The October 2011 issue, Better Roads marked the 80th anniversary of the magazine. The publication was founded in 1931 by Alden F. Perrin, who served a publisher and editorial director until his death in 1965.
From the mostly gravel roads that existed when the magazine was founded to today’s super highways, there has been extensive development, technology and building of local roads, state and federal highways and bridges during this time.
Perhaps we can find a way to learn from the past.
The following articles are from the first issue of Better Roads in October, 1931 and others throughout the decade of the 1930s through 2011.
Excerpts from issues of Better Roads throughout the 1930s
Some things never change
“Readers, who do not have to be reminded that the problem of financing for rebuilding continues in and out of depression (re: The Great Depression), may be expected to show some interest in a suggestion for permanent federal aid for county and township roads.”
We’ve come a long way, baby!
“Of the 300,000-mile system of state highways, a total of approximately 200,000 miles is now surfaced. Of the remaining 2,700,000 miles of rural roads, little over 15 percent is out of the earth-surface class.”
Note: Today, there are 4 million miles of roads in the United States with 2.5 million paved roads….1.5 million miles of roads remain unpaved.
“Gee, our old LaSalle ran great”
“Here indeed is food for thought. The development of luxurious motor vehicles has its counterpart in the development of safer and more pleasant and comfortable roads. With touring no longer a novelty, the highway user has acquired a concern what may be called the amenities of motor travel.”
The visionary governor
Regarding his state’s farm-road program, one of the first in the United States at the time, Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot wrote in a 1931 issue of Better Roads, “…the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over 20,000 miles of rural roads –the farmer’s roads to build them and maintain them at state expense. This means not only that farmers on this mileage will be lifted by the mud, but the yearly $10,000,000 will be lifted from the backs of the farmer taxpayers of Pennsylvania.”
Ohio Motor Vehicle Act
“A change in the system of taxing motor vehicles and in the distribution of such tax funds will provide additional highway funds for Ohio counties. The new measure exempts motor vehicles from personal property taxation and increases the cost of license tags.”—Editorial comment by Alden F. Perrin, publisher and editorial director, Better Roads, Nov. 1931.
Building low-cost roads in Iowa
“Winneshiek County finds heavier equipment necessary to carry out new duties imposed by the Bergman Law (this law gave control of all township roads, formerly in the care of township trustees, to title boards of supervisors and engineers); small dragline shovel combination proved ideal unit.” The dragline was a Speeder ½-yard unit. Speeder is the predecessor to the Linkbelt Company.
Bargain prices prevail in North Dakota
“At the July 31 letting, contracts for gravel hauling at 6-1/2 cents per yard-mile and earth excavating at 15 cents per cubic yard were awarded.” –North Dakota State Highway Department
Plans for Wichita Road Show
“Plans are being completed for the seventh annual Southwest Road Show and School, to be held at Wichita, Kan. on Feb. 23, 24, 25 and 26, 1932. Lectures on road construction and maintenance will be delivered by some of the ablest authorities in the country.”—article appearing in Better Roads, Dec. 1931.
Economy of treated timber
“Modern highway bridges constructed of treated timber should not be confused with or compared to the timber bridge of a generation past, any more than other present types should be compared to their predecessors.”—article appearing in Better Roads, Jan. 1932.
State-wide numbering system
“The numbering and marking of county roads in Kansas will soon be complete throughout the state through the cooperative efforts of Kansas counties.” — article appearing in Better Roads, Feb. 1932.
Oil-mixed surface applied on Indiana road
“Mixed-in-place construction employing asphaltic road oil and local gravel as aggregate was used this summer to surfacing approximately five miles of the county road around Bass Lake in Starke County, Ind. The smooth, dustless completed surface has met with the complete approval of road users and dwellers in the vicinity.”—article appearing in Better Roads, March 1932.
Mr. A.K. Olsen, County Engineers report: Union County, Iowa
“Here are two statements bearing on the essential tools of road building—that can be pondered with profit by many county engineers”:
· “Motorized maintenance equipment is proving itself a money-saver in every way.”
· “Efficiency and economy cannot be achieved without an organization of experienced men.”
Preparing for winter
“Year by year the picture changes; annually there is recorded a greater mileage of roads open to traffic the year around. In truth, the cleared highway is a necessity and no longer a luxury.”
Organizing a New York county for snow removal
As a result of its geographical situation, Chautauqua County, N.Y. is subject to intense local snowstorms… (which) has necessitated the organization of an elaborate system of dispatching plowing equipment. Trucks and snowplows, the drivers of which can be reached at anytime by telephone, are stationed and held at strategic points….
The World War II era was a time when money for roads was scarce and uncertainty plentiful. Yet the need for mobilization and the anticipation of the end to the war when the country would boom made for a dilemma for government agencies and planners of the time.
January 1942—Less than 30 days after the United States enters World War II
When the January 1942 issue of Better Roads was published, the United States had just entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor less than a month earlier. Imagine the world then without CNN, the Internet and networks of instant communications!
From the editorial “Local Government in Wartime”
In his first editorial comment following the beginning of U.S. involvement in the war, in the January 1942 issue, less than a month after Pearl Harbor, Better Roads Editor C.M. Nelson wrote:
“In the new world we are getting adjusted to many readers of this magazine must be asking themselves questions…’ How will local governments come out of the war? Will they be stronger or weaker’? ‘Will citizens find their local governments more essential or less essential to the processes of American democracy?’”—Better Roads editor, C.M.Nelson
“In these days, like individuals, they (local governments) must toughen themselves to meet the shocks.”—Better Roads editor, C.M. Nelson
Girding for War…. Planning for peace.
The feature article in January 1942 was previewed this way:
“While girding for war, America is planning for peace. A post-war planning agency with which road officials will have close relations is Public Works Reserve.” The head of this agency was A.D. Morrell, who outlined the agency’s “aims and proposed procedures” in the January 1942 issue.
Morrell wrote, “In a sense the establishment of the Public Works Reserve is recognition of our need to prepare for peace. As an agency interested in public work, the Public Works Reserve has two express purposes. One is to secure from all state and local governmental agencies a listing of work that they consider necessary to the public good for the next five or six years. The second purpose is to assist these governmental agencies in the development and maintenance of a long-range program for such work.”
Planning for the times
In a February 1942 editorial on highway priorities for the U.S. during wartime, Editor Nelson wrote…
“The new master plan for highways for the war period will be worked out section by section, and month by month. Major uncertainties will remain. But highway planning for the war will never get started until we are satisfied that we know for certain what work cannot under any circumstances be curtailed, what can be reduced or delayed, and what can be forgotten for the time being.”
Road builders face the war
In a report from the annual American Road Builders Association (A.R.B.A.) (now the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, more commonly known as ARTBA) in February 1942, Better Roads reports that the leading road builder’s group was told by government officials that “only the most urgent road construction is possible…” yet, “serviceable highways are a vital war necessity.” The A.R.B.A. members were told, “Many roads are breaking up under the increased tonnages resulting form the speeding-up of war industry.”
Wartime restrictions on motor-vehicle use
“Because of war regulations, it appears that for a long-time to come the number of new cars and other motor equipment will be extremely limited.
This means diminishing traffic and dwindling tax returns for highway users”, which “will result in loss of income derived by the states from sales and highway-user levies.”
What about the roads?
In an editorial titled “What about the Roads” appearing in the June 1942 issue six months after the U.S. entered the war, Better Roads opined:
“At what level can the operations of highway departments be carried on without risking irreparable damage to the roads and to the vehicles using them in performing essential tasks? We are pretty well convinced that the vehicles and the tires we have aren’t going to last forever. What about the roads?”
Motor traffic and war industry: Facing the rubber shortage
As the war effort was now in high gear in June 1942 shortages of rubber, gasoline and other products needed to build and maintain roads were evident. In a transportation survey conducted by the state of West Virginia, it was reported that…
“Nearly 65 percent of all employees now travel to and from work in private automobiles on which 48 percent of the tires will be worn out in the next six months.”
Those post-war plans
Two and a half years after the start of the war, roadbuilders looked with optimism to the end of the war, as reported in the June 1943 issue…
“The prevailing tone of the planning sessions of the American Roads Builders Association held in Chicago last month was one of unity and accord. The roadbuilders aren’t in total agreement on the desirable size of the post war highway program, but they are agreed on where the decimal point should be. It will be a whopping big program, they believe, and road leaders in congress appear to think so too.”
A wartime shop safety check-list
In an article about shop safety during wartime appearing in the July 1943 issues, editors provide a list of “rules” for shop safety …
“The war compels a special vigilance. War news, possibly striking close to home, is certain to distract workers’ attention from what they are doing. These rules will aid safety education of new workers in the highway shop, and in reminding more experienced men that the chances of being laid up as the outcome of an accident is as good as ever.”
January 1944 issue—the glitch in post-war planning
“Failure of highway organizations to develop plans for projects that will be all ready to go at the end of the war isn’t always an indication of indifference or pure procrastination of caution amid uncertainties, including uncertainty about what the federal government is going to do. Often the only reason why preparation of plans is far behind schedule is that the technical manpower needed for the work simply isn’t available.”
Attitude of survival
In an article on the condition of U.S. road maintenance during the war period, M.B. Hodges, Maintenance Engineer, Texas Highway Department wrote in the January 1944 issue, “As we enter the year 1944, we look forward with some optimism—and yet there are no real grounds for such an outlook. Conditions could not be much worse than they have been, and they should be much better. Maintenance demands go on in war years as in peace years, regardless of wartime strains on basic resources. We are going to have to work and work as we never have in years gone by.”
Preparing for the influx of veterans to return home—from the March 1945 issue
“We have made ready for our veterans’ homecoming. The boys who come back from the war will not be the same boys who went away. Tact and patience on the part of fellow-employees will help smooth their way.”
“Warren County Mich. is prepared to fit its returning servicemen into civilian life through the means of a liberal, sympathetic veteran policy. Men who have neuro-psychiatric difficulties need special attention.”
On the manpower shortage…from the April 1944 issue…weeks before V-E (Victory Europe) Day
“How are we going to get post-war projects into the blueprint stage? What will we use for engineers and draftsmen? The shortage of technical manpower has raised these perplexing questions for highway departments in every part of the country.”
The Post-war Era is here
In an editorial title “The Post-war Era is Here,” Editor C.M. Nelson penned the following editorial in the September 1945 issue just a few weeks after V-J (Victory Japan) Day:
“We are living in the post-war era. Are we ready for it? If peace finds the nation unprepared, it isn’t because we haven’t been warned. We shall soon have a chance to find out how much more security there is in forthright plans than in illusions of an automatic and assured transition to a normal and comfortable peacetime world. The end of the war brings new responsibilities and the opportunity to carry on with unfinished highway business.”
America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Interstate System in 2006. The decade of the 1950s was, perhaps, the most important in the history of highway and bridge construction the United States with the building of the “Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.”
The decade of the 1950s, and the period after 1956 and into the mid-1960s, was most prolific. With the post-WWII economic and population boom in full swing, and with the notion of an interstate system in mind, President Dwight D. Eisenhower set the wheels in motion for the most extensive road construction program ever attempted.
Although a national highway “system” was established in 1944, it was not until 1952 that it was specifically allocated funds, and then only a token $25 million. This amount was upped to $175 million in 1954 not nearly adequate enough to fund a true national road network.
Eisenhower’s vision of a national network of highways stems from two personal experiences. Through a cross-country military convoy in 1919 from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco over dirt roads and un-bridged streams, young Colonel Eisenhower experienced first-hand the need for a road system during a 62-day expedition that “tested” America’s early 20th century road system.
General Eisenhower, during World War II, saw the great mobility of Germany through an extensive autobahn system in that country. He set out to bring a better system to America where a nation dependent upon automobiles and trucks yearned to travel the country, bring goods to market efficiently, and to provide sorely needed military mobility.
Publicizing the need for highways
While GI’s returning from the war told stories of the great concrete bi-ways of Europe, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that the grounds swell to build an interstate system in the United States came into play. Such a vast program would have to be brought forth to the American public, and a relatively new vehicle to publicize this ambitious program called “television” was there for the taking.
In an article in the February 1954 issue of Better Roads titled “Want Public to Back Your Road Aims? Try Television” William F. Steuber, Assistant Engineer, Wisconsin State Highway Commission, espouses television as “the hottest medium today in getting and holding the attention of the public.” Steuber encourages readers to buy TV advertising time to focus on “public attention on road matters,” and to “tell the highway story.”
And what was the cost of television time in 1954 for local advertising for a quarter-hour to a half-hour? $60 to $600. (Compare this cost to the $3.5 million for a 30-second spot for the 2012 Super Bowl!).
Television would become an important tool in the effort to get the Interstate Program off and running.
Eisenhower asks for gas tax retention…from the February 1954 issue
In his state of the union address on January 9, 1954, President Eisenhower laid the groundwork for an expanded road program by asking for retention of the federal gas tax “to protect the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system.”
The federal gas tax in 1954 was 2-cents per gallon.
Federal-Aid Bill…the embryonic stages of the Interstate Highway System…from the March 1954 issue
”Hearings were concluded in the house of representatives in February on Representative J. Harry McGregor’s (R-Ohio) federal-aid highway bill. The bill, which apparently, has the approval of President Eisenhower, provides a total of $800,000,000 for major highway purposes for each of the fiscal year’s 1956 and 1957—or $225,000,000 more annually than at present”…totaling a record $1.932 billion over two years.
(Note: the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFTEA-LU), the transportation bill during the 80th anniversary of Better Roads, provided $284 billion throughout a six-year period. At publication of this information, SAFETEA-LU had expired and was operating on extensions, while reauthorization of this highway bill is under development.).
Further to this, “Most controversial provisions of the McGregor bill involve the interstate and secondary systems” with the “controversy in regards to a debate on funding to be based on either population of the states, or on a matching funds system.
The bill passed in March, but the controversy about expanding the road effort nationwide sparked debate about building an interstate system.
The Interstate Movement Swells…from the July 1954 issue
”Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks has announced that apportionments” for highway funding were released ‘6 months ahead of the time limit set by congress. This is the first step in the start of the new federal highway program for 1956 and 1957.’”
One note of interest in an item appearing in this issue… it was announced that the 10-mile “Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles County, California has been completed and opened to traffic.”
President Eisenhower’s program
It was reported in the August issue that the Eisenhower administration proposed a $50 billion, 10-year program to fund highways, an amount that would be in addition to the federal-aid bill funding.
Presented by Vice President Richard Nixon at the annual Governor’s Conference, the program consists of four major parts:
1) “A master plan for a highway system…with fast and safe transcontinental travel, intercity communication…and elimination of metropolitan area congestion.”
2) “Financing based on self-liquidation of each project” with funding through tolls, increased gas taxes or increased federal funds.”
3) “A cooperative alliance between the federal government and the states, so the local governments will be the managers in their areas.”
4) “A program initiated by the federal government with state cooperation, for planning and construction of a modern interstate highway system,” a 40,000 mile national network.
Eisenhower appointed “a cabinet committee to help formulate a comprehensive transportation policy for the nation.”
Note: Mr. C.M Nelson, editor of Better Roads starting with its first issue published in October 1931, passed away in September 1954. One of the nation’s road and bridge opinion leaders, Mr. Nelson died before he could realize the greatness of the interstate program, which he championed.
The problem of funding
With the death of C.M. Nelson, it was months before a new editor would be appointed. With so little detail about the Eisenhower plan, it was several months before Better Roads provided meaningful commentary.
In a March 1955 editorial, newly appointed editor Gerald C. Ward, somewhat skeptical about the program’s funding mechanisms, said about the Interstate Program…
“A dream—a wonderful dream. But probably just that. The problem of money will undoubtedly spoil this dream.…In the end, the solution of the highway problem lies in the hands of those who would benefit most from an adequate network of roads and streets—the users. If…(we) can convince the ordinary highway user that in the long run he will pay less for good highways than he does now for bad ones, the money will be there and the dream realized.”
Optimism for the New Year
In December 1955, after months of ongoing debate about the Interstate Program, not IF it would happen, but WHEN and HOW it would be put in place, Editor Ward writes….
“The year, 1955, should end for highway officials on an optimistic note. Never before has there been such a widespread recognition of need to bring the 40,000-mile interstate highway system up to adequate standards as quickly as possible. Never before has the importance of all highway systems—state, county and local—been brought so strongly to the attention of the public.”
June 29, 1956
President Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 29, 1956, signs the bill that provides the United States with its most extensive highway program ever, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956! The bill provided the means to construct the interstate highway system and created the Highway Trust Fund.
Changing highway picture
In the July 1956 issue of Better Roads, just days after the President signed the bill, Editor Gerald Ward, in his monthly editorial, wrote the following:
“An expanded national highway program is now a part of the law of the land. At all levels of government the highway picture will be changed. This is the time for cooperation.”
The1960s presented turbulent times. It was a decade of political and social change with events that would shape the nation and the world for many years to come; Vietnam, the assassination of the Kennedy’s, Dr. Martin Luther King, the passage of the Civil Right Bill, the first manned trip to the moon, and more.
For the highway industry, it was the decade of mobility.
It was a time of great technological transition, too, as computers were coming into primary usage in mainstream businesses, and engineering innovations in building roads and bridges, and in equipment and trucks was moving rapidly.
It was a time when all of the pieces to the road-building puzzle were put into place with the start of the great Interstate project, which began in 1956 coming to an end in the mid-sixties.
Feeder and secondary roads supporting the Interstate were being built and maintained during the decade, and the era of the mammoth earthmoving machines, and innovative paving equipment and techniques came into being.
The move from city to suburb and the migration west
The 1960s were a decade of great mobility with steady migration from the cities to the suburbs, and from east to west.
In the Better Roads Forum column in the January 1960 issue, Editorial Director and Publisher, Alden F. Perrin, wrote about the move to the suburbs from the cities. “…the movement of people from the heart of the city to suburban areas has created a problem that counties all over the country have been trying to cope with. An important part of this problem is the county road in an area that is rapidly developing from rural to suburban or urban. In all probability the road will certainly become a city street.”
This op-ed piece goes on to say that these problems included counties that “rarely builds storm and sanitary sewers”; getting the “city to accept a county obligation within a city”; “road improvements (which) can’t wait for incorporation”, and “developers (who are) required to pay for road improvements”.
The Continuing Crisis
In the March 1960 issue of Better Roads, it was reported “in order to work within the limits imposed by congress and the highway trust fund, the Bureau of Public Roads has imposed severe restrictions on state highway departments. These restrictions are resented by some state highway officials who think the federal government is interfering too much in what should be regarded essentially as a state program.”
Forecast for the 1970s
And this interesting tidbit from March 1960…”The Highway Departments of 48 states expect that in 1976 there will be 114,000,000 registered vehicles and they will be drive 1,200,000,000,000 miles that year consuming 97,000,000,000 gallons of fuel.’”
With the population of the state of California exploding, Better Roads in November 1960 reported “during the next 20 years 100,194 miles of county roads and city streets in California will need improvement at a total cost of $12,752,000,000….”
President Kennedy weighs in on highways
March 1961…. with talk of suspending the Interstate program in mid-stream, the following was reported by Better Roads:
“In his message to congress February 28, President John F. Kennedy declared that he was ‘wholly opposed to either stretching out or cutting back our highway program,’ and urged congress not to rely on either solution.” Kennedy said that “it would be unwise at a time when our ‘slump-ridden economy needs greater…not lesser construction activity…. and to postpone the completion of the Interstate system only further postpones the day when our highways will be adequate….”
Elvis has left the building….
Here’s an amusing item… from the January 1962 issue of Better Roads…
“Rocks and Roll. Elvis Presley fans have given the Tennessee Department of Highways some extra work. His mansion near Memphis has attracted swarms of worshippers, who park to gape. Highway shoulders in the area developed dangerous potholes. It did no good to put gravel down because girls carried off the pebbles as souvenirs. So the department had to send out a crew to patch the holes and give the shoulders an asphaltic surface.”
A meandering economy stymies road construction
The economy in 1963 moved along slowly, which had an inferior affect on the funding available for road building. Better Roads reported in “the 1963 sessions of state legislatures passed an astonishing variety of laws…only three states passed gasoline taxes …in 1963, and five states approved road-bond issues.”
Sounds like a monorail to me!
The August 1964 issue of Better Roads posted an article titled “Travel by Computer.”
“Mechanical engineering students at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have been working on an automated automobile and road as an approach to the solution of highway problems. …the “Commucar’ could be driven anywhere, but it could be also used under automatic control on special roadways. Arms on each side of the compact, electric vehicle would draw power from a side rail on the throughway. Trips would be programmed for computer control. The students are convinced that their solution to the nation’s transit problems is better than (most) and that the special arteries can be laid over existing roads and mass-transit systems”.
Buckle-up for safety
Better Roads’ January 1965 issue featured an article on seat belt usage in highway departments…
“Most safety experts agree that seat belts in use can mean the difference between life and death….” In a survey of 47 highway departments, “46 are using seat belts on some if not all passenger carrying vehicles…and 24 are using them on some trucks”.
The Passing of an Industry Giant: Alden F. Perrin
On April 23, 1965, founder and publishing director of Better Roads, Alden F. Perrin, died. He was 78 years old.
In 1931, with an idea for a magazine to serve highway engineers and officials, he founded Better Roads. The magazine has grown for 80 years based on Mr. Perrin’s principals and sound publishing philosophy… that the publication should serve its readers, and serve them well.
In 2004, Alden F. Perrin was recognized as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Private Transportation Design and Construction Professionals of the 20th Century by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) Foundation.
Computers become a big part of the industry
While not every agency, engineering firm and contractor adopted computer systems by the late 1960’s, some did. In the January 1967 issue, Better Roads interviewed officials with the Utah Department of Highways in a story titled “Computer Turns Days Into Minutes.”
“Highway engineers can obtain answers to important engineering questions in time to make the best possible decisions. The computer has become an essential engineering tool, involved in every part of highway design…. Calculations that sometimes took months under manual methods are now accomplished in a few hours…”
“Of Men and Machines”
By the end of the 1960s, advances in construction equipment technology had reached new heights as bigger, more productive and efficient machinery was on the jobsite. From the introduction of the hydraulic scraper in 1962, the first articulated motor grader in 1967, the emergence of the hydraulic excavator and sophisticated paving equipment by end of the decade, the sixties were rampant with new products and new innovations.
John Benson, Executive Director of CIMA, the Construction Industry Manufacturers Association, (now the Association of Equipment Manufacturers) wrote in an article previewing CONEXPO ’69 in the January 1969 issue of Better Roads, “Innovations in construction equipment have traditionally been regarded as refinements aimed at increasing the productive capabilities of that equipment…. advances are being made because of the ever-accelerating accent on the faster, more work-producing equipment.”
Among the innovations sited by Mr. Benson to be introduced on equipment at the 1969 show were hydrostatic drive, automatic braking systems, automated batch plant systems, audible warning and signal light systems, and laser technology.
Mr. Benson goes on to tout Conexpo 1969 by saying, “We used to call it the Road Show, which will be held at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago…. More than 160 leading manufacturers of construction equipment will exhibit more than 1000 pieces of machinery valued at $25 million” with 250,000 square feet of exhibit space and 80,000 attendees.”
For the record, at Conexpo-Con/Agg 2011 over 2400 companies exhibited using 2.34 million square feet of space with more than 120,000 attendees.
“Building Roads to Serve All the People”
In an editorial titled “Building Roads to Serve All the People” by Editor, Stanley E. Boie wrote in the December 1969 issue of Better Roads, the last issue of the decade, “Most of us concerned with the business of highways have had little difficulty accepting the oft-repeated slogan, ‘Highways are for people,’ a sentiment that should followed today as we plan, design and fund our highways and bridges.
The 1970s was a crazy decade for the highway construction industry and the construction economy in general.
With many of the Eisenhower interstate projects still under construction, and with the massive need for secondary roads built mostly in suburban areas, the decade was divided between the best and worst of times.
Beginning near the end of the Vietnam era with Richard M. Nixon as president and ending with the reign of Jimmy Carter whose administration was marred by extraordinary inflation and high interest rates, the decade was filled with economic woes. In addition to high interest rates, the gas shortage and the start of high-energy prices, high interest rates, a stagnant housing market and an economy that wandered like a balloon in the wind were watermarks of the decade.
While some will remember the 1970s for Watergate, the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, and the oil embargo, Skylab, “Star Wars”, pet rocks, and disco, it was also a decade when traffic on highways increased nearly 80 percent. It was a period when many airports were newly built, including DFW in Dallas, or expanding, such as Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
In addition, heavy expenditures for mass transportation programs in big cities was the “solution” that many politicians believed would help solve urban crisis at the sacrifice of building main arteries to the growing suburban areas, and to complete the remaining 13,000 miles of the 42,500-mile interstate, which lingered into its 14th year in 1970.
Planning for tomorrow’s transportation
In a January 1970 Better Roads editorial,” Planning for Tomorrow’s Transportation,” the first issue of the decade, the magazine’s chief editor at the time, Stanley E. Boie opined that the 1970s would be a decade of hope, but not without “pressing needs facing highway departments—completing the interstate highway system, improved safety, solution to the problems of transportation in urban areas, adequate financing and better planning….”
The need for “hardware”
Perhaps one of the most controversial U.S. Secretary’s of Transportation in U.S. history was John Volpe. A former governor of Massachusetts, Volpe was named U.S. Secretary of Transportation following the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 where Volpe served from 1969 to 1973.
During his administration as Secretary of Transportation, Amtrak was created.
In the January 1970 issue of Better Roads, Volpe discussed the problems of urban transportation planning. “Urban planners are handicapped…by the absence of hardware—the necessary equipment to do the job. We don’t have the time to wait for the hardware to be developed. If our urban centers are to survive, we must move beyond the study stage and start doing something now.”
The challenge lies….for the quality of life
One of the great advocates for highway funding was Jennings Randolph (D-WV), who served in the Senate from 1958 to 1985. Randolph led the fight for funding in the 1970’s during a time when money for roads was sparse. In an op-ed piece in the January 1970 issue, Sen. Randolph, who was chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Public Works at the time, wrote, “The challenge lies ahead in correctly analyzing the needs of Americans, as we move steadily toward the year 2000 to provide an imaginative, workable program that will ensure the quality of life which we now enjoy. Nothing less than the best will suffice.”
Work toward a better environment
The battle lines for environmental reform were well-set in the 1970s and Better Roads Editor Stan Boie was an early advocate of engineering environmental friendly highway and bridge projects at a time when the industry struggled with change. While the environmental movement among highway professionals had not yet gained wide-reaching support, in a February 1970 editorial Boie took a stance not embraced by the highway community at large for the time.
“Breathe there a highway engineer today with soul so insensitive that he is not concerned with the way that highways affect people and the environment? We hope not. For if there is, he is playing in the wrong ballgame in the wrong ballpark,” Boie opined.
“The transcendent word today is ‘environment’ and all highway people had better learn how to pronounce it and say it loud and clear—and believe it. Because the condition of the environment has become of prime importance to a growing portion of the population.”
“Certainly, it (the environmental movement) must grow if highways are to play any part in helping the nation achieve the goals of clean air, clean water, freedom of movement and the good life.”
Governor freezes Massachusetts road projects
In a move very typical of the times when highway money was being diverted to mass transportation, Massachusetts Republican Gov. Francis Sargent stated a new policy calling for “placing less emphasis on highways and more on rapid-transit facilities.”
The governor said that “we (once) felt that new highways were the answer to our transportation problems. We were wrong. We need a more balanced system of transportation.”
Interstate progress…from the April 1970 issue
Better Roads reported on the progress of the interstate program, which was to be completed by June 30, 1970.
Citing massive delays in projects and inadequate funding for projects engineered 15 to 20 years prior, it was reported that “As of December 31, 1969, almost 29,640 miles of the 42,500-mile national system of interstate and defense highways were open to traffic and construction was under way on another 4,782 miles.”
It would be six years before the core interstate roads would be completed.
What next Mr. President…
Newly appointed Better Roads Editor Frank Reid took a shot at the Nixon Administration for diverting as much as half of the highway trust fund to mass transit.
In an editorial in the April 1973 issue, Reid wrote, “Once again, Mr. Nixon, we find ‘Alice in Wonderland’ thinking running rampant in your Federal Highway Administration. Evidentially charged with supporting your raid on the Highway Trust Fund, they have come up with a new twist…The Trust Fund is not really a trust. Why not? Because a long while ago, before 1956, that is, no trust fund existed and there was a gas tax! Not only was the gas tax not earmarked, it went directly into the General Fund.”
“Perhaps if every highway department would send the White House pictures of the accidents that have occurred on roads and streets that have been designated for improvement and haven’t been improved due to fund impoundment, perhaps then, Mr. President, some understanding of the great need for the Trust Fund to be honored might be generated.”
In the January 1975 issue, it was reported that “thousands of state, county, city and municipal highway engineers, officials and contractors will be among the nearly 100,000 persons expected to attend Conexpo 75, the biggest world-wide heavy equipment exposition during its run from February 9 to 14 in Chicago.”
“The ‘World’s Fair of the Construction Industry’ will fill more than two million square feet of space available at McCormick Place (in Chicago) and the International Amphitheatre….”
“Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley has proclaimed the week of February 9-14, 1975 as Construction Equipment Week in Chicago…”
“Notables from more than 100 countries, including Soviet Russia are going to be in attendance.”
Special Mention….most amusing items of the decade
Among the most amusing items appearing in Better Roads during the 1970s, here are a few standouts.
No Baloney: “About the time you get to thinking that all of the ideas for ribbon-cutting ceremonies have been used up, someone comes up with another one. The one used in Michigan last November may not have been the best, but it certainly was the wurst—a 14-ft. chain of bratwurst, knockwurst, metwurst, and braunschweiger, which was stretched across Michigan Route 83 in downtown Frankenmuth,” a town founded by Bavarian Germans. The “ribbon” was cut using a 25-pound meat cleaver during a ceremony marking completion of a million-dollar improvement of the highway.
Buggy Road: “The Amish community of Reno County, Kansas has petitioned the county commissioner to set aside a road to accommodate the horse and buggy,” as automobiles have been going at faster speeds, scaring the horses.”
Church Note: “Services of all kinds will be available at one location….at the Arlington Temple Methodist Church in suburban Washington, D.C. The congregation is erecting a church over a gas station situated in the midst of modern high-rise buildings.”
Motorist-skating: “New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway has developed a spacious ice-skating rink for the use of the motoring public. It is in the grass mall before the Garden State Arts Center amphitheater. Sandbags were placed around the perimeter of the mall area, a tarpaulin liner was put down and water was hosed in to freeze the skating surface. The rink is open to motorists using the toll road.”
Computers monitor traffic: From the December 1973 issue…“Michigan’s first computerized traffic signal control system, typing all traffic signals into a controlled network, will be installed in the Lansing-East Lansing area, the State Highway Commission has announced.”
“The heart of the centralized system is a digital computer….which will be connected to nearly 200 existing traffic signals in both cities” along with “traffic detecting sensors, installed in pavements on approaches to key area traffic signals” feeding traffic flow information into the central computer.
Drinking drivers: From New South Wales Australia…“In an effort to combat the drinking driver problem, the NSW Traffic Accident Research Unit came up with a mass media campaign to shame drunken drivers into reforming their behavior by calling them ‘slobs.’
Patrol Cars: Patrol cars display the good old red, white and blue while cruising the Ohio highways complete with decals reading “The Spirit of ’76—American Revolution Bicentennial—1776-1976”—as a way of celebrating the nation’s bicentennial.
The Impossible Dream…or is it?
As the 1970,s ended, a Better Roads editorial looked back on the previous nine years and into the future.
“It appears that most everyone would like better roads…although this concept in many ways meets the priorities of and impossible dream….”
However, that “Impossible Dream” can be brought about simply by a meaningful distribution of all taxes….The proper funding of our vital national asset—our roadway system—is critically needed so that highway engineers and officials can obtain the best—not the cheapest—but the best equipment, materials, and services to protect our investment in that system. The time is now to meet the challenge by making the needed changes—to see the “Impossible Dream” becomes reality.”
The 1980s were pivotal toward moving transportation construction forward.
The need for federally funded highway construction and improvement projects was apparent at the beginning of the 1980,s as the first of the interstate roads were rapidly approaching 25 years of age.
In the middle of rampant inflation, unemployment and interest rates as high as 20 percent, the highway industry was challenged to reauthorize the federal aid highway program. Ironically, the fiscally conservative Reagan administration supported increased highway user fees to fund highway construction.
The bill was passed in January 1983 and included a 5-cent per gallon increase on the gas tax.
In 1986, the reauthorization debate was again addressed by Congress, as money for highways depleted. While President Reagan vetoed the bill, Congress voted to override, so highway funding was put in place.
In 1991 a new federal surface transportation program was finalized through the passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). In addition to maintaining roads, this bill enabled the country to complete many of the plans for interstate highways that were included as far back as the Eisenhower plan in 1956.
A 5-cent per gallon gas tax was the main driver of funding and authorizations of $155 billion in funding equal was provided over a 6-year period. President Bill Clinton in 1997 approved the National Economic Crossroads Transportation Efficiency Act (NEXTEA), which served as a guideline for highway construction spending during the following six years.
While public investment in highways and bridges declined in the last half of the 20th century, the need to maintain an ever crumbling road system was noted at local levels with many states passing road improvement programs. Still, as the decade ended, it wasn’t enough to keep with the demand brought upon by increases truck and car traffic.
In 1998, the Transportation Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) was made law with about $200 billion allocated for highway and bridge construction through 2003.
2000 to the present
Under TEA-21, in 2001 federal investment in highways was more than $30 billion, a nearly 6 percent increase from 2000. This included better than normal gas tax revenues that contributed to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF).
TEA-21 expired on September 30, 2003, but was extended several times until a new bill became law in 2005, which expired September 30, 2009. That bill has been extended eight times to date with the most recent extension set to expire March 31, 2012.
Where do we go from here?
There are more than 4 million miles of roads in the United States with about 2.5 million miles paved roads and 1.5 million miles unpaved.
It might be difficult to comprehend that the need for something we take for granted everyday of the week, our highways and bridges, continues to grow.
From a national highway system built in the 1950s to accommodate a population at that time of 140 million people to one today with not much more in added lane-mile capacity, we are asking our system to move a population of 312 million people in 2011. That fact in itself is enough to demonstrate the need for long-term growth.
In short, here are four primary reasons why the highway and bridge system will grow in the next 25 years:
· Ever-worsening traffic gridlock that is now costing the U.S. economy $78 billion a year and growing in lost productivity and wasted motor fuel;
· A projected doubling of U.S. truck traffic in the next 25 years with just modest U.S. economic growth;
· The more than 43,000 lives lost and $230 billion in lost productivity, insurance and property costs annually due to motor vehicle crashes;
· The need for North America to compete: Massive, on-going investments in new transportation infrastructure capacity being made by China, India and the European Union to facilitate their quest to be global economic superpowers.
Poised for more growth….
· 4 million miles of roads that need to be maintained all year long
· 594,000 bridges in just the U.S. with nearly 30 percent of them classified as functionally obsolete or structurally deficient ;
· A growing population already at 312 million people; and
· Perhaps as much as $500 billion or more in the new highway bill scheduled for renewal in the coming months.
Better Roads will be there every step of the way!