Big Bureaucrats Build Big Roads

Book Review
The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011)
384 pages By Earl Swift

Roads and bureaucracy as a subject might easily equal instant slumber. Paving techniques. Office politics. Snooze.

That just the opposite is the case shows the writing and research skills of an old colleague of mine, Earl Swift, who has produced an excellent new book on the development of the U.S. highway system. It's basically the story of the birth and growth of our present systems of powerful state and federal highway departments, and how they planned and built the system of U.S. numbered highways and interstates.

Big Roads begins in the late 19th century, when bicycle devotees lobbied the federal government to create what would become the Bureau of Public Roads within the Department of Agriculture. This tiny roads office would grow into today's Federal Highway Administration, the anchor of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the Bureau of Public Roads worked with emerging state transportation departments to sketch out some sort of policy framework for roads for growing automobile traffic. Even the idea of a national road system was new one. States clamored for money, even while reluctant to give up control. Many ideas were floated and discussed.

Particularly significant was the 1921 Federal-Aid Highway Act passed by Congress. It was there where our present pattern of powerful state road departments, assisted with technical expertise and policy coordination from the feds, was largely set.

In the 1930s, as the U.S numbered system of surface highways was taking shape, politicians and policy experts began contemplating another national system, but this time of broad limited access roads, similar to the autobahns in Germany. This was the beginning of the Interstates. President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s helped start its planning. President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s got credit for its launching, although he had little to do with the system's design.

In the telling of this saga, Swift, a former reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, makes various bureaucrats, politicians and business people come alive. They include the talented Carl Fisher, who started in the late 19th century as a bicycle shopkeeper, became an auto dealer and racer, founded what would become the Indianapolis 500 raceway, developed Miami Beach, before finally going broke after the 1929 stock market crash. Fisher and colleagues in 1913 helped construct the first cross-country road, the Lincoln Highway, built with a mixture of public and private monies.

Other characters in the book include Thomas H. MacDonald, the dour and amazingly competent long time leader of the Bureau of Public Roads. Lewis Mumford, the noted urban critic, takes the stage in the 1950s as a brilliant Cassandra-like critic of the Interstates. Mumford tries to dissuade the nation from over-investing in highways and unwisely plowing them through center cities. He is not heeded.

As we survey the nation today, we see the world these people have wrought. It has its flaws. It's too road-centric. Its maintenance was neglected almost from the start. But in its existence, at a time when constructing substantial infrastructure of any kind is difficult, we can take hope that progress is possible.