The Man Who Changed America, Part I
President Eisenhower's interest in good roads began in 1919 and resulted in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956—but he had to fight for his Grand Plan.
On Inauguration Day, January 20, 1953, after the ceremonies ended, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would have much to do. He would face the immediate problems first, as all Presidents must. But the road-building community, which had been disappointed by President Truman (see "The Man Who Loved Roads," Public Roads, May/June 2002), was optimistic about a new President who had written in a preelection statement to the Hearst Newspapers:
"The obsolescence of the nation's highways presents an appalling problem of waste, danger and death. Next to the manufacture of the most modern implements of war as a guarantee of peace through strength, a network of modern roads is as necessary to defense as it is to our national economy and personal safety.
"We have fallen far behind in this task—until today there is hardly a city of any size without almost hopeless congestion within its boundaries and stalled traffic blocking roads leading beyond these boundaries. A solution can and will be found through the joint planning of the Federal, state and local governments."
The road builders had no idea how justified their optimism would prove to be.
Growing Up in Kansas
Dwight D. ("Ike") Eisenhower was born on October 14, 1890, in Denison, TX, but was raised in Abilene, KS. In The Fifties, David Halberstam described Abilene when Eisenhower was growing up: "His hometown, Abilene, Kansas, was a simple place then. In the center of town there were still hitching posts and watering troughs for the horses that drew the buggies. . . . During Ike's boyhood the town began to change. First there were sidewalks, made of lumber. Hard pavement on the streets came around 1904."
After graduating from West Point, Second Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower's first assignment was at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX. While there, he met Mamie Doud, the daughter of a man who had inherited millions of dollars. To avoid the cold, the Doud family moved from Denver to San Antonio each winter, sending their servants ahead while the family drove to Texas in their newest car. That year, the car was an electric vehicle, a 1,816-kilogram (4,000-pound) Rauch and Lang brougham with plum-colored upholstery and cut-glass flower holders.
On Valentine's Day 1916, Eisenhower proposed to Mamie. They were married on July 1, 1916, in the Douds' Denver home. The Doud family chauffeur drove them to their honeymoon at an Eldorado Springs resort. Mamie's father gave the couple a 1912 Pullman roadster for their everyday needs.
Slow Start to a Military Career
Eisenhower was drawn to the new weaponry that was reshaping modern warfare. In the spring of 1918, he was assigned to Camp Colt in Gettysburg, PA, to establish an armored unit known as the Tank Corps. Given the brevet rank of Major (a promotion to a higher rank without increase of pay), he had to scrounge for most supplies for his 10,000 men, even for a few two-man French Renault tanks.
Biographer Piers Brendon wrote: "These miniature mechanical dinosaurs lumbered over the field where once Union and Confederate troops had clashed so bloodily, where now Ike loved to roam with Mamie (who preferred to stay indoors), appraising the familiar ground with expert eye, and where they were finally to settle into the first home of their own [although not until the 1950s]."
Ike tried to get command of a tank battalion but never quite managed it. After America entered World War I in 1917, his achievements with the Tank Corps were recognized by his advancement to the brevet rank of Lt. Colonel in 1918, but he knew he would soon be demoted to his regular rank of Captain in the peacetime army. He submitted so many applications for European duty that he was reprimanded. Finally, in October 1918, he received orders to go to France to be part of the big spring offensive of 1919. But before Eisenhower even boarded the ship that would take him into battle, the Germans surrendered.
As peace came to Europe, he thought his career had reached a dead end. "I suppose," he told one friend, "we'll spend the rest of our lives explaining why we didn't get into this war."
The Motor Truck Train
It was in a mood of uncertainty and transition that Eisenhower heard about plans for the U.S. Army's Coast-to-Coast Motor Transport Train. The Army planned to include a small Renault tank in the convoy and wanted two tank officers to go along as observers. Eisenhower and his friend, Major Sereno Brett, volunteered. Years later, Eisenhower recalled: "To those who have known only concrete and macadam highways of gentle grades and engineered curves, such a trip might seem humdrum. In those days, we were not sure it could be accomplished at all. Nothing of the sort had ever been attempted."
An interesting trick of history is that many writers who mention the convoy assume Eisenhower was its leader. Typically, he is said to have "taken" the convoy across country. Far from it. The expeditionary commander was Lt. Colonel Charles W. McClure, who had been involved in army transport since 1905, "at which time the transportation system was made up of prairie schooners drawn by mules," according to a contemporary newspaper account. McClure's mission, aside from getting the convoy to San Francisco, was fourfold:
- To support the good roads movement.
- To test the Army's vehicles under field conditions.
- To interest potential drivers and mechanics in applying for motor transport training.
- To demonstrate to the public that the Motor Transport Corps had played a vital role in winning the recent war in Europe.
This latter point was important. The history of the motor vehicle in combat dated only to 1916, when General John J. ("Black Jack") Pershing led an expeditionary force into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, the revolutionary whose guerilla bands had raided New Mexico and Texas, killing 17 Americans. General Pershing failed to capture Villa, but his campaign was the U.S. Army's first to employ cars and trucks in support of combat troops. The experience proved valuable during World War I.
The Lincoln Highway Association had promoted McClure's truck convoy. The association, including many leading auto industry officials, had designated the Lincoln Highway (New York City to San Francisco) in September 1913. The plan was for the convoy to begin in Washington, intersect with the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, and follow it the rest of the way to San Francisco. Thanks to an aggressive publicity campaign, the Lincoln Highway was the country's most famous highway, although it was still unimproved in many areas.
Finding capable drivers and mechanics for the motor corps convoy was a challenge, as Eisenhower discovered during the 1919 cross-country journey. He recalled: "All drivers had claimed lengthy experience in driving trucks; some of them, it turned out, had never handled anything more advanced than a Model T. Most colored the air with expressions in starting and stopping that indicated a longer association with teams of horses than with internal combustion engines."
The convoy—called in contemporary news accounts the "motor truck train"—was launched with ceremonies on the Ellipse in Washington, DC, on July 7, 1919, at the site of the Zero Milestone. Secretary of War Newton Baker told the assembled dignitaries and prominent local citizens: "This is the beginning of a new era." After his remarks, Secretary Baker directed Colonel McClure to "proceed by way of the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco without delay. . . ."
As it turned out, they faced nothing but delay. After all, they would be taking what The Evening Star newspaper of Washington called the "longest and most thoroughly equipped and manned Army motor train ever assembled" on a road that, just a few years earlier, had been described as "an imaginary line, like the equator!"
Along the Lincoln Highway
Having volunteered late, Eisenhower and Brett missed the opening ceremonies. The two joined the convoy in Frederick, MD, where the motor corps was camped at the Frederick Fairgrounds. By then, the convoy had already experienced its first breakdowns. A kitchen trailer broke its coupling, a fan belt broke on one of the staff cars, and one of the trucks had to be towed into camp with a broken magneto. The 74-kilometer (46-mile) trip had taken 7.5 hours.
By the time the convoy reached the third day's stopping point, Bedford, PA, after a ride filled with mechanical problems and delays because of heavy grades, convoy participants realized they faced an unexpected problem on their cross-country trip: enthusiastic crowds accompanied by plentiful speeches. In Bedford, more than 2,000 people were on hand, and the convoy was greeted by a band concert, dancing in the streets, and speeches of greeting. Across the country, the American people would gather at every stop along the Lincoln Highway to thank the soldiers for winning the war, see the strange new vehicles that had made it possible, and offer them food, lodging, and friendship. Altogether, more than 3 million people cheered the convoy.
Everywhere, too, there would be speeches, speeches, and more speeches by Mayors and other dignitaries. In addition, Dr. S. M. Johnson, the tireless good roads advocate who had conceived the idea of the Zero Milestone and helped arrange the convoy, accompanied it west, making good roads speeches from coast to coast.
On July 11, the convoy finally reached the Lincoln Highway at Gettysburg and turned west for San Francisco. Driving across the country (mainly along the road that would become U.S. 30 in 1926, at least through Granger, WY), the convoy would experience frequent mechanical problems, vehicles stuck in mud or crashing through wooden bridges, roads as slippery as ice (25 trucks skidded into a roadside ditch west of North Platte, NE), roads with the consistency of "gumbo" or built on shifting sand, and extremes of weather from desert heat to Rocky Mountain freezing.
A contemporary newspaper account reported: "Heavy rain and Nebraska dirt roads forced the first break in the cross-continent journey of the motor transport corps truck train. . . . The delay has been due entirely to road conditions, the vehicles themselves standing up wonderfully well under the racking work. No stronger commentary upon the necessity of good roads and the lack of them can be made than is given in the story of the Herculean struggles of the train personnel to 'Keep agoin' through mud or quicksand, in which the trucks often [are] buried hub deep."
On September 6, 62 days after leaving Washington, Colonel McClure finally led the convoy into San Francisco. Two destroyers escorted the ferryboats that conveyed the convoy across the bay from Oakland to San Francisco. The vehicles drove gaily decorated streets between cheering lines of people to Lincoln Park, the terminus of the Lincoln Highway. The Lincoln Highway Association presented the men with special medals for their exploits, but what Eisenhower later recalled was, "On the last day, the speeches ran on and on."
After the Speeches
On November 3, 1919, Eisenhower filed his 6-page "Report on the Trans-Continental Trip." After summarizing road conditions in each State (California's were "excellent paved ones," his best summary among the States), he reported that the Army trucks operated well on smooth, level roads, but would have practically no value as cargo carriers "on rough roads, sandy ones, or on steep grades." In some places, he said, the convoy moved so slowly that "portions of the train did not move for two hours."
Even some of the good roads were deficient because the pavement was too narrow, causing many vehicles to ride partly off the road. In many places, excellent roads had been built some years ago and "since received no attention whatever." He explained, "In such cases it seems evident that a very small amount of money spent at the proper time would have kept the road in good condition."
His insights were not unique. As Eisenhower would later recall, "Every officer on the convoy had recommended in his report that efforts should be made to get our people interested in producing better roads."
Although the 1919 convoy shaped Eisenhower's views, his perspective would be supplemented years later by his observations of the German autobahn network of freeways.
Construction of the first segment of the autobahn began in 1929 and was dedicated on August 6, 1932. When Adolph Hitler assumed power as Chancellor of the Third Reich in 1933, he took over the program, claiming it for his own. The 23-kilometer (14-mile) expressway between Frankfurt and Darmstadt, which opened on May 19, 1935, was the first section completed under Hitler. By December 1941, when wartime needs brought construction to a halt, Germany had completed 3,864 kilometers (2,400 miles), with another 2,496 kilometers (1,550 miles) under construction.
From the outset of World War II in Europe, the autobahn proved to be a key asset to Germany. The German blitzkrieg ("lightning war"), which involved massive coordinated air and ground attacks to stun opponents, was a key to the German defeat of Poland in 1939 and Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in 1940; and the advance to within 480 kilometers (300 miles) of Moscow in 1941. The highway network also enhanced Germany's ability to fight on two fronts—Europe in the west, the Soviet Union in the east.
Germany, despite these early advantages, had initiated the war before it had the industrial base to support its military over time. Once the United States entered the war in December 1941, the German deficiency was accentuated because America had the industrial base to create what historian David P. Colley calls "the world's most highly mobile and mechanized force." The "secret weapon," as Colley called it, was the truck. America produced 3 million trucks or truck-type vehicles for the war. With the French rail network devastated by air attacks prior to the allied D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, the trucks, often operated by African-American troops of the "Red Ball Express," were the key to supplying the troops as they advanced through the French countryside.
By the time the Allied forces reached Germany, they could take full advantage of the autobahn. E. F. Koch, a U.S. Public Roads Administration (PRA) employee, observed the autobahn in 1944-45 as a highway and bridge engineer with the Ninth Army. He and his engineering unit spent the unusually cold winter maintaining roads in Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands that, after the pounding of military vehicles and the thaw in early 1945, were in terrible shape. Conditions changed when they reached Germany in early 1945. "After crossing the Rhine and getting into the areas of Germany served by the Autobahn . . . our maintenance difficulties were over. Nearly all through traffic used the Autobahn and no maintenance on that system was required."
As the Allies pursued the German forces across Germany, the autobahn proved invaluable, especially to the supply trucks racing behind the troops. The supply units and their vehicles, which had been run ragged in France, strained to keep up. Colley quotes Corporal Edwin Brice of the 3909th Quartermaster Truck Company (I Company) who observed on March 26, 1945, that the unit's trucks had "taken an awful beating across France," but added that "victory depends on our success in keeping troops and supplies up where they are needed. If a truck or a driver can move he or it is needed."
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Eisenhower was the military head of occupied Germany. Writer Phil Patton pointed out in Open Road that in this capacity, "Eisenhower oversaw the 'debriefing" of the Reich, the creation of a series of reports that include close study of the Autobahns."
Like so many American highway engineers and government officials who had visited Germany during the 1930s, Eisenhower had been impressed by the autobahn. Years later, he would explain that "after seeing the autobahns of modern Germany and knowing the asset those highways were to the Germans, I decided, as President, to put an emphasis on this kind of road building. ... The old  convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land."
Roads on the Back Burner
Although Ike's predecessor, President Harry S. Truman, had been a road builder as a young man and a long-time member of the American Road Builders Association (ARBA), he made little progress in improving roads after the war. The economy, strikes in key sectors, the housing shortage, the emergence of the Cold War, the Korean War—these and a dozen other concerns had kept him from advancing the cause of good roads that had been part of his life for so many years. And very little progress had been made on the Interstate System, and none of it due to his efforts.
The final highway bill of the Truman years was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952. In response to the President's efforts to restrain inflation during the Korean War, the Act had authorized only a token $25 million for the Interstate System (an ARBA official, Lt. General Eugene Reybold, referred to it as "sadly inadequate").
Part of the problem was a lack of consensus. The Nation's Governors and many State highway agencies had long worked to get the Federal Government out of the road-building business. This split was reemphasized shortly after President Truman signed the 1952 Act on June 25. Five days later, the 44th Annual Governors Conference opened in Houston, TX. For reporters, the Governors' views on the potential candidates for the 1952 presidential election were the headline news items. Still, for the 45 Governors in attendance, their resentment of "Big Washington" was a long simmering story of great internal interest.
The Governors pulled no punches in expressing their dislike for the dozens of "Federal-aid" programs and the strings that came with them. In particular, they demanded that Washington get out of the Federal-aid road-building business—the biggest of the Federal-aid programs—and relinquish Federal taxes on automotive equipment and fuels. The States then could increase their own taxes an equivalent amount without adding to the burden on taxpayers.
Governor Walter Kohler, Jr., of Wisconsin said: "In its tax philosophy, the Federal Government has become a voracious monster, overlooking nothing in its insatiable hunger for greater revenue. We in Wisconsin are, frankly, sick to death of Federal interference in the administration of programs which should be, and have traditionally been, the responsibility of the States."
Governor Val Peterson of Nebraska, the conference chairman, put it in plain English: "How many Governors would oppose a resolution telling the Federal Government to get the hell out of the road-building business?"
Eisenhower, before and after the election, agreed with those who thought Washington had encroached too much on State sovereignty during the Presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) and Truman (1945-1953). However, the lessons he learned in 1919 on the Army convoy and during World War II had given him a different perspective.
As President Eisenhower began his first term in January 1953, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) reported that a total of 10,331 kilometers (6,417 miles) of "Interstate System improvements" had been completed since the war at a cost of $954.7 million (Federal share: $489 million). These improvements primarily involved upgrading the existing road in the interstate corridor, not construction of a highway on new alignment, as would be common after 1956. In an understatement, the BPR's annual report observed: "A much more rapid rate of construction is required if the 37,800-mile system [the amount designated to that point] is to be made adequate within a reasonable period of years."
Much to the disappointment of the highway community, roads would have to wait, just as they had been put on hold during the Truman Administration. Many other issues concerned the new President, not the least of which was ending the Korean War. When that took place on July 26, 1953, the inevitable post-war disruption of the economy followed, along with initiatives to reshape foreign policy.
While the President addressed these and a dozen other issues that needed his immediate attention, the Federal-aid highway program was not due for reauthorization until 1954. As a result, 1953 was a year for advocates on both sides of the Federal-aid program to build their cases.
The Governors wasted no time. Governor Kohler and Governor Dan Thornton of Colorado visited the new President at the White House the day after his Inauguration. After a tour of the White House and a lunch of fried chicken, the Governors raised several subjects with the President, including conflicts between Federal and State taxes on such products as gasoline, incomes, and automobiles. Governor Thornton suggested that the Federal Government get out of these fields of taxation, which he said traditionally belonged to the States.
A month later, on February 20, the Governors' Conference Committee on Intergovernmental Relations and Tax and Fiscal Policy issued a report in support of changing the fiscal balance. One proposal was to discontinue the Federal-aid highway program and drop the 2-cent Federal gas tax while making special provision for States with large public lands and sparse populations. With the end of the Federal-aid highway program, the report stated, efficiency would be enhanced by eliminating "the administrative duplication which now is part of the Federal Highway Act." Given the skill of State highway engineers, "standards and specifications for road construction and maintenance will be kept at a high level." As for the loss of the BPR's ability to coordinate across State lines, neighboring States could form compacts "to consult and plan highway programs affecting their regions."
A New Leader
While the Hearst Newspapers continued an aggressive campaign in support of highways and the road-building industry conducted an extensive public education initiative called Project Adequate Roads, the Subcommittee on Roads of the House Committee on Public Roads held extensive hearings in April and May 1953 on National Highway Needs. The witnesses—a diverse range of representatives from all levels of government, urban and rural interests, highway industry associations, and transit and railroad companies—were asked to address 12 issues, beginning with the Governors' call for the Federal Government to relinquish the gas tax to the States and curtail the BPR. Other issues included increased funds for the Interstate System, the effects of bypasses on urban areas, and coordination of Federal agency road building.
One of the initial witnesses was the Commissioner of the BPR, but for the first time since 1919, the Commissioner was not Thomas H. MacDonald. After reaching the mandatory government retirement age of 70 in 1951, he had been kept on by President Truman to maintain stability during the Korean War. With a new President in office, MacDonald intended to retire that summer but was fired on March 31, 1953.
He stayed in Washington only 1 more day. On April 1, he watched as Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks administered the oath of office to the new Commissioner of Public Roads, Francis V. du Pont. MacDonald then took a train for College Station, TX, where he would work part time to help Texas A&M University and the Texas Highway Department develop what is now called the Texas Transportation Institute.
An heir to the du Pont fortune, Francis du Pont did not need the job, but highways had been what he called "my favorite lifelong hobby." He had been a member of the Delaware State Highway Commission from 1922 to 1949, including 23 years as chairman, and had played a major role in planning the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the longest suspension span in the world when it opened in 1951. When asked why he had come out of retirement to take the post of BPR Commissioner, du Pont replied, "I can assure you I'm not in it to make a living. I don't even know what the job pays." (It was $16,000 a year.)
With his financial and political connections, du Pont would prove to be a better fit with the new Administration than MacDonald, who had dominated highway policy for decades by building coalitions with State and industry officials and maintaining close relations on Capitol Hill while serving under Democratic and Republican Presidents. Du Pont established a close relationship with President Eisenhower and often had a behind-the-scenes influence on the President's views. Although du Pont resigned in January 1955, he continued through early 1956 as a consultant to the Secretary of Commerce in support of the President's highway program. His successor as Commissioner, career BPR employee C. D. ("Cap") Curtiss, would represent the agency through the critical years of 1955-56.
The House subcommittee hearings revealed a wide range of views on the key questions, but as Chairman J. Harry McGregor (R-OH) would tell the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) during its annual meeting in November, "Nearly every witness spoke at length on the urgent need for an increased rate of highway improvement." As for those who wanted the Federal Government to abandon the highway field, he had seen no evidence that would convince him. He said of the Federal-aid highway program, that, with all its faults, "it has given us a system of surface transportation unequaled, or even approached, anywhere else in the world."
As the President's first year in office, 1953, ended, many groups had taken up the call for Federal withdrawal from automotive excise taxes, including the American Automobile Association, the American Trucking Associations, and the National Automobile Dealers Association. At the same time, the idea of linking revenue from the tax to expenditures for the Federal-aid highway program was gaining support. After all, as many State highway officials knew, there was no guarantee that if the Federal Government yielded the gas tax, the States would increase their own taxes by an equivalent amount. That could give greater power to the growing number of toll authorities that operated separately from the State highway agencies. Linkage, as historian Mark Rose pointed out, "offered financial security and vastly expanded opportunities to build roads."
The President Takes the Initiative
By the time President Eisenhower delivered his State of the Union Address on January 7, 1954, he could report, "Much for which we may be thankful has happened during the past year." The Korean War had ended. Prosperity had returned. Now, his goal was "the building of a stronger America." As for the debate over highways, he made his position clear: "To protect the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system, the Federal Government is continuing its central role in the Federal Aid Highway Program. So that maximum progress can be made to overcome present inadequacies in the Interstate Highway System, we must continue the Federal gasoline tax at two cents per gallon. This will require cancellation of the 1/2 cent decrease which otherwise will become effective April 1st, and will maintain revenues so that an expanded highway program can be undertaken."
In the coming weeks, he would call for continuing the Federal-aid highway program at a level of $575 million per year while proposals were considered for "eliminating the existing inadequacies of the national system of interstate highways."
On February 17, he addressed the 2,500 delegates to the White House Conference on Highway Safety. He looked to the future by noting that in 1975, 80 million automobiles would operate on the Nation's roads. "Now the Federal Government is going to do its part in helping to build more highways and many other facilities to take care of those cars." He added: "It is going to be a job. But that figure does mean this: we don't want to try to stop that many automobiles coming . . . we want them. They mean progress for our country. They mean greater convenience for a greater number of people, greater happiness, and greater standards of living."
What became clear in early 1954 was that Congress was in no mood to abolish the BPR or the Federal-aid highway program. As the chairman of the Committee on Public Works, George A. Dondero (R-MI), said, "To abolish the Bureau would result in chaos and confusion. There would be no coordinating agency to integrate the highway programs of the several States."
Given the extensive hearings in 1953, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954 generated little controversy. One controversial issue was a House proposal to increase funding for the Interstate System to $200 million per year on a 60-40 matching basis. The President's Bureau of the Budget (BOB) objected because increasing the Federal share should result in less highway construction than if the matching ratio were the traditional 50-50. The final bill, approved by Congress on April 14, set aside $175 million for the Interstate System on a 60-40 matching ratio, with $700 million for the remaining Federal-aid program.
On May 6 at the White House, surrounded by the Members of Congress who had crafted the bill, the President signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954. As he signed the bill, he handed out as souvenirs the pens he used for portions of his name. Finally, he exclaimed, "By golly, that's about all the pens I can use unless I use one for a period." In all, he used seven pens, the final one for that period. In his statement, the President said the new law was "one effective forward step" in meeting the Nation's "tremendous highway needs." He was pleased that the law retained the Federal-State partnership, with the States having primary responsibility for highway construction.
Still, although the $2 billion authorized by the new law was the largest 2-year sum ever provided for the Federal-aid highway program, he added, "the needs are so great that continued efforts to modernize and improve our obsolescent highway system are mandatory." In addition, he took time to mention one other important point, the linkage between gas tax receipts and highway expenditures: "The public will welcome, I am sure, the fact that funds equivalent to revenue from Federal gasoline taxes will now be used entirely for the improvement of the nation's highways."
Behind the scenes, the President was frustrated by bickering among his advisors about how to finance and construct the Interstate System. In April, he told his staff he wanted a "dramatic" plan to get $50 billion worth of "self-liquidating highways" under construction (i.e., highways that would be financed without adding to the national debt). He saw the program as an economic tool in the event of a downturn in the economy. As biographer Stephen Ambrose pointed out, Eisenhower told his staff he did not want to "get tagged like [Depression-era President Herbert] Hoover did, unjustly, [for] not doing anything to help in economic bad times."
The Grand Plan
The President decided to go public on July 12 at the Governor's Conference at Lake George in New York where he planned to announce a "Grand Plan" for highway development. Because of the death of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Milton S. Eisenhower, the President could not deliver the Grand Plan speech to the Governors' Conference. While he attended the funeral, he asked Vice President Richard M. Nixon to deliver the address on the Grand Plan.
The evening of July 12, Vice President Richard M. Nixon addressed the Governors from notes provided by the President. Nixon explained that the President's basic premise was simple: "Our highway net is inadequate locally, and obsolete as a national system."
The problems were many. Because "the increase in mileage has lagged behind the increase in vehicles," the road system was inadequate for "an age of transcontinental travel." The result was a series of consequences:
- An annual death toll approaching 40,000 ("comparable to the casualties of a bloody war").
- Economic loss in the billions from detours and traffic jams.
- Civil suits clogging our courts.
- The efficiency in the production of goods nullified by the inefficiency of transport.
- The "appalling inadequacies to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come."
To correct these problems, the President foresaw a need for a $50 billion program to achieve "the highway net as it should be." It must have four elements, the first of which was: " a grand plan for a properly articulated system that solves the problems of speedy, safe, transcontinental travel—intercity communication—access highways—and farm-to-market movement—metropolitan area congestion—bottlenecks—and parking."
In addition, it must have a financial plan based on self-liquidation by tolls or increased gas tax revenue, a cooperative Federal-State alliance, and a Federal program to help the States modernize their highway systems.
Nixon then said: "I would like to read to you the last sentence from the President's notes, exactly as it appears in them, because it is an exhortation to the members of this Conference.
"Quote, 'I hope that you will study the matter, and recommend to me the cooperative action you think the Federal government and the 48 States should take to meet these requirements, so that I can submit positive proposals to the next session of the Congress.'"
Observers said the speech "electrified" the Governors, but not necessarily in a positive way. President Eisenhower had made up his mind to deliver the speech and acted on his decision so quickly that his staff had no time to do the standard advance work. Had they done so, they would have found that in announcing the Grand Plan, he was going against the tide of thinking among the Governors. The impact was all the more stunning because the Governors, expecting a friendly, informal speech in praise of the Governors Conference and the important work of the Governors, had no warning that the President intended to challenge them on a subject they were on record, time and again, as opposing.
Even as President Eisenhower's Grand Plan speech was about to be presented, the Governors were considering a resolution asking the Federal Government to stop collecting the Federal gas tax so the States could pick up the revenue. The Governors had approved the idea year after year, with no effect, but many of them wanted to try again with a Republican Administration that they thought was sympathetic to reducing Federal programs.
As a result, some Governors were beside themselves with frustration. The day after the Grand Plan speech, Republican Governor John S. Fine of Pennsylvania, expressed this view: "[We should not be] lulled asleep by any sedatives, such as we will be managers in our own areas, nor by flattering remarks. We want the Federal Government to get out of the gasoline and fuel oil tax field for once and for all and now is the time to do it before we embark on any large-scale highway program such as the President has suggested."
Governor Fine felt that "a cloud" had been placed on the States by the President's criticism of the Nation's highway systems as obsolete. "We want to continue unimpeded by any Federal system."
In addition to being outraged, many Governors were confused as they wondered what the President was actually proposing. Was it $50 billion total or $50 billion in addition to the current program? Governor Fine introduced a resolution calling, again, for the end of the Federal gas tax and integration of the Federal-aid program into the State highway programs. The vote was scheduled for July 14.
One commentator, columnist Doris Fleeson, summed up, "This curious political reaction stems from the incredible clumsiness and self-assurance with which the White House handled the proposal."
During the speech, former New Hampshire Governor Sherman Adams had sensed the problem. As Governor, he had voted against the Federal gas tax, but he was now the President's top aide. To counter the reaction, he had spoken with Governor Thornton shortly after the Vice President's speech and called the Governor the next morning with clarification. "Governor Adams," Thornton reported, "told me personally to tell this group of Governors that the President's entire idea is to improve our highway system with the full cooperation of the States, regardless of the final plan adopted.
. . . In effect, he is asking the Governors of this conference what they want. The problem has been given us. The President would like to know our solution."
By July 14, the Governors' opposition to the President's proposal had begun to diminish.
Several Governors said they thought the proposal had been misconstrued. In their view, the proposal meant no interference with State functions, but rather a willingness to use Federal credit to help build toll roads if necessary. Maryland's Republican Governor Theodore R. McKeldin accused the Governors of "buck fever." He noted that on June 11, the Council of State Governments had issued a statement on highway needs. "One month and two days later President Eisenhower adopted our council's report in a speech to us. Is that a cause for the jumping jitters that swept these tables yesterday?"
Governor Fine had introduced a resolution of disapproval, but now it was revamped. The resolution approved on July 14 declared that the Governors' Conference was "highly pleased by the President's willingness and determination to work with the states on this important problem."
The resolution directed the executive committee to work with AASHO to study the status of road problems and the position of the States on highways. In addition, the resolution suggested a meeting of the Governors later in the year to discuss the subject with appropriate officials.
A historian of the Governors' Conference, Glenn E. Brooks, explained that the change in attitude was at least in part because "the figure of $50 billion over a period of ten years stirred the thinking of every governor present." He added, "The sturdy principles of states' primacy had been visibly shaken by the proposal."
Unlike the Governors, the Nation's road builders had no such qualms about the speech. Lt. General Reybold of ARBA summarized their views: "President Eisenhower, in a bold stroke, has blown the lid off any milktoast, piecemeal planning. . . . There is no longer room for timidity in road building plans."
Philosophically, President Eisenhower agreed with the States that the balance had shifted in the wrong direction since President Roosevelt took office in 1933, but when it came to the Interstate System and the Federal-aid highway program, he was convinced that the Federal Government must play a major role. And he was going to ensure that it would. To do that, he called on an old friend.
The Clay Committee
While asking the Governors for their ideas, the President launched his own initiative to review options. At the suggestion of Chairman Arthur F. Burns of the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), the President established two committees. First was an Interagency Committee of representatives from the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and the Treasury as well as the Budget Bureau and the CEA. Commissioner du Pont was chairman. The Interagency Committee would work within the Administration to consider the economic requirements for a national road program and submit recommendations to the second committee.
The second committee, known formally as the President's Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program, was to work with the Governors and the Interagency Committee to develop a plan for submission to Congress. When Sherman Adams asked who should serve on the committee, the President said, "Call General Clay."
President Eisenhower chose retired General Lucius D. Clay, a trusted advisor, to head the Advisory Committee to develop a finance plan in cooperation with the Governors. As members, Clay selected Steve Bechtel of Bechtel Corporation, Sloan Colt of Bankers' Trust Company, Bill Roberts of Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company, and Dave Beck of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He chose them because, he said, "They knew what the highway system was all about."
That may have been so, but they were short on highway construction experience. The gap was filled by the BPR's Francis ("Frank") C. Turner, who became the Advisory Committee's executive secretary. Having begun his career with the BPR in 1929 a few days after graduating from Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Texas A&M University), Turner was an expert in highway construction and finance. He would work as a liaison with the BPR to satisfy the Advisory Committee's need for information about the Nation's roads.
The Advisory Committee held hearings and gathered data, but the Governors, in keeping with the President's wishes, had an enormous influence on the end product. Because the goal was to find a way to expand a program they wanted to abolish, they cooperated only reluctantly. Their reluctance gave them some leverage with the Advisory Committee. They were willing to sign off on a plan only if it imposed no additional expenses on the States in the form of matching funds.
General Lucius D. Clay
When President Eisenhower was ready in 1954 to begin work on the Interstate System, he turned to his chief aide, Sherman Adams, and said, "Call General Clay."
In 1933, Clay had been assigned to a post in Washington organizing and managing New Deal public works projects. Having spent considerable time in the Nation's capital while his father, Alexander Clay, represented Georgia in the U.S. Senate (1886-1910), Clay was skilled in working with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Dealers and Members of Congress. In 1937, he was transferred to the Philippines, where he worked with General Douglas MacArthur and his chief of Staff, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Clay would become a friend and close advisor to the future President.
At the start of World War II, Clay was transferred back to Washington to manage the urgent construction of 500 airfields. His work earned him a promotion to Brigadier General and a new assignment, chief of procurement for the U.S. Army. In that post, he earned the respect of official Washington.
Given General Clay's ability to manage resources, workers, and industrial production, General Eisenhower chose him to serve as Deputy Governor (1945-1947) of Germany and Governor (1947 to 1949). In 1948, Clay began the Berlin Airlift of food and fuel that broke a Soviet blockade of the western sector of the city. To the residents of Berlin, he became their hero—their Pater Urbis (City Father).
After retiring in May 1949, Clay returned to the United States and became one of Dwight D. Eisenhower's most trusted unofficial advisors. Clay was influential in convincing Eisenhower to seek the presidency in 1952 and, after the election, shared the main responsibility for picking the Cabinet with Herbert Brownell.
Given this background—training as an engineer, administrative and political skills, and trusted advisor—General Clay was a logical choice to oversee the proposal for a program that President Eisenhower considered one of his highest priorities. Although the financing plan developed by General Clay's Committee was not adopted by Congress, his report on highway needs provided valuable documentation in support of the need for better roads and launched the debate in Congress that led to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
The Off-Year Elections
While the two committees were at work, President Eisenhower was watching closely the off-year election campaigns of all House members and one-third of the Senators. The Republicans hoped to retain their slim majority in both Houses that enabled them to control Congress. The President was hesitant to campaign. He believed a President should be seen as President of all the people, not one party; he'd been shocked by the way President Truman barnstormed for a Democratic Congress. At 64, the President also felt he had to preserve his energy for more promising activities. He believed that most presidential efforts in off-year elections were ineffective.
By October, with polls indicating the Democratic Party's prospects were improving, the President changed his mind. He traveled more than 10,000 miles in October and delivered nearly 40 speeches to try to salvage Republican control of Congress. As he traveled the country, he often referred to the need for "a vast new highway program," as he called it on October 8 at a Republican Precinct Rally in Denver. On October 29, in Detroit, he commented on the growth of the auto industry, adding that, "We are pushing ahead with a great road program, a road program that will take this Nation out of its antiquated shackles of secondary roads all over this country and give us the types of highways that we need for this great mass of motor vehicles."
Throughout his October speeches, Eisenhower periodically returned to a traffic image to explain the "innumerable obstacles to steady progress" if Democrats controlled Congress while a Republican was in the White House. His remarks at the Eisenhower Day Dinner in Washington on October 28 were typical: "For the good of America, our governmental traffic must be efficiently handled. We won't get anywhere with red lights at all the governmental crossroads. Add to this, two drivers at every governmental steering wheel, each trying to go in a different direction, and we shall certainly end up in a hopeless traffic jam."
Despite the President's efforts, the Nation's voters favored the traffic jam he had warned them about. The Republicans lost 17 seats in the House and 2 in the Senate, giving the Democrats control of both chambers. For the President's Grand Plan, this meant the public works committees and the roads subcommittees would be chaired by Democratic leaders who might have their own ideas about the shape of the future highway program.
The Clay Report
The Clay Committee's report, A Ten-year National Highway Program, was ready in December. Based on input from the Interagency Committee and the BPR, the report estimated construction needs on all highway systems at $101 billion. The Federal Government should assume responsibility for 30 percent of the needs, with State and other levels of government picking up the balance. Based on BPR data, the report estimated that the Interstate System would cost $23 billion for the rural segments; Clay added $4 billion for "urban area feeder roads connecting the expressways" for a total cost of $27 billion. Federal funds totaling $2.5 billion a year were to be made available for 10 years to complete Interstate construction—covering about 90 percent of the estimated cost. As the Governors had wanted, the Clay Committee kept the States' share of Interstate highway construction costs at the same level as needed to match the $175 million authorized for the system by the 1954 Act, a 10-year total of $2 billion.
The committee also addressed one of the most controversial issues, namely whether to compensate States that built toll or toll-free Interstate highways without Federal funds before the program got underway. The report recommended a funding credit, with the fund to be used to improve other types of roads. Clay believed that the same idea should be applied where the States had constructed sections of the Interstate System to desirable standards.
The Federal Government would establish a Federal Highway Corporation that would issue bonds to pay the Federal share of the Interstate System. Revenue from the gas tax would be dedicated to repaying the bonds and continuing the other elements of the Federal-aid highway program at existing levels. Because receipts from the gas tax would increase as traffic grew, no increase in the tax would be needed for the Interstate System or the remaining Federal-aid program.
Unveiling the President's Proposal
In the State of the Union Address on January 6, 1955, President Eisenhower made clear that he planned to move forward with his highway program. With national prosperity continuing, he said he would be issuing several messages on major programs. One would concern highways, namely the need for "a modern, efficient highway system," which he indicated "is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security."
He planned to release the Clay Committee's plan on January 27, but his advisors, some of whom favored Federal construction of toll roads, were divided on the plan. The CEA wanted greater control of tax, toll, and bond rates to allow for management of the economy. Treasury Secretary George Humphrey wanted a clear link between gas tax receipts and the finance corporation, while the BOB wanted any profits from tolls to go to the Treasury Department.
Even the President had one reservation. In a January 11 meeting with Clay, the President expressed "tremendous enthusiasm," but asked why the committee had recommended gas taxes to repay the bonds instead of tolls, which the President personally favored. When Clay explained that tolls would work only in the heavily populated sections of the East and West Coasts, Eisenhower accepted the explanation. Overall, though, he thought the plan was consistent with his own interest in being able to regulate the economy. He wrote to Clay on January 26 that the program would give the government the ability to avoid the "peak and valley experience" and "many serious and even unnecessary difficulties."
January 27 came and went, however, with the internal debate unresolved until a high-level meeting took place on February 1, with Sherman Adams representing the President. After the dissenting views were considered, Adams agreed with General Clay and the matter was resolved.
President Eisenhower, in late January and early February, was preoccupied with the Formosa Straits crisis that erupted when the People's Republic of China appeared ready to cross the straits and attack Chinese Nationalists on Formosa (now called Taiwan) over control of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Formosa was a major crisis, as illustrated by biographer Ambrose's observation that "the United States in early 1955 came closer to using atomic weapons than at any other time in the Eisenhower Administration."
Although the crisis would not abate until April, the President found time to promote his highway program. In his mind, the two were linked. He worried about evacuating Washington and other cities in the event of a nuclear attack. He knew the present roads were inadequate for that purpose.
On February 16, he invited Clay to the White House to brief several senior Republican Members of Congress. Although Clay conducted the briefing, the President stressed what he considered to be the important points: "With our roads inadequate to handle an expanding industry, the result will be inflation and a disrupted economy." Recently built airports were already obsolete, he said, and "we cannot let that happen on our roads." Senator H. Styles Bridges (R-NH), however, warned the President and Clay that he was already hearing complaints from other Members about one element of the Clay Committee's plan, namely "windfalls" from reimbursements to States for roads already built.
On February 21, the President met with Democratic leaders of the Senate and House public works committees. He explained that with 60 million vehicles soon jamming the Nation's roads, "we will have to build up our highways to meet that traffic." Clay's 10-year plan was "essential for national defense" and was, in short, "good for America." Again, the Members raised concerns. Senator Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN), the new chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads, criticized the spending of $11 billion for interest on the bonds. He argued, simply, "That money should be spent on roads."
Finally, on February 22, the President transmitted the Clay Committee's report to Congress. His message began with an oft-quoted summary of the President's views:
"Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods. The ceaseless flow of information throughout the Republic is matched by individual and commercial movement over a vast system of interconnected highways crisscrossing the country and joining at our national borders with friendly neighbors to the north and south.
"Together, the united forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear—United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts."
Of all the Nation's road needs, the Interstate System was at the top, he said: "Of all these, the interstate system must be given top priority in construction planning. But at the current rate of development, the interstate network would not reach even a reasonable level of extent and efficiency in half a century."
Congress Rejects the Plan
In Congress, no one questioned the need for the Interstate System. The problem was figuring out how to pay for it. All the interests that supported the concept and would benefit from it had one thing in common: no one wanted to pay.
Senator Harry Flood Byrd (D-VA), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, had denounced the Clay Committee's plan even before it was submitted. Byrd had been a lifelong highway booster, but he was also a lifelong pay-as-you-go man, which meant using tax revenue, not bonds, to build highways. As his biographers have demonstrated, he had a nearly pathological hatred of debt, whether personal or public. His opposition to the Clay Committee's bond plan, which would have to pass Byrd's committee, was predictable.
Other congressional leaders shared Byrd's objections. The Senate rejected the Clay Committee plan, mainly because of objections to the financing method. The $11 billion in tax revenue needed to pay bondholders would not generate a single mile of highway. The Senate passed Senator Gore's bill, which authorized 5 years of funding for the Interstate and other Federal-aid programs, but offered no plan for paying for it. Tax measures, under the Constitution, must originate in the House of Representatives. The Gore bill also proposed to add 4,025 kilometers (2,500 miles) to the Interstate System, again without any means of paying for construction.
As in the Senate, support for the Interstate System was widespread in the House. However, questions about funding were unresolved, with lobbyists from the highway interest groups fighting any proposal that would cause their members a perceived harm. On July 27, 1955, the House turned down a series of bills, including the President's bill, aimed at getting the Interstate Highway Program started and authorizing funds for the standard Federal-aid highway program.
The defeat was expected. With those bills out of the way, the House was expected to approve the bill developed by the chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads, Representative George Fallon (D-MD). Fallon's bill, which had been drafted with help from data supplied by the BPR's Frank Turner, called for financing the Interstate System by graduated tax increases, including a penny hike in the 2-cent Federal gas tax and another half-cent in 1970, as well as graduated tax increases on automobiles, trucks, and tires. In this way, the Interstate System could be completed in 12 years. The bill also amended the formal name of the Interstate System; it would now be called the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways."
In what was widely acknowledged as one of the session's biggest upsets, the Fallon bill was defeated by a vote of 292 to 123, with many Democrats deserting their party. By the time Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (D-TX) realized he could not deliver the Democratic votes for the bill, it was too late to switch tactics to secure a victory. The Republican White House had decided that the Fallon Bill was better than none at all. But when Sherman Adams communicated the eleventh-hour decision to Congressman De Witt Hyde (R-MD), the Republicans already were voting the bill down.
In the end, even strong supporters of the highway program had urged Congress to turn down the Fallon Bill because of the tax increases. The New York Times observed that the trucking, gasoline, and tire industries "have been most active in buttonholing legislators and inspiring telegrams and letters against the proposed tax rises." Members of Congress had received an estimated 100,000 telegrams from truckers, with Chairman Fallon receiving 10,000 of them. American Trucking Associations President Neil Curry acknowledged trucking industry concerns but denied the industry was unwilling to pay for the new roads. "What we object to is the attempt that was made to saddle special taxes running as high as $1,200 in additional taxes on some trucks."
The next day, July 28, President Eisenhower expressed his disappointment in the House action: "The nation badly needs new highways. . . . I would devoutly hope that the Congress would reconsider this entire matter before terminating this session."
It was too late. In response, Speaker Rayburn declared, "There is no chance of getting a bill up this session—none whatever." Representative Dondero, a reluctant cosponsor of the President's bill, was equally pessimistic. "If I had to bet on it, I wouldn't use my own money."
Congress adjourned on August 2 without returning to the issue. Alfred Johnson, AASHO's executive secretary, advised members of the organization: "Big league politics were being played in a road bill for the first time, but it's the first time the road bill had gotten big also."
In the White House, advisors suggested that the President call for a special session of Congress on the road bill. In Mandate for Change: 1953-1956, Eisenhower repeated his answer: "'Well,' I said, somewhat ruefully, 'the special session might be necessary—but calling it could be at the cost of the sanity of one man named Eisenhower.' There was no sense in spending money to call them back when I knew in advance that the result would be zero."
As The New York Herald-Tribune commented, "It would be funny if we didn't need the roads so badly."
Following the Defeat
In September 1955, the BPR announced the final designations for the National System of Interstate Highways, as it was still officially known, by releasing a copy of General Location of National System of Interstate Highways, which became known as "The Yellow Book" because of the color of its cover. A copy of "The Yellow Book" was provided to every Member of Congress.
The designations included the remaining urban 3,542 kilometers (2,200 miles), identified from requests submitted by nearly 40 States for 5,635 kilometers (3,500 miles). The report contained a map of the Interstate System as designated in August 1947 plus individual maps of 100 urban areas showing where the designated Interstate mileage would be located.
Historian Gary T. Schwartz summarized the urban maps: "For the major metropolitan areas, the maps generally display an 'inner belt' encircling all or part of the downtown areas, an 'outer belt' encircling all or part of the entire metropolis, and one or more 'radial' freeways leading outward from the inner belt. In a typical medium metropolitan area, the proposed Interstate splits in two as it approaches the city, one branch going through the city and the other around it, with the two branches then reunited at a point beyond the city. For many smaller cities, the maps show a single freeway 'spur' connecting the city with the Interstate as it sweeps by some distance away."
The same month, at about 1:30 a.m. on September 24, the 65-year-old President suffered a heart attack while vacationing in Fraser, CO. Although his advisors downplayed the illness, it raised questions about whether he would run for reelection in 1956. The October 1 issue of Business Week summarized the reaction: ". . . the shock hit, the GOP gave up, and the Democrats put 1956 in their bag."
On October 1, Sherman Adams flew to Denver and conferred with the President. According to writer Theodore White, ". . . in the first business visit permitted Sherman Adams at President Eisenhower's bedside in Denver, the highway program was one of the chief concerns of the ailing chief executive."
Part II of "The Man Who Changed America," which will appear in the next issue of Public Roads, begins with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.