USA Banner

Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

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

Public Roads - May/June 1998

Message from Dr. Thomas D. Larson

by Dr. Thomas D. Larson, Federal Highway Administrator, 1989-1993

Message from Dr. Thomas D. Larson

Federal Highway Administrator, 1989-1993

When he was the federal highway administrator, Dr. Larson initiated the discussion that led to the recent changes in the scope of Public Roads.

Everything wants reinventing these days - government, business, recreation, even society itself. But if I had had access to Tom Lewis's new book, "The Divided Highway," my drive to change - to reinvent - FHWA might have been tempered. From this great book, I would have better understood "Chief" McDonald and his powerful legacy. The historic, powerful "family" dimensions of this agency would have been more understandable from knowing that the chief, over some three decades, hand-picked the leadership team. But to me, a family outsider, coming as administrator in 1989, Thomas McDonald was only a name - and a picture on the wall outside our front office. Change seemed right; tradition an obstacle.

In retrospect, now after years of reflection, change was right and necessary. But then, in 1989, only at the margins was the timing right. And that brings me to Public Roads. Even though I had spent much of my time as a civil engineering professor at Penn State University engaged in research, and even though I had served TRB (Transportation Research Board) with enthusiasm and energy, I sensed FHWA - history and Chief McDonald not withstanding - needed a publication reaching beyond the confines of research.

Having seen issues of the new publication, I feel this may have been one change whose time had come. It has become an excellent vehicle for telling the broader, richer FHWA story.

I would be remiss for not using this platform to speak to the wider sweep of FHWA's history. Clearly, there is a need for even great agencies to keep a contemporary service-to-the-public vision. The chief had a powerful service vision, and his hand-picked team executed that vision with remarkable fidelity and efficiency. But a vision suitable for a rural "developing" country is not suitable for an ebullient, urban, cyber-society. In 1989, our agency engaged itself in an aggressive search for a 21st century vision. With more than passing interest, I have looked on as the search continues, and I applaud the ongoing effort.

Neither then nor now is my thinking on vision clear and definitive, but:

  • There is growing need to reinforce the unity of our grand national union with FHWA-like threads of commonality. (A glance around the globe speaks loudly to this need.)
  • Technology appropriate to our transportation business is springing up all about. There is a pressing need to adapt and train for its profitable application.
  • Highway transportation is, at the same time, more and less important than it was in McDonald's days: More important as we have evolved into an intensely mobile, consumer-driven society. But it is less important as our citizens see transportation as a highly developed "good" and one that must compete with their other priorities, e.g., health care and education.
  • While "devolution" is a proper trend for our time, the notion of wholesale movement in that direction is inappropriate for the near future. FHWA, guided by a new service vision, largely holds in its hands the ability to manage this trend to the benefit, or disbenefit, of us all.
  • We need to celebrate our heritage. Tom Lewis helps us to see that we in the highway transportation professions have met the societal needs of our time - but in meeting these needs, we have moved society forward - and so created new needs. When we demonstrate flexibility and adaptability, we come closest to meeting our service mission and our destiny.

Whatever the future holds for FHWA, there can be no doubt that the future can be met with greater confidence if communcation channels are numerous and always open. In that spirit and for its good work, I'm proud to salute Public Roads on its 80th birthday!