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The Plan Comes Together

When the effects of the Great Depression began to wane with the beginning of World War II, state highway planners heeded the advice of Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) chief Thomas MacDonald and prepared comprehensive needs studies.

MacDonald had concluded the time had come for America to begin the next stage of highway development. The federal-aid system would be “completed” by the late 1930s. Although many segments of the rural network had not been paved, virtually all had received initial treatment. As MacDonald said in a 1935 article: “We have reached a point in our development where we can no longer ignore the needs of traffic flowing from the main highways into and through cities and from feeder roads to the main highways.”

Migration from urban to rural areas seen during the Great Depression peaked in the mid-1930s. Because of the influx, rural areas were seen by many as wholesome, while cities were dens of iniquity. Decay of the central cities was rampant. A study commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt leaned heavily on city planning as a solution and on the use of highways as a tool for change.

To provide the data needed to plan the highway network of the future, MacDonald put his faith in the highway planning surveys conceived by Herbert S. Fairbank, chief of BPR’s Division of Information. Fairbank’s goal was a comprehensive state-by-state accounting of traffic on the American highway.

In 1939, using data collected from 46 state planning surveys, the Bureau of Public Roads presented a Master Highway Plan. This report became the basis of President Roosevelt’s system of inter-regional highways and laid the groundwork for the future interstate highway system.

Components of the proposed master plan included:
  1. Classification of all rural roads by order of importance. This activity was to be carried out by a joint action of the Secretary of Agriculture and the several state highway departments and would be based on the statewide highway planning survey.
  2. Formulation of a comprehensive federal policy governing its participation in the cost of improving several classes of roads and defining the objectives of that federal participation;
  3. Establishment of general standards for roadway improvements using federal funding; and
  4. Enactment of federal laws and regulations regarding vehicles, to apply on all roads improved in whole or in part with funds of the federal government. The laws and regulations prescribed maximum weights, speeds and dimensions of vehicles, and minimum requirements for vehicle braking, lighting and tire equipment, in coordination with established standards of highway design.
The National Superhighway system, clearly the precursor to our current Interstate Highway System, was comprised of direct inter-regional routes described in the proposed plan as “...following the alignment and incorporating the improvement of existing highways wherever feasible, but departing from existing roads wherever necessary to obtain direct alignment and high standards of curvature and gradient. Such a system would serve approximately one-eighth of the total traffic moving over all rural highways. It would include all of the important lines of long-distance travel… ”


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