The great highway program (Fortune Classics, 1958)

June 26, 2011, 8:03 AM UTC

Editors Note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a classic story from our archive. Today’s is a September, 1958, look at the birth of the interstate highway system. The article calls out a number of issues that were then being minimized but that would plague communities for decades, such as the fact that the highway engineers were building roads for speed, cost and convenience, as opposed to thinking about neighborhoods being paved over. Or that building the system was just the start of the costs to come. Fortune was also rightly skeptical of claims that improvements in flying (especially ” vertical takeoff aircraft”) would make the highway obsolete; or that a magnetic cable “would guide the car while the driver relaxes.”  As Americans take to the road for the summer, it’s good to remember that the creation of the system wasn’t always a sure thing.




A new decade of public works: I

Los Angeles Highway in 1950's

In the automobile-dominated vision of many Americans, progress is paved with concrete and asphalt. The new national highway program has been proclaimed “the greatest public-works program in the history of the world,” yet it has been undertaken without partisan dispute. Its awesome statistics awe practically nobody. Within the span of a single generation, the country will build the 41,000-mile Interstate network of high-speed, controlled-access super-highways costing some $40 billion, bringing the total the nation will spend to enlarge, improve, and maintain its roads to more than $100 billion. Americans may be impressed by the imposing engineering challenge involved, but to a remarkable degree they look on the program as only that — an engineering feat. Like better schools, it is regarded as a thoroughly good, nonpolitical program that everybody will support and that will clear up this traffic mess once and for all, it is ardently hoped.

One reason so many Americans take the Interstate program for granted is that they haven’t seen it; road builders, to be sure, are at work and here and there a few completed stretches can be seen. Only now, however, is the program really getting under way-and only now are some of the conflicts of interests it poses coming into view. Before long it is going to be obvious that the highway program is eminently and necessarily political. More, perhaps, than any previous construction program, it is going to affect the economy and the whole pattern of life in our metropolitan regions. When it is completed, it will have produced not merely more and better roads, but a new transportation system, surpassing in its impact the great canal and railroad building booms that so radically altered the face of the country in the last century:

It is only one of many public-works programs. The programs for new schools, for sewerage and water systems, which FORTUNE will take up in subsequent articles in this series, are prodigious too. Yet the highway program poses all of the basic problems involved in public works, and some knotty ones of its own. And it is vital, as economists and city planners, among others, are beginning to realize that certain questions be asked about the program before it is too late:

• Is the program too big? No one disputes our ability to build $40 billion worth of highways, but many are beginning to wonder if the highway program will not drain off money from other, and equally urgent, needs.

• Who will pay for the program? Highways have been traditionally financed by taxes on the users of them; it appears, however, that such taxes at present levels won’t provide enough money — and they may be inequitable, to boot.

• Should the planning be left to the highway engineers? The program is bound to have tremendous consequences for other forms of transportation — most notably, the railroads. It is also going to have great consequences on the pattern of development in our metropolitan areas. But the program is being guided primarily in engineering terms, and so far there has not been enough coordination between the highway departments and the other interests that will be so vitally affected.

• Is such a public-works program an anti-recession measure? Recent events have cast doubt on the old assumption that a backlog of public-works projects could help take up the slack in poor times. And can there really be a “shelf” of projects that are really needed?

• Will the highway program further extend the power of the federal government? Before the program, the federal government paid for about 20 per cent of all U.S. road construction; for the first six years of the program it will average 37 percent. Because states must put up money to get this money, Washington has a considerable leverage power; and there is a possibility the states will neglect the local roads that don’t fetch federal money for the big ones that do.

• Is there a chance the program is building for obsolescence? A few imaginative critics believe that it has not anticipated developments in aviation which may replace trucks with giant freight planes, and passenger cars with vertical takeoff aircraft. Far-fetched, perhaps, but that is the sort of thing that happened when the country went overboard on canal building just before the dawn of the railroad age.

• What will happen to the toll roads? Authorities that built them have obsolescence problems to think about right now.

• How much of a stimulus will the program be to industry?

The biography of any Interstate highwa:y opens with the enactment of the program. The promise of a lucrative market causes industry to crank out a stream of road-building machinery and materials. State highway engineers study traffic-flow charts and decide the highway's general location, which is then approved by the Bureau of Public Roads. At this stage, the state may hire a consultant to do pre- liminary engineering. leading to the selection of alternative routes. This hypothetical road is going to take sixty-four months from conception to completion (H-day). Actually, the building of an Interstate highway can vary from two years to six; or more.

It is clear that the highway program will be a dynamic force and that each dollar of public money will generate many dollars in private business. But how much? And when? The construction industry, which anticipated the program by building up capacity at a sharp rate, is particularly anxious about those questions:

Too much, too soon

Among the most appealing of the program’s attractions was the promise that it would provide an extensive market for a wide variety of equipment and materials, a new source of employment, and an influence that would steady the construction industry through any kind of economic weather. Buoyed by the heady talk of highway billions, manufacturers, suppliers, and contractors began building up their plant even before the first dollar for the program was appropriated. The sort of thing that encouraged them was a calculation made by the American Road Builders Association that each additional billion dollars budgeted for highway construction would call for 16 million barrels of cement, 510,000 tons of steel, 18 million pounds of explosives, 123 million gallons of petroleum products, and 76 million tons of aggregate. The massive earth-moving job needed to cut down hills, fill valleys, and minimize curves would, according to one estimate, “shift enough material to bury the whole state of New Jersey knee-deep in earth and rock.”

By 1956 the road-machinery industry was ready with an army of equipment totaling 330,648 pieces, from pickup trucks to bulldozers, scarifiers, sheepsfoot rollers, pavers, and giant portable asphalt plants. Millions of dollars went into plant expansion, resulting in the manufacture of more equipment than could be absorbed. The cement industry has spent $800 million on a 28 per cent increase in plant capacity, mostly on the promise of road orders. Dealers overstocked and contractors overbought to build up their arsenals of machinery.

This spring, according to industry estimates, manufacturers were operating at only 60 percent of their capacity and contractors at only 50 percent. Yet, with the recession slowing construction in other fields, more and more firms were bidding for highway jobs. The Associated General Contractors of America reported that competition among highway contractors is greater today than ever before in the history of road building. In some areas as many as sixteen contractors have been vying for the same job.

As a result, many state highway departments are shopping in a buyers’ market. “It’s a healthy situation,” exulted Ohio’s Deputy Highway Director Fred Reiners, “fat enough to keep them busy but lean enough to keep them on their toes. They’re sharpening their pencils when they bid.” In some states bids have been as much as 10 and 15 percent below estimates.

Some industry spokesmen, less happy about the situation, complain that the program had been oversold. But, while there was indeed some exaggerated talk, the original large estimates of material and work requirements are not likely to prove far wrong — ultimately. On the Interstate System, 29 cents of the average highway dollar goes for the purchase of materials and supplies, 14 cents to machinery, 25 cents for labor. The other 32 cents is spent for engineering, purchase of right-of-way, and other preliminary costs. Thus about 70 percent of the Interstates $40 billion will flow into private construction enterprise. But what was insufficiently understood was that this would be spread over a long period and that industry’s share of the highway dollar would not really begin to clink on the counter until the pro- gram was well under way.

When highways were simpler, money was translated within a matter of months into “work put in place,” i.e., actual clearing and paving. That is why, ever since the New Deal, highways have been considered one of the quickest ways of stimulating employment in a sagging economy. But in a complex nationwide superhighway system, much more time elapses and much more of the money is siphoned off by preliminaries. Plans must be drawn up and then approved in Washington, routes must be discussed in public meetings, right-of-way acquisition takes longer because relocation is more difficult.

At midyear, about $4 billion of federal and state funds had been committed to the Interstate System, but it will be two or three years before there is much visible evidence of new roads built. Construction has been completed on only 1,771 miles and much of this consists of interrupted bits not yet open to traffic. An additional 3,167 miles are being built and another 1,898 are “programmed,” meaning that specific projects have been proposed.

By next summer’s construction season, much more Interstate money will show in “work put in place.” By the early 1960’s, with the program running full speed, the job picture will look much brighter and contractors’ and suppliers’ expanded capacity will be better employed. But the best that can be said for the Interstate program’s role in the 1957-58 recession is that the construction situation might have been worse without it. If a quick stimulus for employment is needed, superhighways are not the answer.

Surveying the route by photogrammetry, a technician uses a Kelsh stereo plotter to translate aerial photographs into a contour map. The ground surveyor is not entirely displaced by this modern process. The highway location is then debated at a public meeting, a procedure mandatory for all Interstate highways, for many businessmen, homeowners, farmers, and city planners are likely to feel the proposed route won't serve their interests. Presiding is a state highway official, who explains why the route has been chosen. The protests heard but not necessarily heeded, engineers put the finishing touches on the highway design.

Modest conventional roadwork serves better, as Congress recognized when it inserted a special anti-recession provision into the 1958 Federal-Aid Highway Act. This is a one-shot additional appropriation of $400 million in federal aid to the so-called ABC-system of ordinary state highways. It is to be given on a two-thirds federal, one-third state matching basis, instead of the fifty-fifty that is usual for ABC aid, and the states can borrow most of what they need for matching. The important qualification is that there must be no long lead time. To get the money, states must let contracts by December 1 of this year, and complete the work by the following December. The effect will be to confine most of these funds to repaving and widening projects.

$8 billion a year by 1960

Though it is a lot of money by itself, this $400-million emergency stimulant merely tops off an already huge national commitment to highways. In 1959 the federal government, states, counties, and localities will spend all together about $7 billion in capital outlay for new roads. Since the beginning of the Interstate program the annual total has been steadily rising from $4.8 billion to $6.2 billion this year. Throughout the 1960’s it is likely to be sustained at an $8 billion rate, and it may rise beyond that.

This concentration on highways is taking place while other worthy projects, spoken for by softer voices, are kept on slimmer rations; for instance, last year $700 million was spent on urban renewal and $785 million on sewer construction. And, while government wrings its hands over the plight of the railroads, and even road builders warn against allowing urban mass transportation to degenerate further, more and more money goes into a program that will make life even harder for both these invalids.

The case for the highway program is based solely on the overriding necessity of providing for the nation’s rapidly growing motor traffic. Supporters of big highway spending point out that about one-sixth of the gross national product is contributed by highway transportation and its byproducts: vehicles, fuel, tires, carriage of freight, logistics for motorists. Until recently, despite a wartime hiatus in construction, the U.S. was spending less proportionately on new highway plant than it spent in Model T days. Today the total is only approaching the 1930 rate, which was 1.7 percent of G.N.P.

Furthermore, many argue, road building is self-supporting. Most of its cost comes out of the pockets of highway users — in gasoline, oil, tire, and truck-tonnage taxes, registration and license fees, and other excises. Some money from these sources even helps to finance other governmental activities having nothing to do with highways, though such diversion is strenuously deplored by professional user organizations. There is wide difference of opinion about how much is diverted and the issue is clouded by varying state financing practices. But the National Highway Users Conference maintains that last year alone over $300 million was diverted to non-highway purposes.

Pay as you build

In theory, then, the highway program could be self-sufficient. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which charted a sixteen-year schedule for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, made a gallant try to link long-term construction with an equally long-term revenue scheme. It raised the federal tax on motor fuel from 2 to 3 cents a gallon, the tax on tires from 5 to 8 cents per pound. It also introduced a new impost of 3 cents a pound on retreads, required trucks and buses weighing more than thirteen tons to pay $1.50 a year on each half ton of total weight, and increased the excise tax on new trucks, buses, and trailers from 8 to 10 percent.

Most of the proceeds were earmarked for a Highway Trust Fund. Over the sixteen-year program, fiscal experts believed, fund income would just about balance all federal aid to highways, including money for both the Interstate and ABC roads. To nail down the pay-as-you-build principle, Congress also accepted an amendment from frugal Senator Harry Byrd, laying down the law that aid paid out could not exceed the cash actually in the Trust Fund. In other words, the fund was not to be allowed to go into debt.

This neat pay-as-you-build package has already begun to come apart. One reason is that Trust Fund revenues increase steadily as traffic grows. They will rise gradually from $1.5 billion in fiscal 1957 to an estimated peak of $3.1 billion in 1972, when the program is scheduled to end. On the other hand, the pattern set by the 1956 act provided for Interstate appropriations to mount from $1 billion in fiscal 1957 to $1.7 billion in 1958 and on up to $2.2 billion in 1960. On that plateau it would remain until 1967, tapering down thereafter. But the two peaks just don’t coincide. If spending were tied year by year to tax receipts, most building activity would have to be crowded into the later years and the Interstate System might take twenty years or more to complete. In the 1958 Highway Act, Congress resolved that predicament by temporarily laying aside the Byrd Amendment. For two years the Trust Fund is per- mitted to borrow from the Treasury and pay back out of later receipts. Next year there will be a move to repeal the amendment entirely.

A second strain on pay-as-you-build is less easy to relieve. The Interstate System is going to cost a great deal more than was originally estimated.

The system had been on the planners’ drawing boards since before the war and had been accepted, in principle, by Congress in 1944. By the time the Administration put its weight behind the project, the Bureau of Public Roads and the states were estimating the probable cost as $27.6 billion, of which the federal government was to furnish $25 billion. These figures were incorporated in the 1956 act.

Last January the bureau submitted a revised estimate that sent the total up steeply to $40 billion. There were solid reasons for this increase: a new 15 per cent higher traffic forecast for 1975, which the program is intended to meet; the addition of new interchanges so as better to handle local traffic; an upward adjustment for more lighting and signs; and a 12 per cent rise in construction costs that had occurred since the 1954 estimate was made.

Congress had no choice but to beef up Interstate appropriations; for 1959, 1960, and 1961 it added a total of $800 million, bringing them to $2.2 billion for the first of these years and $2.5 billion for each of the two succeeding. Future appropriations will have to be jumped even more if the program is to keep to its sixteen-year schedule.

Where will the money come from? The Trust Fund, as presently constituted, cannot hope to come within reach of what is needed to complete the program on schedule. Three years ago, when the Administration pushed General Lucius D. Clay’s recommendation for a long-term bond issue, based on the reasonable proposition that highways are a long-term investment, the idea got the cold-eye treatment on Capitol Hill; too much highway money would be drained off to pay interest, congressional critics said. Today large-scale borrowing stands no better chance of congressional acceptance. But if the pay-as-you-build principle is to be preserved, more revenue must be found.

Do trucks pay enough?

Some highway experts feel it is time to re-examine the economics and the justice of making the users foot the entire bill. And they question whether the right users are paying in the right proportion. The premise of user taxation is that the vehicle operator pays both for the benefits he receives from better roads and for the depreciation he causes by pounding the pavements. The average private motorist is paying an additional $7 to $9, and truckers from $10 to $396 a year in increased federal taxes to finance the Inter- state System. But each will benefit in various ways: steadier driving will mean less mechanical and tire wear and tear and more economical fuel use; greater safety will lower insurance premiums; travel time will be shortened (for example, the 671-mile drive from Richmond to Jacksonville will be cut from seventeen hours to thirteen and a half).

Unfortunately no infallible way has yet been found to measure user benefits or to distribute road costs in direct proportion to road use. Are trucks paying their way? Does road wear increase in direct proportion to the vehicle’s weight? Does a ponderous tandem do more damage· on one trip than several small trucks on several trips? Since high overhead and pre-paving expenses reduce paving to a fraction of the total highway budget, how much has road wear to do with costs anyway?

To get better answers to these questions, Congress asked the Bureau of Public Roads to make a study of benefits and usage. The bureau hopes that some clues will come out of a strip of experimental road that has just been completed on the Illinois plains eighty miles southwest of Chicago. This is the A.A.S.H.O. Road Test Project, sponsored by the American Association of State Highway Officials with federal, state, and private backing. The strip is paved and based at intervals in varying thicknesses and with different materials. Beginning this month, Army Transportation Corpsmen will drive trucks ranging from one-ton single-axle jobs to lumbering twenty-four-ton tandems over the strip, day after day for two years. From time to time, experts will test each section and assemble data that should make provocative reading for road builders and trucking interests, as well as the bureau’s road-use investigation.

Clearing the right-of-way, a bulldozer smashes into trees and rock obstructions. A crane swings a wrecking ball against a city building -- about one-eighth of the Interstate System will go into urban areas. As actual road building begins, a picturesque variety of equipment moves onto the scene. The scraper, center bottom, levels off the roadbed. And a sheepsfoot roller helps make the bed firm and ready for application of the crushed-rock subsurface. The laborer, upper right, is guiding a girder into place on one of the Interstate's thousands of bridges and overpasses. Construction ordinarily extends over two spring-to-autumn seasons but may be delayed by bad weather.

The bureau is also studying the extent to which highway benefits spread to non-users. Truckers, for instance, pass on some of their road savings to the consumers of the goods they carry. There is ample evidence that freeways of the Interstate type set off a real-estate boom in areas to which they are accessible. While the idea might be politically impossible now, there is a good chance that not so many years from now governments are going to make developers return some of the unearned increment they have enjoyed because of public investments such as highways.

Is national security a beneficiary? An important selling point for the Interstate was its indispensability for national defense, both as an internal military line of communication and as a channel for evacuating cities in time of atomic attack. The evacuation theory has become debatable, but if there is indeed any military importance in the highways, should not part of the road bill be paid out of the defense budget? To put highway financing back on general tax support would greatly complicate federal budget accounting. But the idea is acquiring wider acceptance as federal spending mounts.

What about local roads?

But as federal spending mounts, so must state spending. The federal money is not an outright gift. To receive its portion, each state must match it. For the Interstate System it need furnish only 10 per cent of the total, but for the ABC roads it must match dollar for dollar. In fiscal 1960, states must appropriate a total of $250 million for the Interstate and $900 million for ABC construction in order to receive their share of federal money. A state like California, which devotes a large proportion of its revenues to highways, can take matching in its stride, but others may have to skimp on highway projects that do not qualify for federal aid. There will be less money left over, after matching, for county and city construction.

While it is true that the 41,000-mile Interstate and the 737,000-mile ABC networks between them will carry more than two-thirds of U.S. traffic, the country has all together more than three million miles of roads and streets. Thus well over two million miles are not benefited by federal aid. These include not only the most backward roads in the nation, but also city streets. The consequences of their neglect would be that traffic would pour in greater and greater volume on spacious superhighways only to join the jam on local thoroughfares.

The states have little scope for expanding their highway revenues, since they are feeding at the same tax trough as the federal government. It will be difficult for them to increase user taxes now that users are being hit so much harder to pay for the federal part of the program.

Trouble for the turnpikes

Toll roads are no longer an alternative solution for state highway financing. Their uncertain prospect raises problems of its own. Until the Interstate program came along, toll building proved a handy way to meet specific highway needs — particularly for expensive arterial roads — without depending on taxes or federal aid. In recent years nineteen states have built roughly 3,000 miles of bond-financed toll highways, among them some of the finest examples of U.S road building, such as the Ohio and New Jersey Turnpikes and the New York Thruway.

Now toll construction is tapering off rapidly. The question is, what to do with the existing toll roads. As equally good free roads become available, there is concern that motorists’ enthusiasm for the turnpikes will decline, and that income from tolls may not be enough to pay off bondholders. The Bureau of Public Roads and the states involved have agreed to incorporate 2,100 miles of toll roads into the Interstate System, so that their routes will not be duplicated by new free highways. But so far no federal aid has been allocated for this mileage. Unless Congress decides to pay off bond-holders, and it is unlikely to do so, tolls must continue to be charged on these roads and they will still be at a competitive disadvantage. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, for instance, has been made part of the Interstate, and there will be no free rival route between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. But the Interstate’s projected Keystone Shortway, which will cross the state farther north, is sure to draw off a considerable share of the transcontinental traffic that now uses the Turnpike — a fact that has stirred vigorous lobbying by Pennsylvania bond underwriters. It is the Bureau of Public Roads’ policy to postpone completion of free rival highways sueh as the Shortway until later in the program, but ultimately they will be built and the issue will have to be faced.

The pavers go into action. A giant concrete paver mixes cement with aggregate and water and lays it in one continuous process. Smaller machines will finish the surface of the concrete. In the background is a bituminous paver, which spreads premixed asphaltic concrete. Paving takes about 40 percent of construction time. On H-day, a group of dignitaries assembles for the ribbon-cutting ceremony under one of the big, new style Interstate direction signs. Landscapers put the finishing touches to the roadside. A traffic cop already lurks in wait for speeders. The speed limit he is enforcing is hypothetical; each state will be free to set its own.

The new competition is of immediate concern, of course, to the independent state authorities that built the roads and are responsible for paying off the bonds. But it is also of long-range concern to the states themselves, for they may find it more difficult in the future to use the toll device if it is ever again needed for road improvements.

The powerful highwaymen

As city planners have noted uneasily, one of the more portentous effects of the program is its enhancement of the power of the state highway departments. Although federal money has become an overwhelming factor, the states are still in control of the building process. Even before the program gave them so much more building to do, the state highway departments had achieved great authority and importance: They have been accustomed to drive ahead with new ideas, to ride roughshod over local interests, to have their way almost without challenge.

Now the highway departments are imposing what amounts to a master plan for development, particularly in urban areas. Great channels, 300 feet wide, must be cleared to accommodate four and six-lane roadbeds and broad median strips. Yawning gaps the size of small villages will be torn to make way for interchanges. Farms will be split, householders uprooted, recreation land slashed. And in built-up areas, the new roads will divide neighborhoods, disturb street arrangements, cut through residential blocks, stores, and office buildings.

If the record of the past is any criterion the routes — and the design for the future they impose — are likely to reflect highway-department emphasis on traffic service and cost of construction, rather than such considerations as metropolitan vitality and livability. The highway departments are not always averse to accepting other objectives if these are offered, but most of all they want to get on with the job, and quickly. The implications of routing will be considered more fully in the second article of this series. The subject is mentioned here only because it demonstrates how, in its building phase, the program is influencing and instilling urgency into city and regional planning.

The highway departments do try to minimize damage. They prefer to tear up slums where possible, to take scrubland rather than good farm acreage, to bound neighbor-hoods rather than crash right through them. But there are many situations in which the routing of highways offends local interests. A city may be anxious to preserve its landmarks, a suburb to protect its peace and quiet. When such considerations conflict with engineering criteria, it is the engineers who almost always win. The opposition rarely has an alternative to offer, and when it does, it is too often dismissed as merely obstructionist or sentimental.

The right-of-way problem

Quite apart from its long-range effects on communities, the acquisition of highway right-of-way comes up against some immediate and complex economic questions. It is expected that over $5 billion of Interstate money will be used simply to buy space for the roads. Right-of-way purchase draws the highway department into delicate negotiations with tens of thousands of property owners. It involves “working out a fair price that takes in to consideration the inconvenience and possible business disadvantage of moving. It can often lead to endless court cases. In starts that lack ” quick take” laws, which enable the highway department to begin clearing the property while litigation is under way, the stubborn holdout can block a road project for months or even years.

The economic cost of right-of- way can be cut if a highway department boldly anticipates its land needs far in advance of actual highway construction. The public benefits because new developments can be built with the assurance they won’t be razed in a few years to make way for a road. And the state saves money because it buys property before development increasers its value. A parcel on the outskirts of a city might be acquired for $500 an acre when it is still a vacant lot. But if the state waits until a supermarket is erected there, it may have to pay as much as $5,000 an acre plus a side consideration for displacing a flourishing investment.

One useful device for financing forward-looking right-of-way acquisition is the revolving fund. The state sets aside a sum of money that can be drawn upon to pay for land it will need for future highways. When the actual highway appropriation is available, the fund is repaid. Some states have set up revolving funds out of their own revenue. And, the 1956 Highway Act authorized the use of federal aid to purchase land as much as five years before construction begins; this summer Congress extended it to seven years.

But advance land acquisition won’t work if a state highway department projects its roads one by one. California, which maintains a $30-million revolving fund, has been able to use it with conspicuous success because the state plans its freeways ten or more years ahead. With a tenth of the country’s traffic to accommodate, its right-of-way needs are immense. The number of property owners relocated every year in California equals the population of a large town. So many homes have been lifted intact from their sites that dealers have found a flourishing business in buying them from the state and reselling them. Consolidated House Movers, Inc., has twenty to twenty-five cottages on stilts awaiting buyers in its “used-house” lot in southern Los Angeles.

But the state keeps its costs down by acquiring as much land as possible beforit is built upon. It tries to buy rural land while it is still rural, not after developers have had a chance to raise its value. Until actual construction begins, owner-occupiers may stay on, paying rent to the state. In this manner the state government has become the biggest landlord in California. Over a recent three-year period, California paid $19 million out of the revolving fund for right-of-way that would have cost $114 million if it had waited until the actual road appropriations were available.

The danger of corruption

Early acquisition of right-of-way also thwarts speculators. The property is taken over long before a smart operator, working on a hunch or inside knowledge, can get his hands’ on it.

A scandal in Indiana, which occurred just as the Interstate program was getting under way, was a timely warning of what could happen. When the lid was ripped off, three officials of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners were charged with buying land and selling it to the state soon afterward as right-of-way for a highway, at a quick profit of $78,416, which they intended to divide with the highly placed politicians who had given them the inside information. In a similar case, the former chairman of the State Highway Commission was convicted of conspiracy to defraud the state, and cronies of former Governor George N. Craig were implicated. Indiana has since cleared house, a process that involved starting its highway program virtually from scratch. Elsewhere these episodes led to tightened vigilance. The Bureau of Public Roads, which had been satisfied to spot-check state right-of-way deals on federal projects, started scrutinizing every case with a magnifying glass.

It is hard to find a time when traffic did not exist.

But danger of corruption will remain, of course. The highway program cannot be completely insulted from politics, nor is it desirable that is should be. It would be dangerous to put its administration entirely out of reach of public opinion acting through elected officials.  The head of most highway departments are appointed at the pleasure of the governor. And hardly anyone advocates changing this arrangement.  What matters is that the departments be professionally run organizations instead of dispensers of political favors and patronage.  Some States have made great strides towards putting such delicate matters as right-of-way negotiation and inspection of materials into the hands of trained technicians.


The technical challenge

Just as the program called for a tightening of administrative standards, so also has it been an impetus to the development of new ideas, new techniques, and new materials. For instance, the threat of a structural-steel shortage, which abated only this year with the general fall in the demand for steel, spurred productive research into substitutes. The Bureau of Public Roads is working on a project with Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corp. and several manufacturers of aluminum to develop corrugated aluminum “sandwiches” for bridge structures. These may turn out cheaper and lighter than steel and would need no paint. Prestressed concrete is also proving useful for bridge beams, raising high hopes for this infant product, which has grown in annual production to nearly eight million barrels since it came on the market eight years ago.

The program has intensified the old rivalry between portland-cement concrete and asphaltic concrete; and the result will be better grades of highway pavement. Both industries are extending their research facilities to develop better products. Cement is currently enjoying a slight lead on the Interstate System, but the outcome of the black vs. white contest is likely to be a standoff.

In most cases, the choice is left to the engineers, and each has his own reason for preferring black or white on a particular job. For instance, asphalt is generally cheaper to pave with initially, but it requires more maintenance. Nontechnical factors often enter into the decision. Oil states like Texas and California must assuage the local industry, which is the prime producer of asphalt. To keep lobbyists at bay, some states try to divide their contracts fifty-fifty between black and white paving. New light on the subject is likely to be cast by the A.A.S.H.O. Road Test Project, which is testing various applications of asphaltic and cement concrete pavement to determine their durability and all- weather characteristics. And Federal Highway Administrator Bertram Tallamy believes “we might someday discover a new type of pavement that would completely change our present concepts.”

The engineering pinch

As in every engineering field, there has been much hand wringing over the shortage of engineers in highway work. According to Major General Louis W. Prentiss, executive vice president of the American Road Builders Association, “we are trying to do over $6 billion worth of work in 1958 with the same engineer force as did $4.5 billion in 1954.” That force amounts to about 32,000 highway engineers. Only about 15 percent of graduating civil engineers each year choose roadwork as a career; the 600 recruits are just about sufficient to replace old-timers who die or retire. In the era of rocketry and atomics, other branches of engineering seem far more exciting.

The sheer size of the program has forced highway departments to find ways of improving the productivity of the engineers who are available. Ground surveying, which consumes time and manpower, has been largely replaced by photogrammetry, a technique of serial photography that produces a stereoscopic picture. This “read” by a device that translates it into a contour map on which a road route can be plotted. Electronics too has been put on the design job. By feeding data on weight and stress requirements into an “educated” computer, one man can obtain the design characteristics for a bridge or interchange in one hour; formerly it took as much as 50 man-hours to do the work.  And the use of seismography to register the blast effect of underground explosions substitutes for long hours of digging and soil analysis in studying roadbase characteristics.

Oleanders down the middle

The pressure for improved safety is another spur to new ideas – and new expenditures.  The new highways will be safer than conventional roads, but not safe enough. The Interstate type of freeway, with its widely separated lanes and eliminations of grade crossings, almost banishes head-on and intersection collisions. Wherever there has been experience with this kind of road, the accident rate has been halved and the death rate reduced by one-third. But accidents — and disastrous ones — can still be caused by drivers’ recklessness, drowsiness, or confusion. Safety experts agree with University of California transportation authority Harmer Davis that “we can’t hope to eliminate bad driving habits.  We can only discover what they are and seek ways to minimize them.” For instance, despite warnings and severe penalties, some drivers persist in making U turns across median strips. So states are building dips or obstructions, such as wire fencing, into their medians. California is spending a total of $3 million a year for fencing alone, and is also planting long stretches of oleander bushes at $4,000 a mile. This flowering shrub needs little care and performs the extra service of shielding drivers against headlight glare.

To minimize errors of ignorance, new kinds of signs are needed. The controversial billboard-control provision of the 1958 Highway Act, which entitles a state to a 1/2 percent federal-aid bonus if it regulates advertising signs, aims to free the Interstate System from ugly clutter and leave the driver alone in his serenity. But he will still need to be informed.

The highway is open to traffic, but the job is never done. As the cars roar by, a repairman mounted on a mobile ladder fixes a faulty light. Maintenance, of course, can get a lot more complicated. Repairing worn pavement is a major item and there is an expensive snow-removal job every winter. Over twenty-five years a highway's maintenance bill amounts to about a tenth of its original cost, and federal aid helps pay for none of it. Before long, the extra traffic generated by the new highway will produce new jams, like the one beneath the overpass. The engineers and surveyors will start all over again on a new highway.

The old small-print signs on posts by the side of the road will no longer suffice. To be visible to speeding drivers in time to be useful, signs must be much bigger, much clearer, more often repeated, and placed well in advance of what they are indicating. Since confusion on the interstate would be compounded if each state determined its own sign design, the American Association of State Highway Officials has drawn up some national specifications. Major directional signs will be erected overhead where they can be seen from the maximum distance. Place names will be printed in white capitals and lower-case lettering on a green background, because this has been found to be the most legible. They must be reflectorized or illuminated by fluorescent lighting for night visibility. They will run in size to 150 square feet or more. Since the largest will require elaborate rigging and catwalks for maintenance workers, they will end up as formidable structures weighing as much as seventeen tons and costing up to $25, 000 apiece.  In California, the highways department has assigned their structural design and construction to its bridge building division.

The pursuit of adequacy

Looking far ahead, experiments arc under way with some novel decisions for keeping drivers alert and informed. One possibility is a variation of pavement texture so as to change the pitch of tire whine from time to time and ward off monotony. Another is a system of small radio transmitters at the roadside to broadcast information about obstructions, curves, or turnoffs to passing cars. Tests are being made with radar linked to a beep signal that warns the driver, in conditions of poor visibility, that there is another car or obstruction in his path. A more advanced version of this would link the radar directly to the brakes, bypassing the driver entirely. Still in the dream stage, but not counted as impossible, is a magnetic cable that would guide the car while the driver relaxes and enjoys the scenery — if there is any scenery left to enjoy.

While the venturesome travel in that never-never land highway engineers are preoccupied with a more urgent problem: adequacy. The builders of the Interstate System plan to make it adequate for the traffic of 1975; by that time, they estimate, the total of 67 million vehicles now on the road will have swelled to more than 100 million.

Traffic projection is based partly on fact, partly on guesswork. Traffic experts can assemble data on where people live, where they work, and where they want to drive. They predict population rise, increased leisure time, heightened economic activity. But the mere existence of better roads generates entirely new traffic where it never existed before. The road system may bring about a redistribution of population that will induce still more road use.

When the General Motors Futurama at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 predicted that 38 million cars would be on the roads by 1960, the forecast was considered fantastic; yet almost double that number has been reached today. In 1946 the Automotive Safety Foundation made what it considered a very liberal projection for 1960; its estimated exceeded in 1951. The history of U.S road building has been an endless chase to catch up with realities that exceed predictions.

The men who are directing the present program are determined not to be caught short. They will keep revising their estimates of capacity needed, adding more lanes and ramps and feeder roads. The pursuit of adequacy will be costly. There are bound to be further upward revisions of the program’s total cost. And the nation is dreading spending $2 billion a year on road maintenance alone.

Someday, perhaps just about the time this program is completed, Americans may draw a breath and reflect whether it is worthwhile to expend so much national energy on this kind of transportation. But there’s no sign of such a revolution yet.