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

Public Roads - Summer 1996

From 1916 to 1939: The Federal-State Partnership At Work (Sidebars)

by Richard F. Weingroff

Man of the Century


Thomas H. MacDonald, who served as the chief of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) for 34 years, is the towering figure of road transportation in the 20th century. He has no equal, and even today, the United States enjoys his legacy in the mobility that characterizes our life and the sustained economic strength of our nation.

MacDonald combined the Progressive Era ideals of his predecessor, Logan Page, with faith in the federal-state relationship that transformed it into a true partnership. Described as austere, cold, and reserved, MacDonald was always called "The Chief" or Mr. MacDonald - never "Tom" - by even his closest associates. The Chief was born in Leadville, Colo., on July 23, 1881, but he was raised in Montezuma, Iowa, where his father was a grain and lumber dealer. After graduating from Iowa State College with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1904, he went to work for the college. In 1913, Iowa created a three-man highway commission; he was appointed chief engineer. In that capacity, he worked closely with the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) and Logan Page to fashion and secure support for the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916.

Following Page's death in 1918, AASHO recommended MacDonald for the top BPR position. He took office as chief of the bureau in 1919. In the next few years, he reshaped the federal-aid highway program to build a true spirit of partnership with the states. In the Federal Highway Act of 1921, Congress adopted his concept of limiting funds to a federal-aid system; this innovation made the program a success. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he helped to establish the foundation of the interstate system and nurtured the project through its early years until his retirement in 1953.

When The Chief died in 1957, a friend eulogized him as "a statesman who built an enduring monument to himself not so much in roads and bridges as in the lives of people."

The Concept Man


Herbert Fairbank was a native of Baltimore, Md., and lived there his entire life, commuting to his job in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Cornell University with a civil engineering degree in 1910, he spent a few months with the Bureau of Mines before joining the Office of Public Roads as a student engineer. Except for a stint as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War I, he was employed for the rest of his life by the Bureau of Public Roads.

Throughout his career, he displayed many skills. He was a talented writer, a brilliant scholar, an innovative researcher, and a pioneering planner. His service included early work as a lecturer, a builder of object-lesson roads, and editor of Public Roads. In 1927, Fairbank was appointed chief of the new Division of Information, and in 1943, he became the deputy commissioner for research, the title he held for the remainder of his career. However, in both cases, his activities were not bound by titles. Throughout, he was Thomas H. MacDonald's right-hand man.

In the 1930s, Fairbank pioneered modern highway planning by conceiving and carrying out statewide highway planning surveys. The resulting data provided the foundation for the "master plan" he wrote for the 1939 report, Toll Roads and Free Roads, the first formal description of what became the interstate highway system. The emphasis on urban transportation in this report and in Interregional Highways (1944), also written by Fairbank, was grounded in hard fact, and yet, in many respects, it was visionary, ahead of its time, and never fully realized.

Fairbank was a lifelong bachelor, and for many years, he lived with his sister, Grace. Each year, they vacationed together, often at Vermont's Green Mountain. He retired in April 1955 when he was unable to recover from an illness contracted while he and Grace were vacationing in Italy the year before. He died on Dec. 14, 1962, following a heart attack.