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Planning a National Road System

1919 was a turning point in the debate over a national highway system. In July of that year, a young Army captain named Dwight David Eisenhower departed with 294 other Army troops for the military's first mobile caravan across the U.S. Poor road conditions caused the caravan to average five miles per hour for the 62-day trek from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. (This route will be retraced next summer by Eisenhower relatives and other dignitaries in June 2006) This trip, and subsequent service in Germany with her well-maintained autobahns, left an indelible mark on the young soldier, one that would shape public policy in the decades to come. Back in Washington the battle over a system of federal-aid highways raged as 1919 began. An exactly even split between the member states of the Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) on the continuation of the Federal-State cooperative road building plan and the death of Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) leader, Logan Waller Page in late 1918, added to the quarrel.

Iowa Highway Commission Chief Engineer Thomas H. MacDonald, who had played a key role in developing AASHO’s federal-aid highway bill, became the new BPR chief in early 1919. With his technical background and experience as a state highway official, he proved to be the ideal successor to Page in this new phase of highway development.

Previously in Iowa, MacDonald had published articles advocating a classification system of roads into primary and secondary importance. He saw the primary system at approximately 10 percent of the total mileage, or about 10,000 miles in Iowa. With this calculation, MacDonald was convinced every trading point in the state would be reached from at least two directions by primary roads.

Key to MacDonald’s plan was the cooperation between the states and the federal government to ensure the primary systems in each state are connected with the primary systems of the adjoining states.

The most difficult problem facing MacDonald was the gap between advocates of long-distance roads and advocates of farm-to-market roads. The answer developed by MacDonald, in close cooperation with AASHTO, was contained in the Federal Highway Act of 1921. Of the Act and the Bureau of Public Roads, MacDonald said in 1922, “…The Bureau does not seek to direct the states, but to cooperate with them. There is now a plan of action for the guidance of both organizations that is so clear and so explicit that neither can escape the responsibilities imposed. The Federal requirements are fairly defined and will be sincerely and faithfully enforced.”

The 1921 act rejected the view of long-distance road advocates who wanted the federal government to build a national highway network. To satisfy them, the act limited federal aid to a system of federal-aid highways, not to exceed 7 percent of all roads in the state. Three-sevenths of this system must consist of roads that are “interstate in character.” Up to 60 percent of federal-aid funds could be used on the interstate routes.

By retaining the federal-aid concept, the act also satisfied advocates of farm-to-market roads. The state highway agencies could be counted on to consider local concerns in deciding the mix of projects.

In cooperation with the state highway agencies, the BPR completed designation of the federal-aid system in November 1923. It totaled 272,000 kilometers (km) or 5.9 percent of all public roads. The federal-aid system would expand as states completed work on their original systems.

The 1920s were a “golden age” for road building. In 1922 alone, federal-aid projects totaling 16,500 km were completed at a cost of $189 million, three times as much roadway as had been improved since the start of the federal-aid highway program in 1916. The projects usually involved providing graded earth, sand-clay, or gravel surfaces.

MacDonald set out to build state-federal partnerships; engineering professionalism; dedicate highway user revenues at the state level; establish independent highway commissions, highway research, highway classification, programming and project development based on economic principles; and transfer of highway jurisdictions from counties and townships to the states, just to highlight a few of the programs undertaken while MacDonald led the BPR.

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