The massive American system of limited-access roadways has proved to be both a blessing and a curse, but it is an engineering feat of breathtaking dimensions. “The greatest public works project in history,” Earl Swift calls it in this engaging, informative book, “dwarfing Egypt’s pyramids, the Panama Canal, and China’s Great Wall.” That the country has benefited from it is beyond question: “It has smoothed what was once rough country, enabling us to cruise at a mile a minute across desert and bog, rangeland and Appalachian hollow. . . . It is a vast and powerful economic engine that provides millions of jobs, gets goods to Dakota ranchers with the same speed they reach big cities back east, and puts fresh greens on dinner tables a thousand miles from the farms that grow them.” But:
“It is so big, and its components so expensive, that maintaining the beast has become a real quandary. It represents a spectacular investment in a mode of transport that will wither without new fuel sources. It is clogged with rush-hour traffic that approaches the tie-ups it was intended, in part, to ease. And it has been blamed, and rightly, for a pox of unforeseen consequences: for hastening the messy sprawl of U.S. cities, carving up neighborhoods, gutting a thousand small-town shopping districts, and fostering an interchange glut of motels and fast-food joints as predictable as the roads themselves.”
Swift, a veteran journalist who lives and works in Virginia, has written what appears to be the first thorough history of the expressway system, at least for a general readership; previous publications mostly have been written by and for specialists. Though it is known formally as the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, Swift is at pains to point out that its origins date back well before the beginning of the first Eisenhower administration in 1953 and that, contrary to received opinion, Eisenhower was not the father of the system.
That honor — if honor it is — belongs to a man whose name is now known to almost no one outside the relatively small circle of highway engineers. Thomas Harris MacDonald became head of the federal Bureau of Public Roads in March 1919 and remained on the job until his involuntary retirement in March 1953, “after thirty-four years as the country’s top highway man, as the longest-serving head of any major government agency to that time, as trustee of more public spending than any federal official in peacetime history.” He was forced out, for reasons that remain a mystery but probably had something to do with a sense that the time had come for new highway leadership.
Though MacDonald left reluctantly and more than a little angrily, the truth is that by then his job had been done. If he was not allowed to stay in office to see the interstate system to completion — that fell to his loyal deputy, Frank Turner — he had laid the groundwork for the system. He entered federal service after a decade and a half of eminently successful work in Iowa. While other states had struggled to improve their primitive roads in the early years of the automobile, MacDonald “painstakingly built a web of intercounty roads, gravel-topped in places and well engineered throughout, with concrete bridges and culverts, drained surfaces, shiftless beds, and few sharp curves or steep grades.”