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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation


The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and its predecessor agencies have been directly engaged in the location, design, and construction of public roads, giving access to and through the National Parks, the National Forests, and other areas within the Federal domain since 1905. The record of intergovernmental cooperation with the Federal Lands Management Agencies concerned has been outstanding to this day.

BPR Construction Crew
Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) Construction Crew posing in front of Graham-Paige automobiles used by the BPR (predecessor agency to FHWA) on many projects during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

The Early Days

In 1905, the same year the U.S. Forest Service (FS) was established, the Division of Tests of the Bureau of Chemistry and the Office of Public Road Inquiries in the U.S. Department of Agriculture were consolidated into the Office of Public Roads (OPR). In spite of extremely limited staff and resources, immediate plans were made to offer a professional service in the area of road construction to other agencies of the Federal Government. This work was essentially advisory in nature.

Because the FS had a source of revenue from timber harvesting, livestock grazing, and other commercial activities, the Agricultural Appropriation Acts of 1912 and 1913 authorized 10 percent of those funds to be expended on construction and maintenance of roads and trails serving the National Forest, the first law offering a sustained source of revenue for road improvement purposes in the public domain, $210,925 in fiscal year 1912 and $239,192 in 1913.

On February 16, 1914, Director Logan W. Page created the Division of Park and Forest Roads, under the Office of Public Roads, with T. Warren Allen as chief, in anticipation of both National Park and Federal-aid road legislation. The OPR worked out a cooperative arrangement with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the FS for the use of professional services in location, design and construction of roads in the National Forests and in the National Parks. Those services included road surveys and plan preparation for Interior in Yosemite, Glacier, General Grant and Sequoia and inspection of road conditions in Mount Rainer, Hot Springs and Wind Cave. In 1915, the name of the Office of Public Roads was again changed to the Office of Public Roads and Rural Engineering.

Federal-Aid Road Act

The Federal-Aid Road Act, approved July 11, 1916, is historic as it established the basis for the Federal-Aid highway program in cooperation with the States. To carry out the provisions of the Act, a complete Federal highway engineering organization was needed throughout the country. In 1917, 10 districts were established, with each district given the responsibility for the construction of rural Post Roads in cooperation with the State highway departments, and for the survey, construction, and maintenance of National Forest roads in cooperation with the FS and the State and local authorities. By the end of fiscal year 1916, the direct Federal highway construction program was well established. The magnitude and extent of the job ahead can be appreciated as, at that time, there were virtually no improved roads in the vast areas of the Federal domain. In 1917 the Division of Park and Forest Roads was eliminated and forest work was transferred to the Office of Road Construction and Maintenance.

Unlike the FS, existing park legislations prohibited the extraction of natural resources as a source of revenue. Road building in the parks was sporadic depending on the availability of funds. During the period 1883 to 1918 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed and built the basic road system in Yellowstone National Park, our first National Park.

While 12 National Parks had been created by 1915, there was neither consistent legislative authority nor theory of park administration to manage them. Various legislations to create a national park system began in 1911, but with little success. International Expositions in San Francisco and San Diego opened in 1915 which attracted millions of visitors, including members of Congress. With the closure of Europe to tourists (war) and the publicity associated with the expositions, the "See America First" movement became a patriotic tourist slogan. Railroad companies heavily promoted the great parks as a method of travel to see both the parks and to get to the expositions. With long distance automobile travel growing, interstate routes through the parks and to the expositions were further promoted. The mounting public pressure affected Congress prompting them to action.

In August 1916, The National Park Service Organic Act created the National Park Service (NPS), to promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations and "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The Agriculture Appropriation Act for fiscal year 1919 changed the name of the Office of Public Roads and Rural Engineering to the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR).

The Graham-Paige vehicle
1931 Graham-Paige: Learn more about the history and restoration of this Bureau of Public Roads Vehicle.

In recognition of the importance of providing missing links needed for transcontinental highway travel, to aid in State and community development, and to provide access for the conservation and development of natural resources, the Federal Highway Act of 1921 provided for a number of changes needed for more effective administration of the Federal-Aid cooperative highway program, and it increased substantially the funds available for forest highways. To facilitate the administration of the direct Federal program in the western States, in 1921 the BPR established a Western Regional Office in San Francisco, California, with six districts (San Francisco, Portland, Denver, Missoula, Ogden and Albuquerque) covering the 11 western States and the Territories of Alaska and Hawaii. Dr. L. I. Hewes was given responsibility for administration of the Western Regional Office.

National Park Roads

Once the NPS was created, the need for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had diminished. By the mid 1920's it became evident that road building by the States and by Federal agencies on public lands needed to be closely correlated. Since 1916, the NPS had taken little advantage of the agreement between Interior and the BPR. But Stephen T. Mather, Director of the NPS, grew increasingly concerned about adapting park roads to automobiles and contacted Thomas H. MacDonald, Chief of the BPR, to collaborate on a "Transmountain Highway" through Glacier National Park. Based on an early design prepared by the NPS in 1918, surveys began in 1924.

In 1924 Congress enacted special legislation authorizing $7.5 million for road construction in the National Parks. Construction began on the Transmountain Highway in 1925, renamed Going-to-the-Sun Road after completion. Based on that collaboration, a Memorandum of Agreement between the BPR and the NPS was executed in 1926. The agreement, signed by Mather and MacDonald established the basis of interagency cooperation for the construction of roads and parkways under the jurisdiction of the NPS. The work of the BPR in the location, design, and construction of roads in the National Parks such as Grand Canyon National Park, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, and other parks, was a natural extension of the BPR as it had acquired the needed expertise through many years of experience of road building in the National Forests. As additional National Parks were established, including those east of the Mississippi, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Shenandoah National Park, and the Everglades National Park, the BPR played an important role working with the NPS under the interagency agreement in providing new or improved roads throughout the entire national park system.

In 1928 the BPR was assigned the task of locating, designing, and building the Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway, with the objective of having the Parkway completed by 1932, the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. As BPR worked on the parkway, Congress passed legislation extending it along the Potomac River to Great Falls in Virginia and creating a parallel parkway in Maryland, both to be known as the George Washington Memorial Parkway and turned over to the NPS. The parkway was a relatively new concept in design. It was aligned with easy curves to fit the natural contours of the land, provided pleasant scenic vistas, and landscaped so that it became a natural part of the environment. At the same time, the arterial highway aspect was recognized, and access to the parkway was provided only at long intervals. The parkway remains one of the most scenic drives near our Nation's capital, an outstanding tribute to the engineers and landscape architects of the BPR responsible for its concept and construction. This design concept would soon spread to other facilities.

The Great Depression

During the 1930's the whole direct Federal highway construction program expanded greatly as Congress sought to alleviate effects of the economic depression by providing funds for increasing the number of public works. The Public Lands Highway Program was established by the "Amendment Relative to Construction of Roads through Public Lands and Federal Reservations of 1930." Under this discretionary program, State DOTs submitted projects to the BPR for selection. This program, funded from the General Fund, would remain a source of funding for many years to come.

In January 1934, BPR Commissioner Thomas H. MacDonald established a new field district office in Washington, DC to handle the location, design, and construction of park, forest, and such other highway work as may be entrusted to the Bureau. Mr. H. J. Spellman was placed in charge of the new district. Later, the district was designated Region 15, and it included the District of Columbia and 30 states east of the Rocky Mountains.

A notable achievement during the 1930's was the design and construction of Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park. Work began in 1930 as a source of employment early in the Depression. Landscape architects of the NPS and highway engineers of the BPR worked together to blend the parkway into the mountain landscape in a way that optimizes scenic vistas of the panorama of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the plains of Virginia.

With the success of Skyline Drive and the George Washington Memorial Parkway, further linear parkways were initiated as Depression-era public works projects including the Blue Ridge Parkway (469 miles) and the Natchez Trace Parkway (441 miles), and subsequent construction of the Colonial Parkway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and the Suitland Parkway after the Depression. The subsequent construction of these Parkways represented a major effort of Region 15 for many years. The States were responsible for providing the right-of-way, with Congress periodically appropriating funds for construction. As a result, construction took decades to complete the Blue Ridge Parkway around Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina in 1987 and the Natchez Trace Parkway around Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi in 2005.

When the eastern district office was established, direct Federal highway construction work in the western States and in Alaska remained as organized in 1921, under the Western Regional Office with Dr. L. I. Hewes, Deputy Chief Engineer in charge. There were five districts in the Western Region with district headquarters in Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, California; Denver, Colorado; Juneau, Alaska; and Ogden, Utah.

On July 1, 1939, the BPR was transferred from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to become the Public Roads Administration of a new agency, The Federal Works Administration. The internal organization remained the same in carrying out the direct Federal construction program.

World War II and the Fifties

During World War II, highway construction in the National Parks and Forests was suspended. Direct Federal construction employees were assigned to defense projects such as the Alcan Highway, Inter-American Highway, the Pentagon network, and roads to provide access to sites where military and war-related activities were undertaken. In 1949 the Federal Works Administration was abolished and the Public Roads Administration was transferred temporarily to the newly-created General Services Administration. Immediately thereafter the Public Roads Administration was renamed the BPR and placed in the Department of Commerce.

During the decade 1950 1959 the direct Federal construction program grew in size and complexity. Substantially increased funds were made available and a concerted effort was made to modernize forest highways on the Federal-Aid System which had been built originally in the early years and were no longer adequate. The years following World War II also brought a tremendous increase in recreational travel and the BPR was called upon to build roads in many areas as they were added to the National Park system.

Many outstanding examples can be cited, of new highways built in difficult terrain throughout the United States, including several long bridges and major tunnels. Work was also undertaken for other Federal agencies such as roads needed by the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Bureau of Land Management of the Department of the Interior, to provide access to military sites and to sources of raw materials.

In 1956, the Alaska Road Commission organization was transferred to the Department of Commerce and combined with the BPR's Alaska office to form BPR Region 10, with responsibility for a system totaling 5,356 miles. Upon statehood, the Alaska Department of Highways was organized in 1960 and assumed responsibility for the State's highway program.

To better administer the national highway program under the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, which initiated construction of the Interstate System and established the Highway Trust Fund, major organizational changes were made in the BPR. At the headquarters level, the direct Federal construction program continued to be administered by a specific organizational unit, the Federal Domain Division, later renamed the Federal Highway Projects Division. In the field, Region 15 continued to handle direct Federal construction operations in the eastern part of the United States, and in the west a Federal Highway Projects Office was established in each of the three western regional offices Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, California; and Denver, Colorado.

Creation of FLH Office within Department of Transportation

On April 1, 1967, the U.S. Department of Transportation was established. The BPR was transferred from the Department of Commerce and became a part of the Department of Transportation, as the Federal Highway Administration. In 1974 there was further consolidation of the direct Federal construction program in the western States. The Federal Highway Projects Office in San Francisco was transferred to Denver. The program in the western part of the United States was then administered from two FHWA regional offices, Region 8 in Denver, and Region 10 in Portland. In 1969, at the direction of Mr. Francis C. Turner, Federal Highway Administration, a Demonstration Projects program was established in Region 15 with the objective of promoting by demonstration the application of new technology as it applied to highway location, design, construction, maintenance, and operation. Under this program, similar to the one originated by the Office of Road Inquiry in 1893, the direct Federal construction staff has carried out many successful demonstration projects.

In 1978 FHWA undertook a study to evaluate the Federal Highway Projects organization. The Federal Highway Project offices in Headquarters, Regions 15, 8 and 10 each reported to different regional or executive administrators. In order to establish a direct line of authority and communication, in July 1980 the Office of Direct Federal Programs was established in Headquarters that reported to the Director of Highway Operations. This office had direct line authority over and renamed the Project offices as the Eastern, Central and Western Direct Federal Divisions located in Arlington, VA, Denver, CO, and Portland, OR, respectively.

On January 6, 1983, the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 was enacted which created the Federal Lands Highway Program (FLHP). The Act formally recognized all federally-owned roads as "public roads" and would receive an allocation of funding from the Highway Trust Fund. The FLHP, an adjunct of the Federal-aid Highway Program, could now provide funding for more than 90,000 miles of Federal and public-authority owned roads. Core programs established under FLHP were the Park Roads and Parkways, Indian Reservation Roads, and Public Lands Highway which included both the Forest Highway and the Public Lands Discretionary Program components.

After a further study, in 1989 the Office of Direct Federal Programs was again reorganized and renamed the Office of Federal Lands Highway (FLH), now reporting directly to the Executive Director. Now FLH had direct input into senior level policy, legislative development, budget formulation, and strategic planning. Each division was further renamed the Eastern, Central and Western Federal Lands Highway Divisions. Since that time each Division has relocated to Sterling, VA; Lakewood, CO; and Vancouver, WA.

Highway legislation from 1987 through 2009 would become rife with special appropriations (congressional earmarks) from both the Highway Trust Fund and General Fund. Many FLH projects benefitted from these appropriations since core program funding was vastly insufficient for the size and breadth of proposed improvements. Projects would include the relocation of US 25E through the Cumberland Gap and construction of a 4100-foot long, twin-bore tunnel in Kentucky and Tennessee; the relocation of US 93 the Hoover Dam Bypass and construction of a 1,900-foot long bridge over the Colorado River Gorge between Nevada and Arizona; and the reconstruction of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Wyoming. While these projects represent three of the most prominent construction projects in FLH history in partnership with various Federal agencies and State DOTs, they also showcased FLH's ability to design and construct award-winning facilities in some of the most technically challenging and environmentally sensitive environments. These projects have promoted FLH as a "can-do" agency and oftentimes a "partner of choice" for both Federal and State partners which has resulted in more and more project partnerships.

FLH has often assisted the FHWA Office of International Programs whom administers technical assistance in cooperation with foreign governments and the World Bank. FLH engineers continue to participate in that assistance that has included design and construction of roads in Russia, bridge inspection in Saudi Arabia, geotechnical engineering to Turkey, and as a training host for variety of engineers from around the world that continues today.

21st Century and Beyond

The 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) recognized the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and its "refuge roads" as a new partner and funded program. TEA-21 also recognized FLHP and Federal agency funds as acceptable "matching funds" for many State programs. Now FLHP funds could be leveraged with Federal-aid and State funds for many improvements to State or County roads providing access to, adjacent and through Federal and Tribal lands.

TEA-21 and the following legislation, Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), would also change the Indian Reservation Roads Program. These Acts allowed a tribal negotiated rule making, changed the funding formula, substantially increased funding, provided for a bridge program and by Agreement with FHWA, allowed funding to be directly allocated to Tribes bypassing the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Now the Tribal Transportation Program, administered within the Washington Headquarters and staff located in both Western and Central, has over 120 Tribes nationally under program funding agreements with FLH.

On July 6, 2012, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) formally changed the structure of the FLHP to the Federal Lands Transportation Program (FLTP) creating new programs for the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers. The legislation also eliminated the Public Lands Highway Program (which included the Forest Highway and Public Lands Discretionary Programs), and replaced it with the new Federal Lands Access Program. While similar both in funding and administration as the Forest Highway Program, any public road that provides access to through or within any public lands (not just forests) is eligible. A Program Decision Committee, made up of State, FHWA, and local representatives, select the projects submitted for funding. The Access Program greatly expanded FLH interactions with States, Counties and locals through those routes that significantly contribute to enhancing access to the Federal estate.

While MAP-21 eliminated congressional earmarks, a new discretionary program, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants was authorized with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. These competitive grants are for capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure, and have provided further funding opportunities for FLH partners and projects. While many of these TIGER grants are for road and bridge projects such as the Beartooth Highway in Wyoming, FLH was asked to assist with a public-private partnership, funding, agreements and oversight of railroad improvements to increase clearance for double-stacked trains along the Heartland train corridor from Ohio to Virginia (1,264 miles). FLH's ability to work multi-State agreements is recognized by many as a means to overcome barriers between states and public-private partnerships to reach agreement and deliver projects faster.

State DOTs now look for FLH delivery especially when federal lands issues, and in some cases even State law, cloud a State's path for delivery. FLH has become directly involved assisting State DOTs and territorial governments with delivery of the Federal-aid program. Agreements with Alaska, Hawaii, Virginia and the Virgin Islands governments allow FLH to assist each DOT directly with either multiple or singular Federal-aid projects. New projects such as the Lahaina Bypass on Maui, the Chickaloon Bridge on Glenn Highway near Anchorage, or Raphune Hill road reconstruction on St. Thomas are examples of FLH's continuing assistance.

Along with the FLTP, the Emergency Relief for Federally-owned Roads (ERFO) Program, Defense Access Road Program, and Federal Agency funded projects further supplement the core program work of FLH. Every year each FLH Division provides assistance and project delivery for major disasters such as the Mt. St. Helen's Eruption in 1980, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, or the US 36 Colorado flood damage in 2013. Since 1983 FLH has assisted the Defense Access Road Program to deliver projects such as the construction of the cross island Saddle Road in Hawaii or the construction of Florida SR 85 Interchange reconstruction into Eglin Air Force Base. Non-traditional partners and diverse projects have offered FLH the opportunity to grow, gain credibility, and experiment with new types of contracting and technology.

The core Program has grown from $300 million in 1983 to more than $1 billion today. This core Program and other non-traditional projects leverage an additional $400 million in funding each year for an annual program of $1.4 billion nationwide. The variety of work has ranged from the tropical beaches of the US Virgin Islands to the glacial mountains of Alaska and to the arid desert of Arizona, from the urban parkways of Washington, DC, to the one-lane timber access roads in a remote Idaho forest.

Today, the Federal Lands Highway Program is an integral part of the overall program of the FHWA. Our long history and expertise have helped shape both past and new programs for the FHWA and the States in understanding the benefits of improving and enhancing transportation facilities for recreational, economic and cultural value such as the Scenic Byways, Historic Bridge and Transportation Enhancement Programs. It continues to serve as a valuable training opportunity for several generations of young engineers who, just out of college, receive practical engineering experience that serves as a stepping stone in their careers. Many of these engineers subsequently move to other positions of higher responsibilities, and attain wide professional recognition for their achievements in specialized aspects of highway engineering.

The FHWA has, for more than 100 years, contributed its highway engineering expertise to the planning, location, design and construction of highways and parkways in the federal domain for other governmental and state agencies. The many beautiful highways and parkways constructed under the Federal Lands Highway Program is a legacy for future generations to enjoy as they serve the transportation systems of our public lands and our Federal and state partners.