Francis Cutler Turner, 90, the federal highway administrator considered the chief architect of the interstate highway system, died Oct. 2 at a hospice in Goldsboro, N.C. He had cancer and dementia.

America's interstate system is often described as the largest public works project ever undertaken. Mr. Turner participated in the major studies leading up to its creation and was staff director of the commission that recommended the system to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Interstates helped reshape the country, opening up travel and job opportunities and carrying motorists around rather than through cities.

Mr. Turner, whose career had begun in 1929 with the federal Bureau of Roads, became a powerful national figure in the transportation industry. His ability to dispense highway contracts "reached the point where he was considered as untouchable in Washington as the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover," Douglas Feaver wrote in The Washington Post in 1978.

As a young highway engineer in Arkansas, Mr. Turner had participated in road surveys that helped build a consensus for a system of superhighways, initially for defense. As a young man, he had labored with his father on the roads. At Texas A&M University, he studied soil science and the dynamics of asphalt.

During World War II, Mr. Turner worked as an engineer in Alaska on construction of the road now called the Alaska Highway. After the war, he headed a mission to the Philippines as coordinator of rehabilitation of war-damaged roads and bridges.

In 1954, Mr. Turner was named executive secretary of Eisenhower's highway advisory committee, headed by Army Gen. Lucius Clay. It recommended a system of interstate and defense highways financed through a federal-state partnership.

Mr. Turner helped draft legislation for the system and set about systematically polling potential highway users. He divided the country into grids, and asked residents to draw "desire lines" on maps showing where they were likely to drive on a regular basis. Over the next two decades, the lines evolved into highways.

Washington was one city slated to be bisected by the interstate system. But the plans were bitterly and successfully fought in many neighborhoods.

Mr. Turner was deputy public roads commissioner and chief engineer for public roads before being named director of public roads in 1967. He headed the Federal Highway Administration from 1969 until he retired in 1972.

Mr. Turner, who was known as Frank, was a Texas native whose home was in Arlington from 1940 to 1997. One of the marks he left on the Washington area was the first highway express lanes, on Shirley Highway. He forced Virginia to build the lanes in a specific attempt to kill the Metro rapid rail system before it got started.

He had never been a champion of Metro and believed that it could be expected to serve only a small fraction of commuters. He was a fan of buses, saying they were a cheaper and more flexible form of transportation.

In 1994, American Heritage magazine honored Mr. Turner and others who were said to have shaped the preceding four decades as "agents of change."

The magazine said interstates had "changed the country subtly as much as the transcontinental railroad did overtly." The highways helped shift economic power to the Sun Belt, encouraged travel and boosted the fortunes of the auto industry, the magazine said. The interstate system offered perhaps a duller ride than other roads, the magazine said, but it expanded America's possibilities.

Mr. Turner was said to have sternly turned down private and potentially lucrative offers from developers seeking word of highway plans.

Mr. Turner was honored by the government as one of the visionaries of the highway system in ceremonies in Washington two years ago. The Federal Highway Research Center in McLean bears his name. He was named International Highway Man of the Year in 1969 and received other honors.

Mr. Turner served on the National Capital Planning Commission. He was a Mason and a member of Clarendon First Baptist Church.

His wife of 52 years, Mable Marie Nanney Turner, died in 1982. Survivors include three children, Beverly Turner Cooke of Hot Springs Village, Ark., retired Air Force Maj. Marvin Louis Turner of Goldsboro, N.C., and James Millard Turner of Dahlonega, Ga.; a sister; eight grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

CAPTION: Francis C. Turner surveyed motorists to find out where to put highways.