Earl Swift’s “The Big Roads,” about American superhighways

June 3, 2011

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.”

Laconic and formal to an extreme, MacDonald was “an engineer’s engineer, a man gifted at recognizing a problem and developing a methodical plan for fixing it.” He had a “near-religious faith in the power of science, of technical expertise, to right the world’s problems, and in research as a building block of rational decision making.” Two years after his appointment, Congress passed the Federal Highway Act of 1921, “the foundation for modern highway building in the United States; it remains the single most important piece of legislation in the creation of a national network — far more so than the later interstate highway bill,” because it put in place the basic system of federal-state cooperation that remains in effect to this day.

MacDonald was its architect. He presided over “what the highway industry would come to see as a golden age of road building,” during which the construction of new roads accelerated at an astonishing rate, “providing jobs not only for those actually building them, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but also for an army of men who made road-laying gear and provided the raw materials.” Then, in 1934, with the passage of that year’s highway bill, there began “a years-long campaign of highways surveys that MacDonald would describe as ‘the most comprehensive research study ever undertaken,’ and which produced insights ‘of such fundamental character and rich content’ that they propelled highway planning ‘from guess work and opinion to full professional stature’ ” and provided “the scholarship behind Washington’s highway thinking for decades, not least the interstate highway system.”

These studies led in 1941 to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s appointment of MacDonald to a committee to look into the possibility of a “limited system of national highways,” which in turn led to the approval by Congress in 1944 of “a National System of Interstate Highways,” not more than 40,000 miles in total length and “so located as to connect by routes, as direct as practicable, the principal metropolitan areas, cities, and industrial centers, to serve the national defense, and to connect at suitable border points with routes of continental importance in the Dominion of Canada and the Republic of Mexico.” To be sure, not until the mid-1950s did construction begin in earnest, and various details were refined along the way, but the system that was built was the one MacDonald had envisioned and planned. At his death in 1957 an editorial in this newspaper called him “the father of all good roads in the United States,” reflecting a near-universal sentiment.

If MacDonald was the father of the interstate system, Turner was the man who saw it through to fruition, but he stayed on the job long enough to confront, in the 1970s, the heavy criticism under which the system came. Swift, much to his credit, emphasizes the validity of this criticism even as he praises the engineering brilliance and dedication to public service of the people who built the system. The first important voice against it was that of the social critic Lewis Mumford, whose negative judgments dated back to 1957, but it was a good deal later before people began to realize the extent of the wreckage the highways were causing in the country’s older cities, the suburban sprawl they were creating everywhere, the chain motels and fast-food restaurants that produced a “system of interregional highways [that] is today a place unto itself, divorced from the territory through which it passes.” Swift continues:

“With rare exception, a sense of place, of uniqueness, is undetectable from the off ramp. In place of a local barbecue joint, an exit in the Carolinas is likely to offer an Arby’s or a Chik-fil-A. Southern greasy spoons are miles off the main line, shouldered aside by Waffle House and Cracker Barrel. The loathed hot-dog stand of the thirties has been replaced by McDonald’s.”

True enough, though honesty compels me to admit that a few years back, driving through the Carolinas on I-95, I left the interstate at Greenville in search of real North Carolina barbecue and instead found the worst barbecue I’ve ever eaten, so bad that it cured my wife of barbecue for life. We should have stayed with the off-ramp and Pizza Hut.

THE BIG ROADS

The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways

By Earl Swift

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 375 pp. $27

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