John F. Kennedy helping to cut the ribbon before a crowd of 10,000. Left to right: Governor Elbert N. Carvel of Delaware, Kennedy, and Governor J. Millard Tawes of Maryland. The turnpike was renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway in 1965.

At a time when society was embracing "slum-clearance projects," Interregional Highways explained, the essential role of government "would be to facilitate the transition financing of the rehabilitation of blighted areas, to employ its powers of eminent domain in the public interest, and to fix the standards of redevelopment." To accomplish the "radical revision of the city plan," sufficient right-of-way should be acquired, the report said, "for adjacent housing, airport, park, or other public developments which the highways will be designed to serve in part."

MacDonald and Fairbank proposed creation of a Federal land acquisition agency to buy rights-of-way and transfer them to the States. They did not address how displaced families and businesses would move on with their lives.

By the time President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka, KS) had overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and declared the broader segregation of American society unconstitutional. In 1955, a tired seamstress named Rosa Parks, of Montgomery, AL, boarded a bus at the end of a routine workday. Her arrest for refusing to yield her seat to a white passenger touched off a bus boycott that received national attention and helped lift the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to the pinnacle of the civil rights movement. Parks's arrest gave new life to the civil rights movement, just as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring would spark the environmental movement a few years later.

Some city officials welcomed slum-clearance projects as essential to their long-term economic viability. As Interstates began to run through blighted areas, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. It gave the "humblest citizens" a voice, an urgency, a legitimacy that MacDonald and Fairbank could not have anticipated.

For example, in a study of the impact of Interstates on cities, Professor Raymond A. Mohl of the University of Alabama at Birmingham explained how officials in one city rejected using an abandoned railroad corridor in favor of routing an Interstate through an inner-city community of African-Americans, wiping out housing in another along with the cultural and commercial heart of the community. In a northern city, an elevated freeway was used to separate a black public housing project from white ethnic neighborhoods. Elsewhere, historic preservationists blocked destruction of a historic district while routing an elevated Interstate through "a devastated black community, a concrete jungle left in the shadows by a massive elevated highway." Professor Mohl cited similar examples in many other cities.

Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in making aesthetically pleasing views from the road an important goal of the Interstate System. In May 1965 she embarked on a 'Landscape-Landmark Tour' in northern Virginia, taking I-95 and parallel U.S. 1 to compare the two highways. At the White House, Mrs. Johnson posed with Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton and his wife, Callie Maud, who brought homemade cookies to share with participants on the bus ride.
Lady Bird Johnson (right) was instrumental in making aesthetically pleasing views from the road an important goal of the Interstate System. In May 1965 she embarked on a "Landscape-Landmark Tour" in northern Virginia, taking I-95 and parallel U.S. 1 to compare the two highways. At the White House, Mrs. Johnson posed with Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton and his wife, Callie Maud, who brought homemade cookies to share with participants on the bus ride.

According to Dan McNichol in The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System, by the 1960s, the urban revitalization that MacDonald and Fairbank thought would accompany the Interstates was derided as building "white men's roads through black men's homes." Moreover, the reconfiguration of transportation to favor highways over transit was harmful to transit-dependent minority communities, contributing to high rates of unemployment and civil unrest. Highway officials were in the difficult position of defending what were increasingly perceived as racist policies.

Professor Mohl concluded that the "forced relocation of blacks from central-city areas triggered a massive spatial reorganization of urban residential space....The expressway building of the 1950s and 1960s, then, ultimately helped produce the much larger, more spatially isolated, and more intensely segregated second ghettos characteristic of the late twentieth century."

Some State highway and city officials were following the inexorable logic of routing the urgently needed highways where right-of-way expenses would be lowest and revitalization most needed, although others made racially motivated decisions, as Professor Mohl documents.

In part, Federal and State highway officials were driven by the urgency of finishing the Interstate System by the early 1970s and by visions of the benefits the Nation, particularly cities, would enjoy when it was completed. The highway officials and urban political leaders did not foresee that, in their pursuit of "radical revision," they were exposing America's racial divides and contributing to the problems their successors would confront in coming decades.

Beauty for America

In November 1964, the American people gave President Johnson a landslide victory over Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ). During the campaign, the President's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, had complained to her husband about the roadside junkyards they saw along the way. He revealed her views during remarks on conservation in Portland, OR, on September 17, 1964. The auto junkyards they had seen during the campaign, he said, "are driving my wife mad." He said he intended to "develop a national policy for the control and disposal of technological and industrial waste."

Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton, right, meets with Secretary of Commerce John T. Connor, who took office in January 1965, about an Interstate route in Buffalo, NY.
Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton, right, meets with Secretary of Commerce John T. Connor, who took office in January 1965, about an Interstate route in Buffalo, NY.

As U.S. News & World Report explained, the President's references to the subject during the campaign prompted applause, so "the President observed: 'If it's beautifying they want, it's beautifying they'll get.'"

On February 8, 1965, within 3 weeks of renewing his oath of office, President Johnson wrote to Congress on stewardship of the country's natural bounty. "It would be a neglectful generation indeed, indifferent alike to the judgment of history and the command of principle, which failed to preserve and extend such a heritage for its descendants." The modern highways that "may wipe out the equivalent of a 50-acre [20-hectare] park with every mile" were one of the culprits. Recognizing that "ours is an automobile society," the President did not want to curtail roads. He wanted to make roads the "highways to the enjoyment of nature and beauty."

He called for "a new conservation" that would protect the countryside, restore "what has been destroyed," and "salvage the beauty and charm of our cities." He was not, he said, referring to the "classic conservation of protection and development, but a creative conservation of restoration and innovation." His creative conservation included proposals for cities, rivers, and trails, as well as ideas for curbing pollution.

President Johnson planned several highway initiatives. He had directed Commerce Secretary John T. Connor, who had taken over for Secretary Hodges in January 1965, to ensure that landscaping would be part of all Interstate and Federal-aid primary and urban highways. Johnson also planned to introduce legislation on effective control of billboards and "unsightly, beauty-destroying junkyards and auto graveyards along our highways."

President Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 on October 21. The first billboard, on I-95 near Freeport, ME, came down under the act in April 1971. Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe addresses reporters and area residents in front of the first billboard to be torn down.
President Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 on October 21. The first billboard, on I-95 near Freeport, ME, came down under the act in April 1971. Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe addresses reporters and area residents in front of the first billboard to be torn down.

He also called a White House Conference on Natural Beauty for May 24-25 in Washington, DC. BPR's Whitton told a conference panel that "highways are for people," a message he would repeat on many occasions. "The highways must be beautiful as seen from the driver's seat...and they also must not be a scourge on the community through which they pass." To accomplish this goal, he urged cooperation among Federal, State, and city officials as well as use of "every skill that is available," including "the skills of architects, landscape architects, highway engineers, and psychologists and all the others" to create "the best possible transportation system and the best possible urban plan for our cities."

The President's America the Beautiful initiative proved controversial when the rights of private property owners clashed with public interests. Billboards, for example, had been criticized for decades, but controlling their use had proven difficult. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958 had declared that control of outdoor advertising was "in the public interest." It had authorized a bonus program, with the revenue coming from the general Treasury rather than the Highway Trust Fund, under which States would receive a 0.5-percent increase in the Federal share of Interstate construction costs if they agreed to control outdoor advertising. However, by 1965, only 20 States, with one-fourth of Interstate System mileage within their borders, had entered into bonus agreements.

Given this limited success, one of the most prominent results of the President's beauty initiative was passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. The signing ceremony took place at the White House on October 22, the day after the President returned from surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Recalling the ride from the hospital along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the President said, "not one foot of it was marred by a single unsightly manmade obstruction-no advertising signs, no junkyards. Well, doctors could prescribe no better medicine for me." Saying "beauty belongs to all the people," he signed the bill and gave the first pen to Lady Bird, along with a kiss on the cheek.

The billboard portion of the law required States to provide effective control of outdoor advertising along the Interstate System and primary system highways. For States that did not do so, their Federal-aid apportionment could be reduced by 10 percent. Some signs would be permitted, namely directional and other official signs, signs and other devices advertising activities conducted on the property on which they were located, and signs marketing the sale or lease of the property on which they were located. The Commerce Secretary was to enter into an agreement with each State regarding the size, lighting, and spacing, consistent with customary use, on outdoor advertising.

Signs that did not comply with the new requirement were to be removed after July 1, 1970, with just compensation for those that had been erected legally before enactment of the law. The act authorized $20 million per year for FY 1966 and 1967 for this purpose, with the funds coming from the general Treasury, not the Highway Trust Fund, and a Federal share of 75 percent.

To promote the safety and recreational value of travel and preserve natural beauty, the law also required effective control of outdoor junkyards along the Interstates and primary system highways. Effective control meant screening by natural objects, plants, fences, or other means, with a 10-percent penalty on apportionments for States that did not comply. The Federal share of junkyard screening projects was 75 percent, again with $20 million per year from the general Treasury.

The first billboard did not come down until April 1971, when a sign in a pine grove off I-95 near Freeport, ME, was removed. Transportation Secretary John A. Volpe said, "Take her down, boys," as a crane pulled the facing off the billboard, which had most recently advertised a restaurant and a music store.

BPR used this 1966 graphic to put the cost of highways in perspective and allay public displeasure. As BPR explained here, State and Federal highway taxes represented only 1.2 cents of the total 11 cents per mile it cost to own and operate an automobile back then. The figures were based on a $2,800 car driven 100,000 miles over 10 years.
BPR used this 1966 graphic to put the cost of highways in perspective and allay public displeasure. As BPR explained here, State and Federal highway taxes represented only 1.2 cents of the total 11 cents per mile it cost to own and operate an automobile back then. The figures were based on a $2,800 car driven 100,000 miles over 10 years.

The Web of Union

A year after launching the conservation initiative, President Johnson announced in his State of the Union Address in January 1966 that a U.S. Department of Transportation was needed. With 35 government agencies spending $5 billion a year on transportation, he said, the "present structure makes it almost impossible to serve either the growing demands of this great Nation or the needs of the industry, or the right of the taxpayer to full efficiency and frugality."

On March 2, President Johnson submitted legislation to Congress. "In a Nation that spans a continent," he wrote in an accompanying message, "transportation is the web of union." The "tenuous skein of rough trails and primitive roads" of the Nation's early years had become "a powerful network on which the prosperity and convenience of our society depend." He urged creation of a U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) "to serve the growing demands of this great Nation, to satisfy the needs of our expanding industry, and to fulfill the right of our taxpayers to maximum efficiency and frugality in Government operations."

BPR would be part of the new Department, but the Housing and Home Finance Agency, which administered the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, would remain in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), its home since September 1965. The President said that after creation of USDOT, he would ask the new Secretary of Transportation to work with the HUD Secretary to submit proposals on "a unified Federal approach to urban problems."

President Johnson signed the U.S. Department of Transportation Act in October 1966 before about 200 guests at the White House. The new law brought together 31 agencies and bureaus; BPR had by far the largest budget, $4.4 billion, in a Department with a total budget of $6.6 billion. "In large measure," the President said, " America's history is a history of her transportation." Although the transportation system "is the greatest in the world," he added, "we must face facts. It is no longer adequate." He described his vision that "a day will come in America, when people and freight will move through this land of ours speedily, efficiently, safely, and dependably."

The President selected Alan S. Boyd to serve as the first Transportation Secretary. A 44-year-old lawyer, Boyd had been general counsel of the Florida Turnpike Authority and chairman of the Florida Railroad and Public Utilities Commission before President Eisenhower appointed him to serve on the Civil Aeronautics Board. Boyd became chairman of the board in 1961 and was appointed Under Secretary of Commerce in 1965. President and Mrs. Johnson watched on January 16, 1967, as Boyd took the oath of office as Transportation Secretary in the East Room of the White House. The President explained that Boyd would "coordinate a national transportation policy for this great land of ours...and give the kind of results that the American people would like to point to with pride."

Administrator Rex Whitton Takes His Leave

By the time Rex Whitton left office at the end of 1966, he had addressed the problems that had faced the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways when he took office. By cooperating with the Blatnik Committee and strengthening BPR oversight, Whitton had helped put to rest the scandals that had given critics of "the highway bungle" their strongest, most visible weapon. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1961 put the program on a sound financial footing that would carry it through the early 1980s.

The most remarkable transformation had come in response to the objections on social and environmental grounds. Initially, Whitton and the road-building community were convinced that these issues could be addressed with public relations initiatives such as National Highway Week. Although Whitton and his successors would continue to stress the positive aspects of the program, he was, in effect, the bridge between those who thought the benefits of the Interstate System trumped other considerations and those who would embrace the growing number of environmental laws and the stewardship they demanded.

In February 1966, moreover, BPR announced that the States had met Whitton's challenge to AASHO by opening more than half of the Interstate System. With the unveiling of 3,486 kilometers (2,166 miles) in 1965, open mileage totaled 34,094 kilometers (21,185 miles), or 52 percent, of the 65,980-kilometer (41,000-mile) system. Construction was underway on another 8,980 kilometers (5,580 miles); only 4,634 kilometers (2,880 miles), or 7 percent, of the system had not yet advanced beyond preliminary status. Approximately $24.7 billion had been put to work on the Interstate program.

In November 1966, Whitton was in Wichita, KS, for his final presentation to AASHO during its annual meeting. Noting that 1966 was the 50th year since creation of the Federal-Aid Highway Program in 1916, he told his colleagues, "The first 50 years are the easiest," and as for the future, he said, "You ain't seen nothing yet."

With urban populations increasing, the main thrust of highway efforts "should be directed to easing the plight of cities," he added. Whitton also emphasized the desirability of "making highway transportation compatible with the environment while serving many urban needs." Highways, he said, cannot be isolated from other forms of transportation. "We must plan transportation systems. We cannot afford to do any less." This is why the new USDOT "makes sense-from any viewpoint, but particularly with respect to the close and efficient coordination of government programs for the entire transportation system."

The one negative Whitton discussed involved displacements and relocations. Only 32 States were paying moving costs, "and far too few States are doing an outstanding job in providing the basic assistance required." If more States do not offer assistance voluntarily, it will become mandatory, he said. (Just such a Federal law, the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970, would be enacted a few years later.)

Whitton concluded: "I have been around long enough...to have confidence that our highway program is not frozen by tradition, that it has not only resiliency but also the flexibility needed to respond to any new challenge. And I have confidence that its response, that your response, that the response of the highway engineer, will be more than adequate to what our Nation expects and deserves-and that, gentlemen, is a lot."

In December 1966 a retirement ceremony was held in the General Services Administration auditorium "filled to overflowing with the hundreds of associates and employees of Mr. Whitton," according to BPR's newsletter. Secretary-designate Boyd presented the Commerce Department's Gold Medal to Whitton "for exceptional achievements as a leader in highways and highway transportation in the United States, and contributions to these same interests worldwide."

When the Federal Highway Administration began operating on April 1, 1967, it was organized into bureaus. Secretary of Transportation Alan S. Boyd (left) administered the oath of office to longtime career employee Francis C. 'Frank' Turner as director of the Bureau of Public Roads.
When the Federal Highway Administration began operating on April 1, 1967, it was organized into bureaus. Secretary of Transportation Alan S. Boyd (left) administered the oath of office to longtime career employee Francis C. "Frank" Turner as director of the Bureau of Public Roads.

A New Department Takes Off

The new USDOT opened for business on April 1, 1967. On the National Mall, Secretary Boyd joined with the Smithsonian Institution in celebrating the opening ceremonies of a spring gala dubbed the "Pageant of Transportation." After a news conference during which he introduced Department leaders, Boyd pledged that the new agency would work to make transportation more efficient and more socially responsible. In a remark that seemed directed at perceptions of the Interstate System, he added, "We want an end to the noise, pollution, and general disfigurement transportation has unintentionally brought to our cities."

The opening of the new Department meant changes for BPR. One involved its name. "Bureau of Public Roads" had been used during two periods of the agency's history spanning 39 years, with "Public Roads Administration" being the interim name. On April 1, 1967, the agency became the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The newly renamed agency was organized into bureaus headed by directors, with the BPR name retained for one of them, along with the Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety (now the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) and the National Highway Safety Bureau (now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). With the additions, the agency increased from about 4,800 employees at the end of 1966 to 5,360 employees a year later. (In August 1970, FHWA eliminated the bureau structure, replacing the directors with associate administrators and finally ending use of the name BPR.)

The director of BPR was Francis C. "Frank" Turner, who had joined BPR in 1929 after graduating from Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Texas A&M University). In the 1950s he had played a key role in the committee established by President Eisenhower and headed by retired General Lucius D. Clay to develop a national highway plan, and had served as liaison between BPR and the key committees in Congress during development of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. (In February 1969 he became the only career employee to become Federal Highway Administrator.)

Perhaps the most surprising change was that the first person to hold the title of Federal Highway Administrator in the new department would not be an engineer. Lowell K. Bridwell had been a journalist throughout his career, most recently as the top writer on highways for the Washington bureau of Scripps Howard Newspapers. He had joined the Commerce Department in April 1962 as assistant to Transportation Under Secretary Clarence Martin, Jr., and held other Commerce posts over the next 5 years. He would take office as Federal Highway Administrator in March 1967 and hold the position until the end of the Johnson Administration, January 20, 1969.

Pioneer of Modern Highway Construction

After leaving BPR, Rex Whitton returned to Kansas City, MO, where he accepted a position as consultant to the engineering firm of Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff . He retired in 1975. The following year he told FHWA News, the agency newsletter, that he and his wife enjoyed driving to auction sales for antiques. However, they avoided the freeways he had helped to build. He never liked driving on them, he said, and now enjoyed "driving on the little back roads, keeping a map of each one we travel."

Rex Whitton passed away at age 82 on July 7, 1981, after a long illness. The passing of the man who had rescued the Interstate System was little noticed around the country. However, an obituary in AASHTO Quarterly noted, "His national reputation as a pioneer of modern highway construction not only brings honor to his memory, but also to a profession he dearly loved."


Richard F. Weingroff is the information liaison officer in the FHWA Office of Infrastructure.

For more information on the early days of the Interstate System, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/interstate/homepage.cfm or www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/history.htm.

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