55 Years Ago: Echoes of the Past
Fifty-five years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation opened for business on April 1, 1967. USDOT included the new Federal Highway Administration, which had by far the largest budget of $4.4 billion in a department with a total budget of only $6.6 billion. (FHWA traces its origins to October 3, 1893, when the Office of Road Inquiry opened in the Agriculture Department with a budget of $10,000.) Two of the biggest hot topics for FHWA were completing the interstate system and increasing highway safety.
Of the 41,000 miles of interstate freeways authorized at the time, a total of 58 percent, or 23,755 miles, was open to traffic, although only 18,131 miles met full design standards. The struggles over urban freeways were major concerns as protests mounted across the country. Those displaced from homes or businesses objected; minority communities often were divided by the new freeways, leading to criticism. In remarks during April 1967, the first secretary of transportation, Alan S. Boyd (1967-1969), explained that it simply came down to arithmetic. “The pure economics of expressway building force these things through the areas of lowest right-of-way cost, so it is usually the low-income citizens who suffer.”
|The first Secretary of Transportation, Alan S. Boyd, explained that urban Interstate freeways sometimes divided low-income communities because of “pure economics.” Today, USDOT makes it a priority prevent the previous impacts on lower-income and underserved communities around the Nation.|
He and FHWA Administrator Lowell K. Bridwell (1967-1969) saw joint land use as one answer to the disruption. In 1970, for example, FHWA touted the benefits of a basketball court built under the I-95 viaduct in Wilmington, DE. The viaduct divided an African-American community, but the agency looked on the bright side in a press release that began, “The budding basketball star of tomorrow could be a kid who learned how to dribble, pass, and shoot because an interstate highway came through his neighborhood.”
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973 provided a way to resolve the urban controversies via the Interstate Withdrawal-Substitution Program. A mayor and governor, jointly, could ask FHWA to withdraw a segment from the interstate system and receive in return an equivalent amount of money that, as the law was later amended, could be used for highway or transit projects. Under this program, 342 miles of designated interstates were withdrawn from 32 withdrawal areas in 21 States.
As for highway safety, the problem was clear: 51,524 deaths had occurred in 1966, with a fatality rate of 5.55 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Much hope was placed on two safety bills President Lyndon B. Johnson signed on September 9, 1966, that FHWA would administer. The Motor Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act gave USDOT authority for the first time to issue regulations requiring safety changes in motor vehicles. The Highway Safety Act established new highway safety requirements. (In 1970, DOT shifted oversight of the motor vehicle provisions to a new agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.)
Shortly after the signing of the bills, Boyd, then under secretary of commerce for transportation, said during a news conference that, “Because of the long-range nature of the problem, we don’t expect any miracles. This is a long pull that we’re in for.” His prediction proved accurate. Fatalities would reach an all-time high of 55,600 in 1972 (fatality rate of 4.41), but totals would gradually decline despite increases in traffic volumes. In 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic, 36,096 people lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes; in 2020, fatalities increased to an estimated 38,824 lives (a 1.33 fatality rate).
|On September 9, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Motor Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act. President Johnson explained that nearly three times as many Americans had died in traffic accidents as died “in all our wars” of the 20th century.|
Today, 55 years later, USDOT and FHWA have many concerns, but urban freeways and highway safety remain a hot topic. As for the urban freeways that survived the battles underway 55 years ago, USDOT and FHWA are trying to find ways to reconnect the communities they severed. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that President Joseph Biden signed on November 15, 2021, authorized a pilot program that will reconnect as many as 20 communities by removing, retrofitting, or mitigating portions of interstates. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg explained, “if Federal dollars were used to divide a neighborhood or a city, Federal dollars should be used to reconnect it.” He noted that no one solution would work in every case. “But the point is, transportation should always connect, never divide.” The goal was to rebuild connections while addressing each area’s unique transportation needs.
From Secretary Boyd to Secretary Buttigieg, one constant for every U.S. secretary of transportation has been safety, especially highway safety. That concern was brought home forcefully in mid-2022 when NHTSA estimated that 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2021. This estimated number would be a 10.5 percent increase from 2020—the highest number of fatalities since 2005—and the largest annual percentage increase in the history of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.
|Secretary of Transportation Boyd attends the “Pageant of Transportation” on the National Mall when the USDOT opened in 1967. Boyd told a news conference that USDOT would work to make transportation more efficient and more socially responsible.|
Earlier, Secretary Buttigieg said, “We cannot tolerate the continuing crisis of roadway deaths in America. These deaths are preventable.” He launched the National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS) (available at https://www.transportation.gov/NRSS), calling it “a bold, comprehensive plan, with significant new funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”
At the core of the NRSS is the Safe System Approach. The Safe System Approach addresses and mitigates the risks by building and reinforcing multiple layers of protection to prevent crashes from happening in the first place and minimizes the harm caused when those crashes occur. The objectives of the Safe System Approach are: safe, responsible behavior by people; roads that are designed to mitigate human mistakes; expanded vehicle systems to prevent crashes and minimize those that occur; thoughtful, context-appropriate design in setting safer speeds; and expedient access to emergency medical care to enhance the ability to survive crashes.
|A horse-drawn carriage was used to transport officials during the “Pageant of Transportation.”|
Since April 1, 1967, the country has experienced many changes, and we have many more tools now for addressing the challenges USDOT faces. However, the original declaration of purpose in the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 remains valid, namely that, “the general welfare, the economic growth and stability of the Nation and its security require the development of national transportation policies and programs” that provide for a “fast, safe, efficient, and convenient transportation system.”
Richard F. Weingroff is information liaison specialist in FHWA’s Office of Infrastructure and is FHWA’s official historian.
For more information on the Safe System Approach, see the Winter 2022 special issue of Public Roads. https://highways.dot.gov/public-roads/winter-2022
For more information, see https://highways.dot.gov/research/research-programs/exploratory-advanced-research/exploratory-advanced-research-overview or contact Mary Huie, 202-493-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org