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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

"Clearly Vicious as a Matter of Policy": The Fight Against Federal-Aid

by Richard F. Weingroff

The role of the Federal Government in highway building was debated from the earliest days of the Good Roads Movement in the 1880s. In 1916, 1919, and 1921, Congress developed the legislation that established and refined the Federal-aid highway program. Each time, despite pressure to take on the task of building "national highways," Congress adopted the Federal-aid approach of providing funds to the State highway agencies as partners in project development. They would be responsible for selecting and developing projects, subject to Federal oversight.

The fact that the Federal-aid concept remains at the heart of the Federal-aid highway program today does not mean support for the program has been universal or continuous. The program has been under siege many times during its history, with the attacks led by Presidents, Governors, Members of Congress, and State highway/transportation officials.

This article discusses four periods during which the Federal-aid highway program was under attack:

  • Between the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921, the highway community and Federal and State officials debated whether the Federal Government should build the roads the Nation needed.
  • In the 1920s, the program was under pressure to downsize in favor of the States.
  • With the States seeking all the aid they could get in the 1930s, the issue was how much control the President should have over government expenditures for highway improvements as he attempted to revitalize and fine tune the economy.
  • In the early 1950s, the States sought to regain the control they thought they had lost in the Federal-aid bargain struck in 1916.

Each time, the debates ended with the Federal-aid highway program intact, but it was a close call in each case.