Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Big Roads: Lessons for Community and Economic Developers

By Jim Vaughan, Senior Fellow.  

The Big Roads by Earl Swift—billed as the untold story of the engineers, visionaries and trailblazers who created the American Superhighways—is a must-read for community and economic developers.

The book traces the development of a national system of roads—beginning with the good roads advocates who proposed the Lincoln Highway, Dixie Highway and other long-distance “paved” roads.

The Big Roads would be little more than a textbook except for the biographical narrative around three men who at different periods helped shape the highways’ creation.

• Carl Fisher, race car driver, car dealer and owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, helped make the Lincoln Highway a “real road” and later organized the Dixie Highway to encourage travel from the Midwest through the south to Florida where he was developing Miami Beach;
• Thomas MacDonald, an engineer from Iowa who helped devise the nation’s first national highway system as the nation’s top highway official under seven presidents from Wilson to Eisenhower; and
• Frank Turner, an engineer from Texas who led road-building projects in Alaska and the Philippines before becoming a MacDonald protégé in Washington where he helped win Congressional funding to construct the Interstate program.

While Fisher got the ball rolling for cross-country highways, it was MacDonald who delivered on the dream. MacDonald orchestrated the state-federal road building partnership that continues today and he mapped and won approval for the National System of Interstate Highways nine years before the “father of the Interstate System,” Dwight Eisenhower, was inaugurated in 1953.

The third member of the triumvirate, Turner, moved the interstates “from conceptual network into the concrete and steel octopus that now spans the continent,” Swift writes. He was a 40-year veteran of the Bureau of Public Roads before becoming federal highway administrator under President Nixon.

It was during the 1970s that things began to get dicey for Turner and the road builders and here begins the lessons for community and economic developers. A freeway revolt was beginning in the cities and while the mileage under dispute was small, the affected percentage of the population was not. The issues were the environment, neighborhoods, parks, historic places and structures, and demand for transit as an alternative to urban interstates.

“Turner was a man beleaguered,” Swift writes. “He’d spent his entire adult life with the bureau and now much of his work and hopes for the future were coming undone.”

He struck back as economic developers have done from time to time when their single focus on attracting new companies has been challenged, characterizing the revolt as the “carpings of a few dedicated critics” who were “blinded by their desire to discredit” the program.

In 1972, with the highway interests losing its fights in holdout cities and being second-guessed on decisions he felt the industry alone possessed the expertise to make, Turner retired. In 1983, the Federal Highway Administration named a building at its research campus in McLean, Virginia, for Frank Turner.

In a July 15, 2011 New York Times review of The Big Roads, Tom Vanderbilt writes,

“In the end, the view ahead is not as bright as that in the rearview; where congested roads would once be treated with the short-term inoculation of more lanes, a state highway official says, ‘We don’t have enough money for that approach anymore.’ Cities now look to tear down urban highways, not build new ones.

“The road of the future, as first envisioned in 1912 and brought to fruition decades later, is carrying the usual strains of middle age; the nips and tucks are giving way to full reconstructive surgery, all paid for with a series of maxed-out credit cards (the federal fuel tax hasn’t been raised, even to keep pace with inflation, since 1993, and has been increasingly eroded by improvements in fuel economy).

“The future, it seems, is getting away from us, even as we keep asking, with a plaintive cry from the back seat: ‘Are we there yet?’”

And the questions remain—for community and economic developers and for the cities and regions where they work:

• How to move people quickly, safely and affordably to places they want to go?
• How to preserve parks, historic places and neighborhoods?
• How to address the unintended consequences of growth?