Mr. Highways’: A legend passes

A father figure to many, Frank Turner, chief architect of the Interstate Highway System and the first Federal Highway Administrator, spent his entire career in service to our nation and its highways

Article December 28, 2000
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There was a Turner who preferred not to broadcast his name all over the country. Francis Cutler "Frank" Turner was the "Father of the Interstate Highway System," but unlike television crusader Ted Turner few outside the roadbuilding industry know about the impact the Dallas, Texas, native, who died of cancer at 90 on Oct. 2, made on American society.

"There is no question that Frank Turner was one of the great Americans of the century. Much of what we have become in terms of mobility and the movement of goods is due to Frank," said Frank Francois, retired executive director, American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials.

"He respected people, trusted them and never violated their trust. He understood the need for change. People would ask him when America’s highways would be finished and he’d say, ‘Never.’ He was a unique national treasure."

After graduating from the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Texas A&M) in 1929, Turner joined the Division Management of the Bureau of Public Roads. He spent his entire career with the organization, which later evolved into the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

During the opening stages of World War II, Bureau of Public Roads Commissioner Tom MacDonald sent Turner to the Alaska Highway project, where he used aerial reconnaissance for highway location. The highway created a land link through Canada to the Lower 48 states and provided a measure of military security against possible invasion by enemy forces. Japan’s surrender led Turner to the Philippine highway system. There his job was to oversee reconstruction of the islands’ war-ravaged roads and bridges. The government of the Philippines was so impressed it recognized Turner’s contribution by making him a member of its Legion of Honor in 1951.

"It was a massive reconstruction project," Turner told ROADS & BRIDGES in 1996 (see First Person: Frank Turner, June 1996, p 38). "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."

Dawn of the interstate

But the one project of massive importance to the U.S. was still in its infancy, and it was Turner who helped spur the growth of the interstate system. In 1954, President Eisenhower named Turner executive secretary of the Clay Committee, which was in charge of overseeing the massive project. After working through years of data and calculations, the committee issued a report. Of particular importance was how the interstate system would tie into major metropolitan areas, where travel was difficult and congestion high. The committee determined that the country needed "roads both between cities and to penetrate into cities because that is where the most miles are driven." Another task was to recommend whether the national highway system should be "toll" or "free," and behind Turner’s prodigious work and guidance the committee recommended a National System of Interstate and Defense Highways to be financed through a federal-state partnership, which still exists to this day.

"Frank made it happen," said Doug Bernard, director of government relations for Energy Absorption Systems Inc. and former FHWA employee under Turner. "He put the legislation together that really defined it. We all looked at him as the father of the interstate. He is the idol of past generations of highway officials."

From 1957 to 1967, Turner held the position of Deputy Commissioner and Chief Engineer for Public Roads, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Director of Public Roads in February 1967. Two years later, Turner was named Federal Highway Administrator by a unanimous consent.

Retired? Not really

On June 30, 1972, he retired from public service, leaving quite a legacy for someone who was included in the list of "Ten People Who Changed the Way You Live (You’ve Never Heard of Any of Them)" by American Heritage magazine.

Amazingly, throughout his career, Turner managed to stay out of the public eye. "What impressed me about Frank was the impact he had on all our lives," former Federal Highway Administration Executive Director Dean Carlson said. "Nobody knew who he was, and he liked it that way."

Though retired, Turner continued to make an impression on the industry over the next three decades. He joined The Road Information Program (TRIP) board of directors in 1973. "Even when he was retired and not attending too many TRIP board meetings, we still knew if we had a question we could give him a call and he provided excellent insight to us," said Will Wilkins, executive director for TRIP. "Our board will sorely miss him; I’ll miss his counsel."

In 1998, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) set up the Frank Turner Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Transportation, which "recognizes lifetime achievement in transportation, as demonstrated by a distinguished career in the field, professional prominence and a distinctive, widely recognized contribution to transportation policy, administration or research." Turner himself was the first recipient of that award.

"In his 43-year career in transportation, Frank Turner stood as a model of professionalism, dedication and a can-do spirit that is an inspiration to us all," said John Horsley, executive director, American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials.

"He was a quiet and unassuming man who nonetheless shaped the transportation system we have today. Even after his retirement, he maintained strong interest in transportation."

William D. Fay, president and CEO of American Highway Users Alliance said, "Frank Turner was, and remains, an icon to those of us in the transportation community. At his passing, it is comforting to recall a June 26, 1996 dinner celebrating the 40th anniversary of the interstate system. Held on the Ellipse in front of the White House, Frank was among four ‘Visionaries of the Interstate’ honored that evening. In presenting the awards, Vice President Al Gore had this to say about Frank:
"‘In 1994, American Heritage magazine named 10 individuals who changed life for all in America but whose names might not be widely known to their fellow citizens. One of those 10 Americans was Frank Turner. Well, those who worked on the Interstate Highway System certainly knew his name; and historians of this great project know and honor his name; and each and every one of us has benefited from his work.

"‘Indeed, tens of thousands of Americans are alive today because of Frank’s work to build the safest highway network in the world. I am pleased that the American Highway Users Alliance and others had the opportunity in 1996 simply to say: ‘Thank you, Frank. Well done!’"

"I think people’s opinions are pretty universal about the kind of man Frank Turner was," noted Pete Ruane, president, American Road & Transportation Builders Association. "He was not only a man of vision, but someone who could execute the program that implemented the vision, and that is a rare combination. Far beyond that, he was a gentleman that had a technical expertise for which the country will always be indebted. His career in public service was devoted to improving transportation in the nation.

"That speaks volumes about his personality and his humility. He did not seek publicity and did not try to attach his name to any glory associated with the accomplishments of the Interstate Highway System. Maybe that’s part of his legacy, that we all learn from his humility and his approach to getting the job done, just focusing on accomplishing the mission rather than being a glory hound.

"He was a stalwart. He is a prominent member of our industry’s hall of fame and the transportation hall of fame. He’s someone we will seek to honor and emulate for the years to come."

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