A Conversation with Alan Boyd, Part 3

A Conversation with Alan Boyd, Part 3

February 16, 2016  | Jeff Davis

Alan S. Boyd was the first Secretary of Transportation, sworn in on January 26, 1967 (which also makes him the most senior living former Cabinet official). But he also served as Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation from 1965 to 1967, and in that capacity, he was the Johnson Administration’s chief public advocate of the creation of a new USDOT. Prior to Commerce, he had served as chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board.

Secretary Boyd was in town on February 3 for the kickoff celebration for the 50th anniversary of the creation of USDOT and was kind enough to sit down for a conversation with Alan Pisarski, author of the Commuting in America series and founder of the Transportation Research Board’s history committee, and ETW’s Jeff Davis. Secretary Boyd’s son Mark, who is in the process of assembling and editing his father’s memoirs, also took part in the interview. This is the third and final part of the interview (part one is here and part two is here).

Secretary Boyd and President Johnson, year unknown. Photo courtesy of the Boyd family.
Secretary Boyd and President Johnson, year unknown. Photo courtesy of the Boyd family.

Davis: Was there ever anything when you were at CAB or Commerce or at DOT that you felt so strongly about that you actually threatened to resign if it didn’t go your way?

Sec. Boyd: No.

Davis: I ask that because after the [Illinois Central Railroad] you went to Amtrak, and Amtrak only exists because, when that bill came to Nixon’s desk in 1970, his budget and economic advisers were strongly recommending a veto, and Secretary Volpe had gone out on a limb personally, advocating the bill before Congress, and Volpe sent Nixon a hand-written note that said if you veto this bill, my credibility on the Hill will be destroyed and I’ll have to resign.” And that’s the only reason that Nixon signed the bill to create Amtrak in the first place, and then you wound up there.

Sec. Boyd: Gee, that’s interesting.

Mark Boyd: Dad was at the Illinois Central when Amtrak started, and one of their accidents, the Panama Limited, a significant accident with eleven fatalities, was right there in 1971, I guess it was. It was basically an Amtrak train operated by the Illinois Central.

Sec. Boyd: That was not a happy time, because we had the Amtrak [accident], and then we had two trains run through the computer in operation, killed forty people. [The October 30, 1972 IC commuter rail crash in Chicago where the automatic block signals failed and allowed a full-speed train to rear-end a slowly reversing train, killing 45 people and injuring 332.] I was wondering, what the hell am I doing in this business?

Mark Boyd: It was interesting because I don’t think Dad was looking to go back to Amtrak. He got a call from Cyrus Vance, and who was your friend from Northwestern University transportation…

Sec. Boyd: Don Jacobs, he was chairman of Amtrak.

Mark Boyd: They both called him and said, hey, we actually think Amtrak needs a lot of help right now.

Pisarski: Amtrak continues to need a lot of help. I’m afraid it’s kind of a continuing saga, kind a barometer on where we are on transportation.

Mark Boyd: I don’t know if you gentlemen know how close they came to actually creating high-speed rail between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Davis: I was going to ask about that because I saw that was where you went after you left Amtrak.

Mark Boyd: It was actually simultaneous. I don’t know if you know Larry Gilson, Larry was a vice president of Amtrak and actually was one of the people who looked at some of the legislation that had been passed allowing railroads to sell off some of their tax credits for depreciation and figured out how to, basically, do that for Amtrak even though the legislation wasn’t written for that, it did actually permit it…and so that generated enough funds to create Amfleet II. So Larry’s quite clever. Larry was very interested in pushing the high-speed rail.

Sec. Boyd: When I was at Amtrak, we got, I think it was $45 million from some sort of…the Pennsylvania Railroad owed Amtrak [an amount for a lawsuit judgment] but when we got it, I called in my financial man and I said “bury this damn thing. I don’t care where you bury it, just bury it. We don’t want anybody to know about it, because it’s gonna be needed.” And Reagan tried to kill Amtrak, and we had this $45 million that nobody knew about [which helped ease the budget shortfall]…

Sec. Boyd: One of the things that I did, both when I was at DOT and later when I came back to Amtrak, it was interesting that Congressmen would call me and ask me if I would come home [to their districts] for the weekend, and hell, I would go with them. They were all members of the Appropriations Committee or whatever, and I liked these fellows. But you had to be appreciated by the Congressmen to get them to do things for you…

Davis: The missing piece [at DOT at the beginning] – aside from MARAD, because Congress had made that decision very clear – the missing piece was mass transit. They gave it a year, and then you and the Housing secretary had a panel to recommend moving it over [from HUD to DOT], but it was never as clear-cut a decision as a lot of the others were, what to include at Transportation. Whereas mass transit related, is it more about [urban] development, or is it more about transportation?

Sec. Boyd: And we won with it, but in retrospect, I think it was probably the wrong decision. I think it is so critical to housing, in retrospect, I didn’t think about it at the moment, you gotta have it, it’s transportation, period. But I think it would have been more successful [at HUD].

Davis: Because in ’82 they were successful in permanently opening the Highway Trust Fund to mass transit, but that actually kind of reinforced transit’s separation from housing, once they had that separate stovepipe. The Appropriations Committees, when the Democrats took back over in ’07, they rearranged the Appropriations subcommittees so that Transportation and Housing were in the same appropriations bill, hoping that that would promote coordination. Then the Republicans took over and put the knife in that.

Pisarski: I haven’t seen much of that coordination. The only reason I might disagree with [Sec. Boyd] is that HUD has been such a weak sister over the years, it might be that UMTA might have invigorated it some, but they have been undistinguished, shall we say, in their work.

Sec. Boyd: Yeah, that’s too bad.

Mark Boyd: I don’t know how this relates to that, but Dad, with his experience at the state level…and then knowing Congressmen and Senators, when he came to DC was very aware of how important staff are in getting things done, both staff at the agencies and staff on the Hill. And so my understanding was that Dad was very interested in respecting and engaging the ideas and the capacities of the staff of all the Congressmen and Senators. And so, consequently, he had a really good relationship with the Hill, not only because he is a smart guy and very nice but because I think he also understood how the system worked. And he was talking about how LBJ, in the Cabinet, would say “So-and-so needs some help on the Hill,” and I think you said at one point there were only about two of you in the Cabinet who actually knew how to deal with people on the Hill. Because a lot of them would come in and they had been appointed from some place else and they thought, “I’ll go see the Senator.”

Pisarski: You’d better talk to the staff.

Davis: Go see the appropriations clerk.

Mark Boyd: And so Dad built those relationships, and I think HUD and some of these others never had that history of building relationships.

Sec. Boyd: I’ve forgotten the name of the Secretary of HUD, a really nice man.

Mark Boyd: Was it Bob Weaver?

Sec. Boyd: Yeah. And nobody gave him any help. He was an educator. He was in a strange world, and nobody gave him any help. We were at Cabinet meetings, and Weaver was having some problems, and [LBJ said] “I want every one of you fellows to help him,” and [Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman] and I had spent a lot of time working with the Hill, and we’d all say, “yes sir, Mister President” and know damn well we were lying, because not any of us were gonna spend any of our money…

Mark Boyd: Your capital…

Sec. Boyd: Yeah, Weaver was there, naked…

Pisarski: What do you think of the state of transportation today, particularly in terms of the recognition of its value in the economy and society? You read the aspirations in the early work and you can see that we haven’t gotten all that recognition still.

Sec. Boyd: No, we haven’t. I doubt that it will. It’s sort of there, and it’s supposed to be there, it out to be there.

Pisarski: Sort of like running water, it doesn’t bother you until you turn the tap and nothing comes out.

[There follows a discussion of the upcoming 50th anniversary kickoff event at DOT and the retrospective look-back at what the hopes and intentions for DOT were in 1966.]

Sec. Boyd: Basically, I’d say that the one figure that we around us a DOT at that time was that DOT represents 20 percent of the economy. What should be done to make it more feasible, more workable. But the overriding thing had to be safety. Absolutely, safety.

Davis: A strong second, though, from that article that you wrote in 1966 for our publication, you were talking about the things that only a Department could accomplish, and SST was over here, that obviously was a mixed bag, but you saw containerization was going to change everything.

Left to right: Alan Pisarski, Sec. Alan Boyd, Eno's Jeff Davis.
Left to right: Alan Pisarski, Sec. Alan Boyd, Eno’s Jeff Davis.

Sec. Boyd: That was fantastic.

Davis: Containerization was maybe the most important transportation development of the 20th century, and how it took a Department looking across modes to deal with that, I think that was a very foresighted thing.

Sec. Boyd: Looking now, at a railroad train, the small number of boxcars [versus flatbed cars to hold ocean shipping containers]. I am just flabbergasted when I look at those things…

[Ed. Note: Secretary Boyd did not bring it up during our conversation, but several other people emailed us after part one of the interview to remind us of a story that comes with a helpful audio aid. President Johnson signed the bill creating DOT into law in a White House ceremony at 1:25 p.m. on Saturday, October 15, 1966. That morning, an article had appeared in the New York Times indicating that White House domestic policy czar Joseph Califano, Jr. would be named the first U.S. Secretary of Transportation and that Boyd would leave government service and return to a law practice. Six hours and forty minutes after the DOT bill was signed into law, Boyd returned the President’s call to discuss the Times article and the SecDOT job. The recording of that conversation is here. (Note that Boyd politely refuses to identify to Johnson which of his staff had been talking to him out of school.)]

If you are interested on the creation of the U.S. Department of Transportation, check out our extensive collection of original documents on the subject from the LBJ Library and the archives of Congress on our Documentary History of the Creation of the Department of Transportation webpage. (We just linked a bunch of oral history interviews from the Library, including a four-part session with Sec. Boyd recorded in 1968 and 1969.)

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