First person: Frank Turner

The 'Father of the Interstate Highway System' looks back at the birth, and examines the growing pains, of the project that put America-and Americans-in the driver's seat

Lee Geistlinger / December 28, 2000

Frank Turner is a man who should need no introduction. However, this self-effacing
man-Turner begins most sentences with the pronoun "we," as in
"We decided to . . ." when it was really Turner's decision-is
virtually unknown outside this industry, yet Americans continually reap
the fruits of his labor. More than any other individual, Frances "Frank"
Turner can rightly claim the title of "Father of the Interstate Highway
System."


Turner's relative anonymity is as much a function of his personal modesty
as it is of the forum in which he spent his life: The federal government.
While many people can identify Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel as the designer
of Paris' landmark tower, how many can name the chief engineer of a well-known
and massive public works project such as Hoover Dam?


Government employees tend to toil in relative obscurity, working in the
shadows created by the footlights that bathe the politicians they work under.
After all, Herbert Hoover really didn't have anything to do with the construction
of the then-Boulder Dam. Yet the structure was renamed for the politician
in 1947, to honor a public works advocate and the nation's most visible
civil engineer.


The interstate highway system is a similar case. While the official nomenclature
for the 43,500-mile-long system is the "Dwight D. Eisenhower System
of Interstate and Defense Highways," work on such a system was well
into the planning stage before the World War II hero assumed presidential
office in 1953. And it was largely through the efforts of men like Turner
that Eisenhower's desire for an autobahn-style system in America became
a reality.


Perhaps large government projects, such as the interstate system, need larger-than-life
heroes like Eisenhower to champion them. In order to "sell" such
a project, there has to be a focus, and it is much easier for the average
American to identify with a five-star war veteran than with those low-profile
troops that serve under such a leader.


But these troops are not forgotten by the roads and bridges industry. This
February, The American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA) President William D.
Fay addressed attendees at the American Association of State Highway &
Transportation Officials' annual Washington, D.C., briefing. Fay noted the
upcoming 40th anniversary of the interstate system and spoke of the association's
plan to honor those who made the system possible. "We're planning a
June event for policy makers in Washington," he said, "that will
honor Susan Eisenhower, standing in for her grandfather; Al Gore Sr., who
sponsored the Senate bill; and Frank Turner-who I'm told built the whole
damn thing."


Turner's name may not be attached to the system he made possible, but-to
the discerning eye-his imprint is on all 43,500 miles of one of the most
ambitious and

successful public works projects ever.


Turner was raised in Texas, whose residents are known for their big ideas
and big talk. While he appears unaffected by the latter, Turner's career
does point out his ability to envision-and execute-large projects.


"I started with the Bureau of Public Roads-which later became the Federal
Highway Administration-upon graduation from Texas A&M in 1929,"
Turner recalls. "Yes, just in time for the depression." His ability
to handle complex projects impressed supervisors, and, in the early days
of World War II, Turner worked on key military highways in the often forbidding
Alaskan landscape, sometimes scouting terrain from light aircraft.


Following Japan's surrender in 1945, Turner was sent on another war-related
mission, a national-scale project that helped prepare him for the U.S. interstate
effort: He was sent to oversee the reconstruction of the Philippine's highway
system.


"It was a massive reconstruction project," Turner notes. "Bridges
of almost all sizes on the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago
were either severely damaged or destroyed by the Japanese. Those that weren't
damaged by them were damaged by our soldiers to make it difficult for the
Japanese to continue their efforts there.


"There were over 500 bridges to rebuild; I was out there almost four
years. I returned to the United States in 1950, when the highway work was
largely done, but others were there for about 10 more years. I made about
four trips back to the Philippines to check on the progress over the years."


Less than three years later, the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces
in Europe during World War II-five-star Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower-was swept
into office in a burst of patriotic fever. A former military man who assumed
the presidency as the Cold War was beginning to heat up, Eisenhower drew
on his "highway experience" in both the U.S. and Germany to envision
a U.S. highway system that could help both the military and citizenry during
times of war.


"When Eisenhower was elected in 1952, one of his goals was to improve
the major highway system in the U.S., based largely on his convoy experience
in the U.S. after World War I. Added to that was his German autobahn experience
in the second world war-he'd seen that from a military standpoint. One of
his major goals was to build a similar-better-road system here during his
administration. This program was announced and organized, to be led by Gen.
Clay."


"General Clay" was Gen. Lucius Clay, Eisenhower's handpicked director.
Turner explains why the new president chose this military man, and how the
wheels of history turned to place Turner himself in such a decisive role.
"Clay was one of Eisenhower's chief assistants during the war and after,
so Eisenhower nominated Clay to succeed him in Europe when he returned to
the U.S. So Clay was the obvious choice to work under him back here.


"I was to the committee what Clay was to Eisenhower in Europe;
I was actually kind of a glorified 'gofer,' " Turner adds with characteristic
modesty. "It was suggested that the program be handled by the Bureau
of Public Roads, as we had already gotten a start on the program to study
the feasibility of a nationwide highway system. At that time, I was assistant
to the commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads, so I was assigned to
work with Gen. Clay. I don't even remember my official title there; we were
a very 'hey you' type of organization, very informal, gofers doing the actual
work. But we were very professional; we had a lot of sharp individuals working
with us.


"The data we had collected for the feasibility study was used to put
together the Clay Committee Report. The official name of the program was
'The Committee for a National Highway Program,' but everyone called it the
Clay Committee. It was presidentially appointed, and we made a special effort
to tie it to the White House."


Ties of this kind served two purposes: As a war hero, President Dwight "I
Like Ike" Eisenhower was enjoying enormous popularity, and any program
linked to him would enjoy a certain measure of this public approval. At
the same time, Eisenhower could share credit for the program's success.


While Eisenhower can claim credit for finally "forcing" the issue
of an Interstate Highway System, Turner says the concept had been under
investigation-in one form or another-for more than 30 years.


"The effort was very much underway before Eisenhower took office. The
material we used for the report's data had been set up by legislation approved
by Congress in the early '50s; legislation passed in 1944 actually started
it all. It was an outgrowth of the depression-era work; [President Franklin
Delano] Roosevelt had proposed a massive highway system. One of the pushes
was to establish programs that would allow Americans to have work-not paid
much, but something-and to improve the highway system. Legislation passed
in 1944 pushed this further, not only to assist the growing economy, but
the war was coming to a close-it was clear at that time. With 11 million
men in uniform and the war soon to be over, what were we going to do with
all these men when they returned? There was that concern.


"It was only because of the accumulation of all this data that we were
able to get this material together so quickly for the Clay Committee report.
Time estimates, dollar figures and things like that had already been calculated,
so it was really just a matter of 'turning the switch on' to obtain it.
Actually, more than 30 years of preparation went into that report. It wasn't
called an 'interstate system' then, but we had data and maps put together
as far back as 1921 to show how the nation could all be connected. So we
built off all of that."


Committee members also built off Eisenhower's idealized concept of an "American
autobahn," but with one important distinction: "The German autobahn
was built purely for military purposes. One of the major differences between
that and what we were thinking was that the autobahn was built in rural
areas-it bypassed cities. It even had areas where it was designed to do
'double duty': parts were major landing strips for aircraft. As I've said,
the autobahn was for purely military use.


"We had already been through that in the 1930s, the exercise of a military
highway system and taking a look at what that would require. But now, with
the Clay Committee, we looked at the needs of most Americans. One of the
major problems was in the city, not the country. This is where travel was
difficult; congestion high. So we needed roads both between cities and to
penetrate into cities because that is where the most miles are driven. That
is where the need was.


"So our concept was to go through-not around-cities. This is something
that Eisenhower, as a military man, had trouble understanding. He probably
would not have seen the need for city 'interstates' as easily as others
because of this background."


One of the criticisms often leveled at the interstate system is its effect
on the cities these highways don't penetrate. Nearly a hundred years earlier,
towns on the Great Plains withered and died like fruit on a severed vine
after being bypassed by the railroad. When the interstate highway system
began to make inroads into America, the same scenario was repeated.


"We knew that cities would be hurt by being bypassed. That is one of
the reasons we did not go around them, as the autobahn did, but chose to
penetrate into the city. And not just through the city, but to provide a
route to specific points inside the city. That would aid commerce. You need
to be able to get the trucks into the cities-right up to the loading dock.
You can't just have them go up to the city limits and have them dump their
loads there. You have to build into the cities.


"JIT,"-which Turner pronounces as one word-"or 'just in time'shipping
is now possible because of our interstate system. This has completely changed
the American economy. There is a tremendous difference between this and
what would have occurred if we had not decided to have the interstates have
this penetration. Milk delivered overnight, food from out West-we take this
for granted today."


Unfortunately, the direct route of the "penetrations" often took
the planned roads over established homes, businesses and ways of life. Turner
says the committee listened to all points of view and tried to persuade
both Congress and the public to accept what they felt was a just compromise
when national and private interests clashed.


But conflict was inevitable. The construction of the interstate system required
the acquisition of more than three-quarters of a million parcels of land;
many had to be acquired through the process of eminent domain. Needless
to say, this was often an unpopular procedure.


"The public had all sorts of opinions-from A to Z-about the interstate;
some objections, naturally. But we went to great lengths to alleviate personal
difficulties the roads created.


"The first concern was to make sure the personal disruption that a
roadway's construction created was necessary to meet acceptable service
levels. But that's difficult; how do you go about determining that? And
how do you provide relief for those who will be displaced by the roads?


"We set up committees in Congress and performed studies to determine
what is 'necessary,' as well as what is fair for the average Americans who
were affected by the construction-this is the contribution we made to alleviate
these problems. We had great discussions and debates about this, especially
with the budget office-they were opposed to helping these folks. They basically
said, 'Tough luck for them; it is part of being in America.'


"We didn't share that view, and we set up groups to study the 'other
side of the coin' so to speak, and we came up with legislation that would
buy out people who were damaged or would be damaged by the routes through
cities and make them 'whole' again. Finally, we established a system where
those displaced got 20% over the appraised value of their homes, or we would
move them-at our expense-to a location of their choice.


"We got a lot of growls out of some people for that-especially from
the budget office-but it was the fair thing to do. Today this is pretty
much a standard procedure, but it was somewhat controversial back then."


Turner was able to experience-almost firsthand-that "other side of
the coin": One of the homes in the path of I&shyp;45 through Texas
was that of Turner's parents. "I didn't even know about it until it
was underway. I was coming back from a trip to the Philippines, and-when
I arrived at their house in Fort Worth-I saw a surveyor's stake right in
the middle of the driveway. So I knew something was going on. My parents
just said, 'We have to move,' and that was it. I didn't have anything to
do with it. They sold their house to the state; the state then resold it
so someone who had it moved. My folks bought an existing house in a different
part of the city.


"They later said-and I agree with them-that they came out ahead through
this program.


"The whole idea of this relocation program was to try to help. For
a number of years, we went back to talk to people who had been relocated
by the process to see what their opinion was that year vs. in the past.
To see how their feelings had changed over time. From talking to them, most
people were mad as hell in the beginning, but later they would say, 'To
be honest, we are better off now than we were before.' As I've said, this
is now an accepted principle, at least in the federal government, to make
proper recompense. But-back then-there was tremendous opposition."


In addition to opposition from the dislocated individuals themselves, opposition
came from those who didn't want to extend "benefits" to those
inconvenienced by the ambitious project. Like any government or business
under-taking, all parties involved took a hard look at the bottom line.
How to fund such a large bottom line was another source of lively debate.


"Funding was a major area of study and review. At the same time, separate
from the highway studies, Congress had ordered a study on whether we should
build a national system of toll roads. There were a few at the time; the
Pennsylvania Turnpike was the granddaddy of them all. But you could be on
those roads and not see another car for hours, while on the other roads
you'd constantly be on someone's bumper.


"Why not fund the interstates this way? We ran this study and concluded
it was a way to do it, but not the better way. It had a lot of problems.
For one, it is much more costly this way-bonds, toll plazas and so on.


"We were required to update that tollway study as part of the interstate
study; we reached the same conclusion-it was a feasible method but probably
not the best way to run things. However, it was the toll road concept that
was picked up by the Clay Committee-even though we reached the opposite
conclusion. The recommendation Eisenhower sent to Congress was to build
a system financed by bonds-to set up a federal corporation to sell 30-year
treasury bonds, paid for by tolls or taxes, primarily tolls.


"This proposal did not receive favorable treatment in Congress; they
rejected it by a large margin because of this. But we were still able to
begin the program, using funds authorized in '52 and '53. We got things
going.


"We did have a federal fuel tax at the time; some states have had them
since the early '30s; Oregon was the first to have one, I think, back in
1931 or '32. But the fuel tax went into the general fund, not just for highways.
So this is one concept that was discussed; it was the one favored by Congress.


"We set up the program as it was finally approved in 1956; the legislation
Eisenhower signed set up the Highway Trust Fund, into which the statutory
tax items would go, the big item of which was the tax on fuel. When we began,
it was 2 cents, and I spent nights arguing with members of Congress on whether
to raise it 1¦4 , 1¦2 or a full cent. We finally settled on a
fuel tax of 3 cents.


"The concept was that the tax would be adequate to fund the program,
but it would only be levied on items that were used in connection with highway
travel-gasoline, primarily. Purchase of gas for other uses-such as in 5-gal
cans for motorboats-would not be taxed. Yes, individuals would have to be
taxed up front, but they could get forms to get reimbursed for that tax
payment. This is how the bill went through.


"We thought this was a fair way of doing it, and it prevailed without
much opposition. Actually, without a single opposition vote. When we first
put the bill together, it exempted rubber-tired mass transit vehicles, because
we didn't feel it would be fair to tax those who really didn't use the highways
or couldn't afford to pay for it.


"One of the cornerstones of the entire interstate highway system was
that the cost of the system would be paid for by user fees. This concept
was violated in the 1960s, and it continues to this day.


"Government has shut its eyes to diverting the fund to nonhighway uses,
such as mass transit. We put a lot of work into an interstate program that
would be paid for by the users, and those who did not use it wouldn't have
to pay a cent of it. At least, they would be able to get their money back
in rebates if they didn't use the system.We thought that was a pretty fair
way to run the government; still think so.


"Therefore, the use of the Highway Trust Fund for other types of transportation
is a violation of that trust; this was violated beginning in the 1960s,
and that hurt, it really did. While this entire program passed overwhelmingly
back in the 1950s, there have been some longtime opponents to it, and they
have succeeded in raiding the program in recent years. I don't think Mr.
and Mrs. America are aware of it; if they were, they would be as mad as
hell. Mass transit is getting a free ride."


Turner takes the "trust" in the Highway Trust Fund literally;
he finds the appropriation of the trust's funds by programs such as mass
transit to be a violation of the "pay as you go" program he helped
guide through Congress, as well as breach of the covenant between government
and the people. Beginning in 1968, the year before he took the helm of the
Federal Highway Administration, the fund was put "on budget,"
and portions of the fuel-tax revenues began to support mass transit systems,
money that otherwise would have gone to fund interstate construction and
maintenance.


While Turner is largely responsible for the very existence of the interstate
system, he does not let his emotions carry him away. He is willing to back
up his comment that "mass transit is getting a free ride" with
facts, not just feelings.


"I did a study with a couple of other fellows, a worldwide study on
a consulting basis after I retired. We saw mass transit systems all over
the world, took notes on them all, and what we found is that not one city
can pay for its transit system. The riders pay for only approximately 30%
of their ride; the rest is subsidized.


"Now, some cities believe that mass transit is the answer, and for
some cities, it is. We are not opposed to this; highways are not the answer
for everyone. But you have to look at where the people are really traveling.
In 1991, 90% of travel miles were highway miles. Travel is very much overloaded
on the highway side.


"The Washington Metra system is the best in the world; I use it when
it goes where I need to go, but that isn't always the case. [Mass transit]
is not convenient for most folks. A study found that the commute is not
just home to work and then back again. There is an average of three to five
stops there; with more women entering the workforce, there will be more
need for errands to be run during commutes. People stop and drop off dry
cleaning, take the kids to school, pick up a loaf of bread. Mass transit
does not accommodate this well."


Turner details other social dynamics that are making mass transit less necessary
and highways more attractive. He sees the two-career household as an American
institution that is here to stay; with more people in the workplace, there
are more commuters on the road to more places. And many of today's commuters
are somehow tied to computers, which are revolutionizing the way we work.
Today, it's not uncommon to work at "computer centers," satellite
stations only a few miles from the home and not necessarily in downtown
areas or near a company's physical location. The virtual office, too, is
becoming an American fixture. Only roadways are flexible enough to accommodate
these commuters.


"We need to privatize some of this, such as car pooling and the van
system that the 3M company uses up in St. Paul, Minn. The company buys the
vans and leases them to an individual who gets other riders-along the same
route-to share the ride. This has been a very successful program for them;
the only change they have had to make is that they have had to cut back
to smaller vans, because people are more spread out, and there are fewer
individuals on a given route.


"Also, we don't need the magnificent facilities-I'm not joking there-that
some mass transit systems have. We need to go back to 'less.' We don't need
all the trackage, all the automated controls, all the impressive stations."


But above all, we do need the highways. While Turner reluctantly acknowledges
the tremendous impact his work has had on America, he is unwilling to say
such a vast under-taking is out of reach for today's highway planners. As always, Turner has an eye on the future and confidence in his support of interstates.


"The highway system has to be continually improved and replaced every
minute of every day, and that is a large project in itself. We have to keep
upgrading to make it better and safer. We have made tremendous strides in
this direction; we need to continue this effort. There is a tremendous return
on investment from that viewpoint.


"We need to keep the highway system up-there is more to it than just
people going to work. Most of our freight is on the highway; this is going
to continue to be our predominant mode of product transport. Rails carry
only 22% of the materials volume, I think, and this is mainly bulk items-coal,
grain and things like that. Except for boxed items in boxcars, trucks on
the highway is the primary mode of transporting manufactured goods.


"We need to provide extensions of the miles of road, and we need to
maintain what we have. If you look at the heavy traffic we're seeing on
existing roads-with the steadily increasing volumes, weights and all-we're
not even keeping up with this growth.


"There is a life to a mile of highway, about 30 to 35 years, I would
say, and the average age of the interstates' miles is getting to the point
where overloads, cracks and other deterioration are all really showing.


"We need to be thinking about the ways to get to and from where we
need to go; mass transit systems don't work that way. They are too inflexible."


The future, to Turner, is based firmly on the foundation he helped lay in
the '50s and '60s-only roadways can accommodate the flexible needs of a
continually evolving workplace and economy.


Frank Turner officially retired in 1972, but it takes only a very short
conversation with him to realize he's never left work. Not only does he
have his finger on the pulse of today's highways, he is-at 87 years of age-looking
far into the future of transportation. While he may never become a household
name, his efforts have made such a significant impact on the American way
of life that American Heritage magazine, on the occasion of its own 40th
anniversary in 1994, named Turner one of the "Ten People Who Changed
the Way You Live."


The article was subtitled "(You've Never Heard of Any of Them),"
but that appears to suit the modest Turner just fine. The Interstate Highway
System was the largest public works project in history, a $130 billion endeavor
that included over 15,000 interchanges and 54,000 bridges. More than just
an engineering triumph, the system changed the way Americans lived: By bringing
the "interstates" right into the city, it allowed an easy flow
of commerce and made it possible for individuals to see parts of the country
that were all but inaccessible before its construction. It literally put
America and Americans in the driver's seat.


Always understating his own efforts, the "Father of the Interstate
Highway System" will only admit that, "The highways have changed
the way we live to a certain degree."

About the Author

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