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Pioneer in Highway Design Spread Talents Broadly

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 24, 2005

Alan M. Voorhees, who made important contributions to fields as varied as mapping, urban planning, the interstate highway system, airlines, collecting and philanthropy, died Dec. 18 of an apparent stroke at the Berkeley Hotel, a small hotel that he built and owned in Richmond.

The Alexandria resident had just attended the annual Christmas party of his family investment firm and celebrated his 83rd birthday, which was Dec. 17.

Early in his career, Voorhees, an engineer who specialized in transportation projects, devised a mathematical model to predict traffic patterns. This formula has helped planners build highways, subway systems, shopping centers, apartment buildings and office complexes throughout the world.

Voorhees was instrumental in designing the roads and transportation systems in at least four national capitals, including Washington. When land was reclaimed at the southern tip of Manhattan, he helped connect the new street grid to existing roads and the Brooklyn Bridge.

"It's not too much to say he was a legend in the field," said Thomas B. Deen, a former business partner who later was executive director of Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences. "He was very intuitive. He was a genius in his ability to sense what was going to work and what wouldn't."

In the late 1950s, before a single mile of the interstate highway system had been built, Voorhees was one of its early planners, particularly in determining how the highways should go through and around cities. Later, he helped plan subway systems around the world, including Washington's Metro.

His curiosity led him to other fields, and he funded entrepreneurs who developed the electronic cash register and a bar-code system. He established a popular berry farm and nature preserve in Virginia's Northern Neck; collected historic maps that he later donated to the Library of Congress and other institutions; and funded buildings and programs on the campuses of at least four colleges.

"He liked ideas, progress, productivity," said his daughter, Nancy Voorhees. "He never really retired."

His work quietly affected the lives of countless people, yet Voorhees maintained such a low public profile that he was all but unknown in Washington, where he had lived since 1952. He moved below the Beltway radar, staying out of politics and the local party scene.

His name made the headlines only when he donated 729 acres on the Rappahannock River to the Nature Conservancy in 1994; when Rutgers University in New Jersey dedicated the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, a research institute on transportation policy, in 1998; and when he gave priceless historical maps to the Library of Virginia in 1999.

"Al made a huge difference in the way our society is today, and he did it behind the scenes," said Gary L. Fitzpatrick, former senior specialist for digital programs at the Library of Congress, who knew Voorhees as a map collector.

Alan Manners Voorhees was born Dec. 17, 1922, in Highland Park, N.J. He was in his early teens when his father, a stockbroker, died.


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