Frank Turner, the man who was known for years as the power beyond the federal highway program, says it is just not fair to blame the "highway lobby" for the Highway Trust Fund, the financial mechanism that made interstate highway possible.
"People like Friends of the Highway Action Coalition have talked for years about how the highway lobby had this bottomless pit to keep building the program," Turner complained in a recent interview at his Arlington home.
"The truth is it was dreamed up by some guy over the Budget Bureau. We were coming back from the Hill one day (in 1956) and this guy - can't even remember his name - suggested a trust fund. We pooh-poohed it. The next thing I knew it had been sold to the Senate and to House Ways and Means and those of us on the so-called highway lobby were on the outside looking in."
Turner retired in 1972 as administrator of the Federal Highway Administration after a distinguished career there and in the predesessor agency, the Bureau of Public Roads. He personally participated in every important step that led to the interstate system and was staff director of Gen. Lucius Clay's committee that recommended the system to President Eisenhower.
Turner's power in dispensing highway contracts around the country reached the point where he was considered as untouchable in Washington as the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover.
A young Frank Turner did some of the road survey in the late 1930 that led to the conclusion that the United states needed a network of superhighways. He was an engineer assigned to the federal office in Little Rock. Up the road in Searcy, Ark, there was a state judge named Wilbur Mills. When the highway trust fund was born years later, Mills was an important member of the House Ways and Means Committee that created it.
Turner is interesting for more than historical reasons. While he was (and is) an implacable foe of most of the Metro subway system here, he pushed and shoved the Virginia Highway Department until the exclusive bus lanes on Shirley Highway were constructed. The service has been an enormous success.
While he firmly believes that urban freeways are a good thing ("How else are people supposed to get where they are going?") he does not think they have been done very well and believes much more emphasis should be placed on carpools and van pools.
"I was advocating in the 1960s that we had to take a strong look at some of our designs in urban areas. (Freeways there) are just plain ugly. I'm ashamed. It's terrible.
"I remember one day I drove off the Hudson parkway (in(New York) onto Interstate 84 . . . it had a different feel - like going from a room without rugs to one that is tastefully decorated."
When citizen protests in San Francisco stopped the Embarcadero Freeway in 1965, Turner went back over the record.
"We had a hearing in San Francisco" before the project began, Turner said. "The transcript was only a page and a half long. The City Council said the freeway was fine, and get it started soon. There weren't any enviromental groups then. There weren't any of those starry-eyed people who could point out the mistake."