The Man Who Changed America, Part II
President Eisenhower achieved his Grand Plan for the Interstate System with passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956—but his interest in the new highways didn't end there.
On July 27, 1955, the U.S. House of Representatives dealt President Dwight D. Eisenhower's hopes for the Interstate System a bitter defeat. His proposal, developed by General Lucius D. Clay and tinkered with by other Administration officials, went down to an expected defeat in the House. The bill generated little support and much opposition.
Observers then expected support for a bill developed by Representative George Fallon (D-MD), chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads. With help from Francis ("Frank") C. Turner of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), Fallon had drafted a bill that seemed to offer an acceptable compromise. The "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways," as Fallon had renamed it, would be financed by graduated tax increases (a penny hike in the 2-cent gas tax, plus another half-cent in 1970, as well as increases in the tax on automobiles, trucks, and tires). The Interstate System would be completed in 12 years.
The White House accepted the Fallon compromise, but it was too late to affect the outcome. The House rejected the Fallon Bill by a vote of 292 to 123. Alfred ("Alf") Johnson, executive secretary of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), as it was then called, told the association's members, "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."
With the bill dead for 1955, observers were doubtful about the prospects in 1956. Could the interests who would benefit from the bill support any measure that they would have to pay for or that would benefit their competitors? More important, with a presidential election underway in 1956, would a Democratically controlled Congress give a Republican President a victory on one of his most prominent domestic initiatives?
The prospects for a bill were reduced on September 24 when President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack while vacationing in Colorado. Even if, against expectations, he chose to run for a second term, would the American people reelect a man who might not make it through another 4 years in the White House?
As the new year began, these doubts did not diminish President Eisenhower's determination to secure the highway bill he had been pushing for since announcement of his Grand Plan for highway development in July 1954. As he said in a statement immediately after the defeat of all highway bills in the House: "The nation badly needs new highways." (See Part I of "The Man Who Changed America" in Public Roads, March/April 2003.)
Defying Expectations In 1956
The President was still on a light schedule, relaxing in Key West, FL, on January 5, 1956, the day of his State of the Union Address. Other than a few official duties in the morning, his plans for the day included some golf practice, a walk, and bridge with friends. After he signed the Address, clerks read it to Congress at noon. With the country enjoying "an unparalleled level of prosperity," the President said, it was imperative "that the Federal Government concern itself with certain broad areas of our economic life." These included agriculture, resource conservation, disaster assistance, area redevelopment, and highway legislation.
The President devoted three paragraphs of the Address to highways. He began: "Legislation to provide a modern, interstate highway system is even more urgent this year than last, for 12 months have now passed in which we have fallen further behind in road construction needed for the personal safety, the general prosperity, the national security of the American people."
The number of motor vehicles, he said, had increased from 58 to 61 million in that year. More than 38,000 people had lost their lives in highway accidents, while "the fearful toll of injuries and property damage has gone on unabated."
He restated his firm commitment to developing the Interstate System: "If we are ever to solve our mounting traffic problem, the whole Interstate System must be authorized as one project, to be completed approximately within the specified time. Only in this way can the required planning and engineering be accomplished without the confusion and waste unavoidable in a piecemeal approach."
Highways also occupied a prominent place in his annual budget message, transmitted to Congress on January 16. After repeating themes from the State of the Union Address, the President restated his view about the way that construction should be handled: "I consider it essential that construction of the Interstate System be fully authorized now as a single integrated program in order that it may be accomplished over a period of approximately 10 years with the greatest economy."
Again, on January 24, the President returned to the theme in his annual message transmitting the economic report to Congress. In a section on "Building for Future Prosperity," the President stated: "The country urgently needs a modernized Interstate Highway System to relieve existing congestion, to provide for the expected growth of motor vehicle traffic, to strengthen the Nation's defenses, to reduce the toll of human life exacted each year in highway accidents, and to promote economic development."
The Verdict of History
When President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961, a poll of 75 historians ranked him among the Nation's 10 worst Presidents—between Chester Alan Arthur and Andrew Johnson. In The American Presidency (1960 edition), presidential scholar Clinton Rossiter concluded, "He will be remembered, I fear, as the unadventurous president who held on one term too long in the new age of adventure." His campaign slogan, "I Like Ike," remained true for the public, but he was widely seen as a man who preferred golf to policy.
Judging a President, however, requires the perspective of history. In the four decades since then, President Eisenhower has risen to a ranking among the 10 greatest Presidents (usually a notch or two below Harry S. Truman). Historians cite many factors for this restored prestige, but the Interstate System is inevitably one of them. This inclusion of the Interstates would be no surprise to Eisenhower. Biographer Stephen Ambrose identified the Interstate System as Eisenhower's favorite domestic program. For Ike, the importance of this program was clear. In his 1963 memoir, Mandate for Change 1953-1956, he explained why: "More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America. ... Its impact on the American economy—the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up—was beyond calculation."
In a column on October 10, 1990, Washington Post writer David Broder noted the lack of monuments in Washington to Eisenhower. But he added: "Eisenhower's monuments are elsewhere, even if they do not bear his name. The St. Lawrence Seaway . . . is part of his legacy. So is the Interstate Highway System, the greatest public-works investment in the last 50 years. . . . [The] Interstate System has proved to be the most important economic-development strategy of the Federal Government."
A few days later, on October 15, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed Public Law 101-427, which changed the official name of the Interstate System to The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
What was missing from these comments was an endorsement of the Clay Committee's plan. Whatever the merits of the plan, it had been fatally flawed in that it could not be approved in Congress. The Clay Committee's legacy, therefore, would be in documenting the need for improved highways, including the Interstate System, a task it performed with information and data provided by the BPR through Frank Turner.
The Administration formally broke with the Clay Plan in a January 31 meeting with Republican legislative leaders, during which the President endorsed the pay-as-you-go financing method. Representative Joseph W. Martin (R-PA), the Republican minority leader of the House, announced the President's decision, summing it up by saying, "We want the roads as fast as we can get them."
Years later, the President would recall: "Though I originally preferred a system of self-financing toll highways, and though I endorsed General Clay's recommendations, I grew restless with the quibbling over methods of financing. I wanted the job done."
All parties seemed to share his view. Over the winter, the interest groups that supported the Interstate System changed their tactics. The highway construction industry, for example, had been relatively passive during the intense lobbying campaign against the Fallon Bill, apparently lulled by the accepted view that the bill would pass. Now they were hard at work to get a bill in 1956.
In addition, the September 1955 release of the BPR's "Yellow Book" (so named because of the color of its cover) showing the proposed Interstates in the Nation's main cities had solidified urban support for the Interstate System. In a review of the history of the 1956 legislative battle, historian Gary T. Schwartz explained that the urban designations of the Interstates were "an event of major importance" because Congressmen from urban areas could see clearly what their cities would receive from the program.
Meanwhile, the groups that had opposed the Fallon Bill began to seek a compromise that would give them the highways they wanted, if not quite a complete exemption from paying for them.
On January 26, Chairman Fallon released H.R. 8836, the Federal Highway Act of 1956. The new Fallon Bill authorized $24.8 billion for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, to be made available over 13 years. It proposed a pay-as-you-go plan, with the details on tax changes to be worked out by Representative T. Hale Boggs (D-LA) of the Ways and Means Committee. Already, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (D-TX) told reporters, bipartisan agreement had been reached on a plan to increase the gasoline tax from 2 to 3 cents and to increase taxes on tires and tubes. Some details remained to be worked out, he said, but "I just know we aren't going to get any roads unless we put in some decent taxes."
On February 6, Representative Boggs introduced H.R. 9075, the Highway Revenue Act of 1956, a bill containing a financing mechanism based on "linkage." All the revenue from highway user taxes would be set aside for highway purposes. The bill was, Boggs said, the result of "intensive studies" by his staff, the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation, the Treasury Department, and the BPR. However, during a hearing on February 14, Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey said that the bill, because of technical accounting practices, would not accomplish the purpose of dedicating highway user taxes for highway purposes. He suggested "a practice similar to the practice that is followed for the social security and the other funds."
Based on the Secretary's discussion of the crediting procedures for the Social Security Trust Fund, the committee adopted a similar approach, to be called the Highway Trust Fund. When floor debate began in April, Boggs would explain the concept to his colleagues: "[For] the first time, the American motorist will pay these taxes with the assurance that he will be the direct beneficiary of every penny which he pays and he will pay with the knowledge that every cent derived from these taxes will be devoted exclusively to his personal convenience and safety."
On April 19, Fallon introduced H.R. 10660, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Title I was the Fallon Bill. Title II was the Highway Revenue Act of 1956 approved by the Ways and Means Committee. When the President was asked about the bill, he declined to comment in detail. He added, "I stick to this one thing: we need highways badly, very badly, and I am in favor of any forward, constructive step in this field." The House approved the bill on April 27 by a 388 to 19 vote.
The bill was sent to the Senate, which had approved a bill by Chairman Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN), of the Subcommittee on Roads, in 1955. The bill had authorized funds for a 5-year Interstate Program and added 2,500 miles to the System, but included no tax changes because the Constitution required that the House of Representatives initiate such changes.
While the Senate Finance Committee considered the financing mechanisms in Title II of the House bill, Secretary Humphrey let Chairman Harry Flood Byrd (D-VA) know of a concern that expenses would exceed income after a few years, perhaps from the 6th to the 16th year. The Secretary recommended that the estimated expenditure from the allocations not exceed the estimated available amounts in the Highway Trust Fund.
Senator Byrd had a life-long opposition to any form of debt, personal or public, and much of his Senate career had been spent searching for government waste. So when Secretary Humphrey raised the prospect of deficits, Byrd was fully engaged. He added what became known as the Byrd Amendment. It provided that if the Treasury Secretary determines that the balance in the Highway Trust Fund will not be enough to meet required highway expenditures, the Secretary of Commerce is to reduce the apportionments to each of the States on a pro rata basis to eliminate the estimated deficiency.
The Senate debated the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 on May 28 and 29. Title I consisted mainly of the Gore Bill, which Senator Gore's committee had substituted for Fallon's Title I. Title II was the Highway Revenue Act of 1956 as modified by Senator Byrd's committee. After midnight, following a 14-hour session, the Senate approved the bill by voice vote on May 30.
The conference committee formed to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills had difficulty accomplishing its purpose. One conferee, Senator Francis Case (R-SD), said, "I have never served on a conference committee which was confronted with problems which seemed at times to be so nearly irreconcilable as was the case with some of the questions before the conference committee on the roads bill." Nonetheless, agreement was reached eventually.
The reconciled bill was submitted on June 25. The following day, the Senate approved the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 by a vote of 89 to 1, with Senator Russell Long (D-LA) casting the lone negative vote because of his objection to the bill's increased gas taxes. The same day, the House adopted the report by voice vote.
Historian Mark Rose, in assessing how Congress managed to reach agreement after the stunning failure in 1955, observed that the key to success was "providing something for everyone." He explained: "Boggs and Fallon had found the key to success. They promised plenty of new roadway for everyone and security for treasury deposits, and had asked truckers to pay only modest tax increases. At the core of this formula was the decision of truckers and leaders of motorist associations, however reluctant, to sponsor the entire Federal Aid Highway Program. Once financing was arranged, congressmen were left with the relatively easier task of imposing professional standards on federal road projects and spreading revenues among competitors."
The President Signs the Bill
President Eisenhower was not in a position to enjoy the outcome of his efforts as much as he had hoped. On June 7, he had suffered severe stomach pains that sent him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He had experienced stomach problems for years, but this time doctors determined that the cause was ileitis (an inflammation of the ileum, part of the small intestine). Surgery was needed immediately. The surgery by Major General Leonard D. Heaton took 2 hours, a long procedure for a man who had experienced a heart attack less than a year before, but doctors felt they had no choice. The President, upon being told he needed surgery, said simply, "Well, let's go."
News of the surgery raised the Democrats' hopes for the presidential election. As historian Clarence G. Lasby explained, "By their simple arithmetic, the President now had two chronic diseases with which to contend, instead of one."
After 3 weeks of convalescence, the President was ready for discharge. As a result, June 29 was to be the President's last full day in the hospital. For the first time since the surgery, the President had three working sessions. To preserve his strength, the 27 bills he had to sign were divided into two batches—13 in the morning, 14 in the afternoon.
The President signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 without fanfare and without being photographed. He did not issue a statement on the signing, but Press Secretary James C. Hagerty, in announcing that the bill had been signed, told reporters the President "was highly pleased." The pens used by the President were sent to those who had been instrumental in passage of the legislation.
That night, the day of one of his greatest political triumphs, the President dined quietly with his wife, Mamie, and other family members. He left the hospital the following morning to recuperate at the Eisenhowers' farm in Gettysburg, PA, which he and Mamie had bought in 1951.
Off to a Flying Start
President Eisenhower wasn't satisfied just yet.
At the Administration's request, Congress approved a bill stating that the head of the BPR would be "a Federal Highway Administrator appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate." As Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks explained, "The prestige of Presidential appointment would also be of great assistance to the head of the Bureau of Public Roads in dealing with the State officials expected to take part in the administration of a highway program of the magnitude and character entrusted to this Department." The President signed that bill into law on August 3, 1956.
On August 16, the President announced he had received a progress report from Secretary Weeks covering the first 6 weeks of the highway program. The President was "gratified to observe the initial speed" of the program and encouraged prompt State action to "convert the Federal fund authorizations into usable roads at the earliest possible time."
On October 12, the Secretary reported that the Administrator would be Bertram D. Tallamy, and the Senate subsequently confirmed the nomination unanimously. The 56-year old Tallamy was a native of Plainfield, NJ. The son and grandson of general contractors, he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a civil engineer and quickly established himself in the construction field.
Tallamy became deputy superintendent of public works for New York in January 1945. In addition to supervising the State's post-war construction program, he guided development of the State arterial route plans for almost half of the State's cities. When he became chief engineer of the Public Works Department in July 1947, his first assignment was to review design standards for all expressways. Governor Thomas E. Dewey chose Tallamy to be superintendent of public works on October 1, 1948, a position he retained until December 31, 1954. In that capacity, he filled a 1-year term as president of AASHO from 1951-1952.
Tallamy is given much of the credit for creation of the New York State Thruway. The plan was to create a public authority to build the cross-State highway in the shortest possible time. After helping to win voter support for the plan, Tallamy was appointed chairman of the three-member thruway authority.
The selection of Tallamy as Federal Highway Administrator was widely applauded, but because of commitments in New York, he was not available to take the Federal position until 1957. To avoid losing momentum on the new program, the President appointed John A. Volpe to serve as interim administrator.
Like Tallamy, Volpe was widely known and respected within the highway community. His life often was compared to a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story. Volpe was born in Wakefield, MA, in 1908, the son of immigrant parents from Italy. Beginning in 1934 with an initial capital of $300, he built a multimillion-dollar construction company with offices in Massachusetts; Washington, DC; and Rome, Italy. In 1953, Massachusetts Governor Christian A. Herter appointed Volpe to serve as commissioner of public works. In October 1956, Volpe resigned to return to private life but delayed to serve as interim administrator of the BPR at the request of the President.
On October 22, 1956, with BPR Commissioner C. D. ("Cap") Curtiss in attendance, Volpe became the first Federal Highway Administrator. During the White House ceremony, President Eisenhower said he wanted to make certain the highway program got off to a "flying start." He held the Bible while Frank K. Sanderson, White House administrative officer, administered the oath of office to Volpe.
After the oath, the President shook Volpe's hand and said that it was a happy day for him because he had worked a long time on the highway program and was "anxious for it to move into high gear." Volpe responded that he would do everything he could to get the program moving, consistent with the necessity to make sure that all the road funds would be spent wisely.
On February 5, 1957, Secretary Weeks administered the oath of office to Bertram D. Tallamy, the first administrator confirmed by the Senate. He would retain that position through the rest of the Eisenhower Administration.
A Mighty Network of Highways
Despite Democratic hopes that the President's heart attack, ileitis
surgery, and age (65 years old) would weaken his appeal to voters in the 1956 election, Eisenhower won by an even larger margin over 56-year-old Adlai Stevenson than in 1952.
Throughout the campaign, Eisenhower often cited the Interstate System as one of his accomplishments. Typical was a reelection speech at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. President Eisenhower said, "I see an America where a mighty network of highways spreads across our country." He would never waver from this vision. It would, however, be tested.
Over the next few years, the new program would encounter a series of unforeseen problems. The urban routes identified in the Yellow Book that helped secure passage of the 1956 Act were proving to be controversial. There were reports of fraud and abuse in some States. And the funding mechanism faltered within just a few years.
By 1958, a recession gripped the country—the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The recession was the first test of one of the reasons why the President and his advisors had supported the Interstate System. As biographer Stephen Ambrose stated, "One of Eisenhower's favorite programs for reducing the peaks and valleys on the GNP chart was the Interstate System." With that goal in mind, the President proposed to suspend limitations on expenditures for fiscal years 1959-1961. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958 increased Interstate authorizations from a total of $6.4 billion to $7.2 billion during that period. The 1958 Act, which did not provide for additional Highway Trust Fund income, also suspended the Byrd Amendment.
The President had some misgivings about the bill, particularly the fact that it provided additional FY 1959 funds for the Federal-aid
primary and secondary systems with an increased Federal share of 66.5 percent. Nevertheless, he signed it on April 16, 1958. He noted that he did so because of "the desirability of speeding up the construction of our badly needed system of Interstate highways," the hope for "some impetus . . . to increase employment," and the temporary nature of the provisions he objected to.
Although the Byrd Amendment had been suspended, Congress could not suspend the reality that more money would be needed for the Interstate System. Throughout 1955 and 1956, the Administration and Congress had operated on the assumption that the Interstate System would cost a total of $27 billion. The estimate was based on the BPR's 1955 report to Congress, Needs of the Highway Systems, 1955-84, which estimated the cost of developing 60,697 kilometers (37,700 miles) at $23.2 billion (1954 dollars). The estimate assumed that a substantial portion—nearly 11,270 kilometers (7,000 miles)—would need only two lanes to provide adequate service, but under the higher standards developed by AASHO and the BPR, most segments would be four lanes except in sparsely settled portions of the West. (Today, under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1966, all Interstates must have at least four lanes.) The Clay Committee estimated that the remaining urban extensions would cost an additional $4 billion. Of course, neither estimate covered the 1,610 kilometers (1,000 miles) the 1956 Act added to the system.
Throughout 1955 and 1956, the goal had been a funding mechanism that equaled the 90-percent Federal share of $25 billion. The 1956 Act required periodic cost estimates as the basis for apportioning Interstate construction funds based on relative need in each State. The BPR's first estimate, released in January 1958 and supplemented in July 1959, covered all 66,010 kilometers (41,000 miles) of the designated Interstate System and came to $41 billion (Federal share: $37 billion).
With the cost of the system up and expenditures exceeding Highway Trust Fund revenue, the President knew a solution was needed. At the same time, he was fighting congressional Democrats who wanted to increase spending on a variety of programs and congressional Republicans who wanted to cut taxes. Biographer Ambrose explained: "The one place Eisenhower was willing to spend money was on roads. At every Republican leaders' meeting that spring, he brought up the subject, stressing 'the great need for catching up on the building of roads.' He said he wanted to stick to the original idea of finishing the Interstate System within thirteen years, and was appalled at the warnings that the program, which had gotten off to a fast start, would have to be stopped in its tracks because of insufficient financing."
On May 13, 1959, the President sent a special message to Congress. Because of the Byrd Amendment, he said, "It will be impossible this year, without Congressional action, to apportion funds needed. ... I recommend a temporary increase of 11/2 cents a gallon in the gas tax."
Throughout the year, he issued additional messages on the subject. On June 25, he said, "I am deeply concerned that no action has been taken on this proposal . . . This is a critical situation in our national road-building program, and one which should give great concern to every motorist." He again called for enactment on August 25, saying, "Both the Congress and the Executive are justly proud of the vast highway construction program enacted in 1956. A good beginning has been made. ... It is essential that we continue to build new modern roads."
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1959 increased the gas tax by 1 cent (to 4 cents) through June 30, 1961, and reduced Interstate authorizations for FY 1961 to $2 billion. (Because of the Byrd Amendment, the apportioned amount would be only $1.8 billion.) Congress acted on the assumption that with a new Administration in office after the 1960 election and a new cost estimate due in 1961, only a temporary financial correction was needed. Permanent adjustments could wait.
The President signed the bill on September 21, 1959. Although the new law did not accomplish the President's full goals, he said, "I have approved it in order to avoid a serious disruption of the highway program." He also noted that he had launched his own comprehensive review "of the interstate program's current policies, practices, methods and standards. ... If actions are needed to insure that our national objectives are being achieved at minimum Federal cost on a pay-as-you-go basis, it is expected that the necessary recommendations will be developed by this study."
The President Has Second Thoughts
The financial obstacles, coupled with the claims of fraud, would have been enough to justify the review, but the President's discovery that his "mighty network of highways" included urban freeways appears to have been the cause. Although the urban segments had been part of the Interstate System from its conception in the BPR's 1939 report Toll Roads and Free Roads, the President's vision was that the freeways would go around cities, as on the autobahn. As Ambrose noted, the President's objections to the urban segments "were not sociological" and did not involve their impacts on the Nation's cities. His "objections were to the cost, not the result."
Several anecdotes have been offered to explain how the President discovered his error. Some sources suggest that the President's "ignorance was finally dispelled . . . when he chanced to query urban planners who were showing him the freeway network planned for the District of Columbia." The June 1959 meeting was with Harland Bartholomew, one of the country's leading urban planners, and the National Capital Planning Commission. Alternatively, other sources cite the Bureau of the Budget's (BOB) Paul Sitton, who suggested the truth dawned when the President noticed freeway construction underway in the outskirts of metropolitan Washington while being driven to Camp David. This construction would have been Maryland's Washington Circumferential Highway (now called the Capital Beltway).
Whatever the cause, the President immediately called BOB Director Maurice Stans to ask for a review of the issue. Stans was a sympathetic ear, because he was already appalled by the high costs of the urban interstates and considered the 90-percent Federal share "a horrible thing." The BPR's 1958-59 Interstate Cost Estimate had documented the increasing cost.
Based on Stans' initial review, the President sent a letter to Major General John Bragdon (U.S. Army, Retired) on July 2, 1959, directing him to conduct a broad high-priority review of the policies, methods, and standards in effect for the Interstate System; delineate Federal, State, and local responsibilities in financing, planning, and supervising the highway program; and determine the means for improving coordination, especially in urban planning. Priority, the President said, "should be given to those aspects of the problem where maximum savings can be effected."
The Bragdon Report
Bragdon, a West Point classmate of the President's, had supervised river basin projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between the world wars. During World War II, he built 40 airfields and spent $2 billion for emergency military construction. Later, as deputy chief of engineers, Bragdon directed construction programs around the world. He had been part of the policymaking process for the Interstate Program throughout 1955 and 1956, but his ideas, which included Federal construction of a toll network, had been blocked. Historian Schwartz summarized the problem: "Bragdon was handicapped by an ineptness at bureaucratic maneuverings. [His] entire White House career was marked by frustrations and failures."
Here was Bragdon's chance to reopen the battles he had lost in 1955-56.
Bragdon's initial report reaffirmed the President's idea that the Interstate System should include only roads that carry intercity traffic around and into cities. He would exclude inner belts around central business districts and permit spurs into cities but not Interstates that carried traffic all the way through them. With the limits he would impose, about 2,737 kilometers (1,700 miles) of Interstate highway could be eliminated from metropolitan areas. He also called for comprehensive planning requirements for the urban Interstates and suggested that, consistent with Bragdon's ideas from the mid-1950s, the States should be given the option of building Interstate highways as toll facilities.
The launching of the Bragdon review set off alarms throughout the highway community, which feared reductions in the Interstate Program. During the President's press conference on March 16, 1960, Lowell K. Bridwell, transportation reporter for Scripps-Howard Newspapers (and a future Federal Highway Administrator, 1967-69) asked about the survey's principal findings "and whether you have made any administrative changes as a result." The President noted that it "was a personal advisory thing to me." He had asked General Bragdon "what are we doing and does it seem to accord with the law and the legislative history." But as for the results, "it's a matter between General Bragdon and myself."
An interim report was presented to the President during a meeting on April 6, 1960. General Bragdon and his aide, Colonel John A. Meek, attended the 55-minute meeting along with Commerce Secretary Frederick Mueller, Administrator Tallamy, and White House aide Robert Merriam. According to notes prepared by Bragdon after the meeting, he explained his ideas, then boiled them down to two suggestions:
- Send to Congress the proposal for permissive toll roads on the Interstate. This would be the only legislation at this time.
- Quietly, and insofar as possible, administratively implement the revised criteria cited in his report.
Secretary Mueller and Administrator Tallamy opposed the latter item, saying the States would be up in arms if not told of the changes, which the two Commerce Department officials believed were prohibited under current law.
The President then said that his staff had told him that while the legislation was under consideration in 1955 and 1956, the cities had been informed that they would receive adequate consideration on a "per person" basis in view of the taxes they paid; in fact, "they were to get more consideration since they paid much more in taxes per person than persons in rural areas." He also had said that he had heard about the Yellow Book maps of urban routes but had not yet seen the report. (The notes indicate Mueller handed him a copy.) The urban funding and the Yellow Book, the President understood, "were the prime reasons the Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act."
He then said that the idea of running Interstate routes through the congested cities was "entirely against his original concept and wishes." He had studied the Clay Committee report carefully, but didn't see anything about an "extensive intra-city route network." Those who had not advised him of it and those who steered the program in that direction "had not followed
His conclusion was that he was disappointed over the way the program developed "against his wishes," but it had reached the point "where his hands were virtually tied." On that note, the meeting ended.
By April 14, Secretary Mueller conveyed the President's views to Congressman Gordon Sherer (R-OH): "The administration has no intention whatever of abandoning any of the routes presently designated as general corridors of traffic—in urban or in rural areas."
Before Bragdon could submit a final report, President Eisenhower appointed him to the Civil Aeronautics Board. Bragdon's successor, Floyd Peterson, completed the 12-page report for the President on January 17, 1961, just days before Senator John F. Kennedy took the oath of office as the new President of the United States. Schwartz commented that the report "was in both style and substance a classic of bureaucratic aridity." It was quickly forgotten as the new Administration took office.
The Wild Ride
On September 15, 1959, Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union had arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland for talks with President Eisenhower and a whirlwind tour of the United States. In an open Lincoln automobile, the President, the Premier, and Mrs. Khrushchev traveled from the airport along the Suitland Parkway into the city. The New York Times reported, "The grass on the center strip and sides of this four-lane highway had been neatly clipped. ... On both sides the trees, just beginning to turn to autumn hues, crowded the highway." (The parkway was one of several that the BPR built for the National Park Service in the Washington area.)
They crossed into the city on the curving South Capitol Street Bridge, which had opened in 1949 and provides a stunning view of the Capitol dome. The convoy passed through "several blocks of slums" in southwest Washington, as the Times described the trip. Crowds increased as the car turned onto Independence Avenue and drove to Blair House, where the Premier would stay across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The Times reported that "the faces of 200,000 multiracial Americans were what may have caught his eye as he rode into the capital."
From Eisenhower's perspective, the drive had been a good start because he wanted the Premier to see a diverse, prosperous America. The President had looked grim when he greeted the Premier but "was smiling and appeared to be in a more amiable mood" by the time they reached Blair House. As the Times put it, they had already raised and solved "their first minor problem." The President had previously proposed to take Khrushchev on a brief sightseeing excursion over the city by helicopter, but Khrushchev had declined, saying that he did not like helicopters. During the drive into the city, he had agreed to the trip, saying, "If you are to be in the same helicopter, of course, I will go." Ambrose explained that the President "wanted Khrushchev to see all those middle-class homes, and all those automobiles rushing out of Washington in the late afternoon to get to them." They symbolized the success of the American economic system.
Following their afternoon discussions, the two entered a Marine helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House and took off for the tour. The Times reporter, following in a second helicopter, provided a description: "Shadows were lengthening as the helicopter whirled over the city. Mr. Eisenhower spread a map in Mr. Khrushchev's lap and pointed out the sights. The helicopter headed down the Potomac, giving Mr. Khrushchev a fine view of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and, across the river, the Lee Mansion at Arlington and the new housing development back of the Virginia Ridge."
The trip was just what the President wanted, but he was disappointed in the Premier's reaction.
In Waging Peace, the President recalled: "I would have given a good deal to know what he thought of the spectacular flow of thousands of automobiles so dramatically displayed below us. In Moscow, Khrushchev had simply refused to believe Vice President Richard M. Nixon's statement that most American families owned cars. Our helicopter trip occurred as the government offices were closing; so cars formed literally continuous ribbons of movement, on highways and bridges, for as far as we could see. He must have been persuaded of the truth of Nixon's statement; but stoically refrained from saying so or even changing expression."
He did, however, admire the helicopter and even gave an order to purchase three of them for his own use.
The Premier would have other opportunities to see America during his 2-week tour of the country. The trip received wide publicity, especially when he was disappointed to discover that he would be unable to visit Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. On September 24, he returned to Washington.
The following day, he joined the President for a 36-minute helicopter ride to Camp David in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains. Talks lasted 2 days, but they took a break at one point to drive to the President's farm near Gettysburg on U.S. 30, the Lincoln Highway, the same road a young Dwight D. Eisenhower had followed to California in 1919. Khrushchev invited the President's grandchildren to join their grandfather when he visited Moscow in May 1960. (The Premier would cancel the visit after the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane on May 1, 1960.)
After a discussion about Eisenhower's Black Angus herd, the conversation took an interesting turn as Khrushchev described his country's efforts to produce more consumer goods. The President recalled what happened next: "When I again called his attention to our magnificent highways and the automobiles that crowded them—as I had done on our helicopter trip around Washington ten days earlier—he now had a ready answer. He said that in his country there was little need for this type of road because the Soviet people lived close together, did not care for automobiles, had slight interest in driving around the countryside on a Sunday afternoon, and rarely changed their residences from one city to another. To this he added to my amusement: 'Your people do not seem to like the place where they live and always want to be on the move going someplace else.'"
If the President was disappointed, he had a measure of revenge on September 27 when they returned to Washington from Camp David. The Premier was due at the National Press Club but had to stop at Blair House first. Time was of the essence. United Press International described the trip:
"President Eisenhower treated Premier Khrushchev today to a breathtaking eighty-mile-an-hour ride from Camp David to Washington. The driver [special agent Deeter Flohr of the Secret Service] ... took the two leaders on a trip that Mr. Khrushchev, at least, is not likely to forget.
"The way was paved by Maryland and District of Columbia troopers with sirens wide open most of the time. Every intersection between Camp David and Blair House was blocked. Down the mountainside, the speed was moderate, limited by one-lane roads, wooden bridges and blind curves. But once on the highway, the driver opened up.
"'Speed Is More Dangerous Than a Cobra,' a sign said. The Presidential car went by at about seventy miles an hour. The speed zones called for varying limits, sixty on the highway and thirty in the tiny towns, but these were ignored.
"When the sixteen-car motorcade reached U.S. 240, a dual highway, Mr. Flohr touched eight-five several times. The cars went down Wisconsin Avenue in Washington at seventy-five and pulled to a stop in front of Blair House eighty minutes after leaving the Catoctin Mountain cabin. The distance is about forty-five miles."
Seeking a Solution
As 1960, the President's last full year in office, began, he was still concerned about the financial problems associated with the Interstate System. The cost was up, while acceleration of the program to combat a recession without a commensurate increase in funding had left the program in fiscal knots. In his Annual Budget Message to the Congress on January 18, 1960, the President pointed out that he had asked for a gas tax increase of 1.5 cents per gallon for 5 years, but "after months of delay" Congress had provided only a 1-cent increase for less than 2 years.
He explained the consequences: "As a result of both the delay and the failure to provide the full amount of revenue requested, the roadbuilding program has been slowed below a desirable rate of progress." The Commerce Department had used spaced-out payments to keep the Highway Trust Fund in balance while keeping up with State requests for reimbursement. In addition, a temporary advance of $359 million from the general Treasury had been needed in FY 1960 to balance the monthly flow of revenues and expenditures. Another temporary advance of $200 million would be needed, Eisenhower said, in 1961: "I urge the Congress again to increase the highway fuel tax by another one-half cent per gallon and to continue the tax at 41/2 cents until June 30, 1964. This will permit the construction program for the Interstate System to proceed at a higher and more desirable level."
He followed up on May 3 in a special message on his legislative program. Among his domestic proposals, he included, "We also owe it to America to provide adequate new revenues for the Highway Trust Fund (as my proposal for a gasoline tax increase would do), so that we may keep our very important highway program on schedule."
On June 27, 1960, the President raised the subject in his address to the Governors' Conference at Glacier National Park in Montana. The theme of his speech was the "common philosophy" of the President and Governors about the responsibilities of the Federal Government and the States. With the proper balance, he said, they have achieved measurable accomplishments:
"At your conference in New York in 1954, the Vice President presented on my behalf a proposal that the States and the national government work together on a gigantic project to modernize our nationwide highway system. You approved and appointed a committee to work jointly with the Committee appointed by me. Together, we developed the greatest highway program in our history. Nine thousand miles of the Interstate System are now completed. Another two thousand are scheduled for completion this year."
He added, "Of course, the program needs more money." He was confident, though, that "with your help, this money will be found."
On June 29, the Governors Conference adopted a resolution urging congressional action to continue the Interstate Program in 1961 and 1962 "at not less than the present levels of construction." To keep the program on schedule, the Governors recommended that Congress "at the earliest possible time" increase funding by depositing a larger percentage of the Federal automobile and parts excise tax or any other highway user tax in the Highway Trust Fund—by any means other than an increase in the 3-cent Federal gas tax that would be restored once the temporary increase to 4 cents ended on June 30, 1961.
Governors Christopher Del Sesto of Rhode Island and Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut "tried desperately," according to one account, to convince the Governors to delete the opposition to the gas tax hike, but the measure was approved by a strong voice vote at the urging of Texas Governor Price Daniel. Echoing sentiments the Governors had expressed in years past, he declared that gas taxes, the States' traditional source of road funds, should be protected from further Federal encroachment.
Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1960 on July 2; the President approved it on July 14. The Act authorized funds for those portions of the Federal-Aid Highway Program not related to Interstate funding, which was authorized already, but did not address the Highway Trust Fund issues.
Therefore, the President returned to the subject in a special message to Congress upon its reconvening on August 8, 1960. As is often the case during an election year, Congress faced "a legislative log jam." Much of President Eisenhower's legislative agenda still was awaiting action. Again, one of the items was "proper financing to avoid delays in our Interstate Highway Program."
Congress would take no action on the subject in 1960. The problems were solved by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1961, signed by President John F. Kennedy on June 29, the 5th anniversary of the 1956 Act. The 1961 legislation increased Interstate funding, modified the authorization schedule through FY 1971, retained the 4-cent gas tax, but adjusted other highway user taxes to meet the program's financial needs.
A Nonpolitical Tour
In October 1960, during his remaining days in office, President Eisenhower participated in a 9-day cross-country "nonpolitical" tour that included political events in support of the presidential bid by Vice President Nixon. The President had been upset by Democratic criticism of his Administration and the implication that America was becoming a second-class power: ". . . this irresponsible practice of defacing the true American portrait," as he would put it in San Francisco. His two terms had been filled with accomplishments, and he would use the tour to cite them.
The tour began on October 17 when President Eisenhower visited Detroit's new $54 million Cobo Hall to attend the National Automobile Show. He was the first President to attend an auto show since President Herbert Hoover addressed an industry banquet in 1931. A path had been roped off through the main exhibit area for President Eisenhower, who walked through briskly and had only a glimpse of the vehicles in the show. Although he told industry officials the country "admires the material accomplishments for which you, here, have been so greatly responsible," his address was primarily about foreign affairs.
The next day, the President took a helicopter trip to Red Wing, MN, to participate in the dedication of Hiawatha Bridge. When Minnesota Republicans had begun maneuvering for a presidential visit to their State, the White House had asked the Republican National Committee to identify nonpolitical affairs the President could attend. The bridge dedication was just what he needed.
The Hiawatha Bridge carries U.S. 63 across the Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin; it is not part of the Interstate System. Nevertheless, the ceremony was a good opportunity for Eisenhower to refer to the bridge as "another example of Federal-State partnership in meeting both local and national needs." Noting that the Federal-Aid Highway Program dates to 1916, the President said, "it assumed a tremendous new work load in 1956 with the enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act—a program which Vice President Nixon first publicly presented on my behalf at the 1954 Governors Conference."
He said that he was especially proud of this program for several reasons. "It is financed on a sound pay-as-you-go basis. It gives the States the primary responsibility and initiative within their own borders. ... When the Interstate System is completed, it is estimated that it will save 4,000 lives a year." He added, "And so I salute all those in Minnesota, Wisconsin and across the Nation who have made this partnership the efficient and effective union it is today."
The President again mentioned the Interstate System in a political speech on the final stop of the tour, an address in Philadelphia to a rally of the Nixon for President Committee on October 28. He highlighted the "enlightened government programs" that were responsible for the country's "surging progress" during the Eisenhower-Nixon years. Income was up. Savings were up. More schools were being built and more homes. Capital expenditures on plants and equipment were growing. The gross national product had increased by almost 45 percent to $158 billion. And no such list was complete without one of his favorites: "Our Interstate Highway System was talked about for many years, but not started. Now we are building 41,000 miles of these great new avenues of commerce—and paying for them as we go. When completed, they will save four thousand American lives a year."
Despite the President's late push for his Vice President, the voters turned to Senator John F. Kennedy on November 8. It was close, especially in the popular vote, but the American people wanted a change. When the results became clear the next day, President Eisenhower was depressed, and not just because of his Vice President's defeat. His secretary, Ann Whitman, recalled, "The President kept saying this was a 'rejection' of everything he had done for eight years."
The Final Days
In January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in his final weeks in the White House. Still, the business of government must continue. On January 2, he accepted the resignation of Commerce Secretary Mueller, effective January 20, singling out two of the Secretary's accomplishments, the Interstate Program and the export expansion program. Of the former, the President noted that "the new 41,000 mile highway system has already opened vast new territory for recreation, homes and industry. Not only is it progressing at a most satisfactory rate, but the system is being constructed on a sound 'pay-as-you-go' basis."
The President also had to send a series of messages that would be of little interest to the new Congress. On January 12, there was the annual State of the Union Address, which was transmitted to Congress rather than delivered in person. The President took the opportunity to review the record of the past 8 years. These had been years when different parties controlled Congress and the White House. Even so, "we have carried America to unprecedented heights." Among the items the President cited, of course, was "the largest public construction program in history—the 41,000 mile national system of Interstate and Defense highways." It had been, he said, "pushed rapidly forward," with 25 percent of the system now open to traffic.
Still, funding for the program was a problem. His annual budget message to Congress on January 16 reiterated his legislative goals, including a gas tax increase through 1972, to continue the progress "and assure timely completion of the Interstate System ... in 1973 to meet the traffic needs for which it is designed." Again, in his annual economic report to Congress 2 days later, he asked for the "needed funds in the Highway Trust Fund."
But there was little he could do. This was an issue for the new
The Power Is Passed to a New Generation
Relations between the outgoing President and the President-elect were cordial. During the campaign, Kennedy had not personally attacked the President and, during a December visit, had been respectful as they discussed the many issues that would have to be addressed by the new Administration.
A heavy snow fell on January 19, 1961, the day before the Inauguration, paralyzing transportation from the Mid-Atlantic States to New England. Eastern Pennsylvania was buried under 508 millimeters (20 inches) of snow. In Washington, a 203-millimeter (8-inch) snowstorm created a monumental overnight traffic jam, first of workers trying to drive home, then of people trying, with limited success, to get to pre-Inaugural events. Police described it as a "fantastic snarl." The New York Times observed that "on a night when traffic would have taxed a system of superhighways, the snowfall reduced motorists, pedestrians, bus riders, and taxi-seekers to fuming impotence."
An emergency crew of 3,000 laborers and soldiers worked through the night to clear Pennsylvania Avenue and the East Capitol Plaza, scene of the Inauguration. Beyond this area, the streets were choked with mush generated by spinning tires.
On Friday, January 20, President Eisenhower awoke at 6:15 a.m. and was in the West Wing by 7:15 to complete his last few tasks. A little after 11, he greeted President-elect and Mrs. Kennedy at the North Portico and joined them and Vice President-elect and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, who arrived a few minutes later, for coffee. The outgoing and incoming Presidents rode together along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol for the inaugural ceremony. Already on the platform was former President Truman, who had received a standing ovation from the Members of Congress when he arrived.
A little after 1 p.m., about an hour late, Chief Justice Earl Warren administered the oath of office to John F. Kennedy. After the traditional, but rushed, lunch in the old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol, President and Mrs. Kennedy were driven along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. On the reviewing stand on Pennsylvania Avenue, they watched the Inaugural parade.
The Times' Russell Baker described the scene: "A Siberian wind knifing down Pennsylvania Avenue in the wake of last night's snowfall turned majorettes' legs blue, froze baton twirlers' fingers and drove beauty queens to flannels and overcoats." The new President stayed for the entire parade, which ended at 6:12 p.m.
The former President went to the 1925 F Street Club to have lunch with friends. Then he and Mamie were driven in their 1956 Chrysler to Gettysburg along the familiar I-70S (now I-270).
As biographer Stephen Ambrose points out, the former President likely had a difficult time adjusting, not just to no longer being the most powerful man in the world, but also to the little things that he had not done for 20 years. He had no idea, for example, how to make travel arrangements or pay tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He planned to go quail shooting in Augusta, GA, on Monday, but even that caused a problem. He told his friend Ellis Slater, "I can't drive all that way and I'm just wondering how I'll get there." Slater arranged for a ride on a friend's airplane.
Renaming the Interstate System for Ike
President Eisenhower with Senator Prescott Bush (R-CT), a primary supporter of the Interstate System. In 1990, Senator Bush's son, President George H.W. Bush, signed legislation changing the name of the Interstate System to "The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways." Senator Bush's grandson is President George W. Bush.
The standard road sign for The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, designed by FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, was unveiled in a ceremony on Capitol Hill on July 29, 1993. Left to right: Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-WV) of the House Surface Transportation Subcommittee, John Eisenhower (President Eisenhower's son), Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater, and Chairman Norman Y. Mineta (D-CA) of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation.
His Favorite Program
Under President Eisenhower, the Interstate System was fairly launched, but its future remained uncertain. The financial strains remained. Urban segments provoked increasing resistance around the country. Congress was investigating allegations of fraud and abuse in the program.
The November 1964 issue of Reader's Digest contained an article by Kenneth O. Gilmore titled "Let's Clean Up This Highway Mess." Gilmore began, "This is the story of a national disgrace: the collusion, chiseling and bureaucratic incompetence in our four-billion-dollar-a-year highway-building program." The article cited corrupt land deals and contracts, shoddy construction, and government officials "on the take." The problem, he explained "is so large, ladles out so much money and has so many people in its hire that it is virtually a power unto itself." The Interstate System was being built on new locations, offering many opportunities for abuse. Gilmore asked, "And what is Washington doing meanwhile? 'We're watching the situation closely,' an official assures me."
Former President Eisenhower read the story and made a note in his diary of November 20, 1964. He indicated that he had spoken with former Treasury Secretary Robert B. Anderson, who had been keeping in touch with the new President. "I suggested one of the matters he should take up was the reported swindle in the road construction program as reported in the Reader's Digest of November. That story is almost hair-raising, and I would hope that something could be done about it."
This continuing interest reflects the fact that, as Ambrose put it, "Of all his domestic programs, Eisenhower's favorite by far was the Interstate System." As President, he had personally intervened, time and again, to promote the concept, particularly during the critical period 1954-56, but thereafter as well. In his 1967 memoir, At Ease: Stories I tell to Friends, former President Eisenhower said of the Interstate System: "This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it."
He had missed the 1919 speech in which Secretary of War Newton Baker declared, "This is the beginning of a new era." He had not been present when Nixon presented Eisenhower's Grand Plan for an articulated network of highways to the Governors Conference in 1954. He had missed the pomp of a presidential signing ceremony for the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
But he had not missed the opportunity to establish an Interstate System that would, he knew, "change the face of America."
Richard F. Weingroff is the information liaison specialist in FHWA's Office of Infrastructure.
|Correction to "The Man Who Changed America, Part I": "Dwight D. ('Ike') Eisenhower was born on October 14, 1890, in Denison, TX, and moved with his family to Abilene, KS, in 1891."|