Federal Highway Policy Under President Eisenhower, 1957-1961

Federal Highway Policy Under President Eisenhower, 1957-1961

September 14, 2020  | Jeff Davis

(Clicking on hyperlinks in the text will take you to original source documents, many of which are from the Eisenhower Library or other National Archives facilities and have never before been available online.)

Recession, and highways as stimulus

The American economy entered into a sharp recession in late 1957, which had an effect on Highway Trust Fund tax receipts. The Senate Public Works Committee was told by Public Roads in January 1958 that the Byrd Test would not only cause Interstate funding to be decreased by $600 million in 1960 (from $2.2 billion to $1.6 billion), the new projections were for a $1.0 billion cut in 1961 (from $2.2 billion to $1.2 billion) and by $900 million in 1962 (from $2.2 billion to $1.3 billion). The withheld money would be reapportioned to states in 1970 and 1971, dragging out the timeframe for construction of the system.

In response, Highways Subcommittee chairman Albert Gore (D-TN) said he would “wage a relentless battle” to keep spending on the original 1956 schedule.[1]

Also in January 1958, the first interim cost estimate for Interstate construction came in, and It showed that the federal share of the total cost of system construction was now expected to be $34.0 billion – a 26 percent increase over the $27 billion assumed under the 1956 Act.

The minutes of a January 24, 1958 Cabinet meeting reflect that President Eisenhower wanted to stay on the original 13-year construction schedule and asked “since the gas tax was now only 3 cents and it was many, many times that in other countries, why not raise it one-half cent to help make up the deficit.”[2]

As the Administration prepared to send legislation to Congress reauthorizing the regular federal-aid highway program, they briefed Congressional Republican leader in March 1958 on a plan developed by the Commerce Department to suspend the Byrd Test for three years, for a bill that would allow full apportionments in 1960, 1961 and 1962 “and would express Congress’s intent to increase the gasoline tax later on (perhaps by 1 – 1 ½¢ per gallon) or adopt some other tax.”[3]

Eisenhower himself said he “thought the action might be accomplished by repealing the Byrd amendment so that the Trust Fund could get money from the Treasury’s general funds, and repay it later form the 3¢ gasoline tax receipts, Or, if there was a substantial increase of activity in the economy, it might be feasible in 1959 to get a gas tax increase.”[4]

Many of the Republican leaders were hesitant to endorse any tax increase. The White House then announced support for a three-year Byrd Test suspension, preventing any funding cuts, but Senator Gore had preempted the White House with a bill that not only fixed the Byrd Test problem but also increased spending by an additional $11 billion to meet the increased Interstate cost estimate. Gore’s bill also added an immediate $450 million supplement for the regular federal-aid program to fight the recession and would even have loaned states another $450 million to pay for their 50 percent matching share.

This proved to be a bit much for Gore’s colleagues on Public Works, and the bill they approved was pared down, only suspending the Byrd Test for two years and dropping all but $800 million of the extra $11 billion for the Interstates, but keeping an immediate $400 million for non-Interstate highways to fight the recession at an effective 90 percent share.

Despite White House opposition to the stimulus money (and the way it was structured), the Senate passed the modified Gore bill, 84 to 4, and the House largely receded to the Senate, leaving Eisenhower with the dilemma of whether or not to sign the bill. But the final bill had passed the House by a veto-proof margin of 300 to 28 (and it even passed the Senate by voice the second time through).

The White House received the highway bill on April 4, 1958, and the executive clerk assembled the usual package of agency views on the bill. While the Council of Economic Advisers supported the bill, the Commerce Department and the Bureau of the Budget recommended a veto, and a draft veto message was prepared. The President reached a tentative decision to veto the bill on April 10, then flew down to Augusta National for a weekend of golf. Upon returning to Washington on the 14th, he held his usual meeting with Republican Congressional leaders at which the main topics of conversation were going to be two veto-bait public works bills: the highway bill, and the omnibus rivers and harbors authorization. The two bills had been presented to the President a day apart, so he had until midnight on April 15 to dispose of the rivers and harbors bill and until midnight on the 16thto deal with the highway bill.

According to the staff notes on the meeting, the rivers and harbors bill came up first. The President “stated his opposition to this since about fourteen projects had been authorized without any engineering or survey reports.”[5] Framed in that way – Congress deviating from its own standards – it was hard for the legislators present to argue against a veto.

Then the conversation turned to the highway bill. Eisenhower appeared to be hung up on the non-Interstate FY59 stimulus money that exceeded the traditional 50-50 federal-state cost share. After hearing much Republican hesitance for a highway veto, “The President agreed that the decision was a much closer one than on the Rivers and Harbors Bill and that he would sign it quickly were it not for the two-to-one ratio. He added that he might be able to bring himself to approving even this if he could have any hope of correcting the ratio…The President concluded by saying that he would give the measure his utmost consideration…”

Eisenhower wound up vetoing the public works bill but signing the highway bill. His signing statement criticized the stimulus money at the higher federal share, but also contained a promise for the future: “It will be necessary for the Congress in its next session to return to the subject of highway legislation in order to provide funds for the enlarged federal assistance under this Act. Its action at that time should accord with the sound principles that established the Trust Fund as a means for keeping federal-aid highway expenditures on a self-sustaining basis.”[6]

Requesting a gas tax increase

As the Administration prepared in late 1958 for the submission of the fiscal 1960 budget request in January 1959, there were three competing proposals for fixing the highway problem. The Commerce Department wanted to increase the gasoline tax by 1.0 cents per gallon for two years, the bare minimum to continue Byrd Test suspension through 1962 and make a few other program tweaks. The Bureau of the Budget favored a long-range solution, increasing the gas tax by 1.5 cents per gallon for thirteen years, which would pay for the increased Interstate cost estimate. And the Bureau of Public Roads wanted to revert back to the original 1955 plan of issuing special bonds to be paid for by future tax receipts.

At a December 16 Cabinet meeting, the President chose a middle ground, agreeing with Commerce to delay dealing with the increased Interstate cost estimate for one more year, agreeing with Budget not to recommend another Byrd Test suspension, and finding a middle ground on the gas tax increase (1.5 cents per gallon for five years).

The 1960 budget request was a balanced budget, with $77.10 billion in anticipated receipts versus $77.03 billion in proposed on-budget expenditures. The President’s message said “In order to make highway-related taxes support our vast highway expenditures, excises on motor fuels need to be increased 1½ cents a gallon to 4½ cents. These receipts will go into the highway trust fund and preserve the pay-as-we-go principle, so that contributions from general tax funds to build Federal-aid highways will not be necessary.”[7]

An extra 1.5 cents per gallon was a much bigger deal, percentage-wise, in January 1959 than it is today. An extra 1.5 cents would mean the federal tax on gasoline would have tripled in 10 years – it was 1.5 cents per gallon in 1949 before rising to 2.0 cents in 1950 and thence to 3.0 cents in 1956. The average state tax rate had gone up more slowly, from 4.5 cents per gallon (weighted average) in 1949 to 5.7 cents in 1958. And the base price of gasoline, excluding taxes, had been remarkably steady – 20.8 cents per gallon in 1949 to 21.8 cents per gallon in 1959.

On the day after the budget’s release, House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) told reporters that he had strong doubts that the gas tax increase would pass Congress.[8] Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) criticized the budget on the Senate floor that day, saying “Far from opening the way to tax cuts, this budget proposal would open the way to imposition of more and more sales taxes – sales taxes, first, on gasoline; sales taxes then, on other essentials; and finally, I believe, sales taxes would come on everything. I, for one, am unwilling to travel this road. This administration has demanded that local governments pay more of local costs. Now it proposes to enter a footrace with the States and the cities, to see who can preempt the gasoline tax first as a source of revenue.”[9]

But without prompt revenue increases, or “repayable advance” appropriations from the general fund, the Interstate program would face an immediate shutdown of new funding on July 1, 1959 (when the fiscal 1961 apportionments were supposed to be made) because the Byrd Test would resume operation. In total, the Byrd Test would defer $6.6 billion of Interstate construction apportionments over the 1961-1967 period and then add it back over 1968-1973 (except the Trust Fund and its dedicated taxes were set to expire before that, so the final $2.5 billion in apportionments in FY 1972-73 were unfunded).

Many in Congress were open to the idea of diverting the proceeds of existing excise taxes, like new car sales, from the General Fund to the Highway Trust Fund, or just transferring money as needed into the Trust Fund. But due to the way federal budgets were presented prior to 1969, trust fund cash flow was not included in the budget. Diverting a tax that was scheduled to be deposited in the General Fund would look identical to cutting the tax by the same amount. Similarly, any appropriation of funds from the General Fund to the Trust Fund would look just like an appropriation of money to some non-federal entity. And, since Eisenhower’s entire federal budget was in balance (barely), diverting an existing tax or giving a cash bailout to the Trust Fund would throw the entire federal budget into deficit.

At a May 5 White House news conference, President Eisenhower said, of Congress, “if they don’t want to put in the cent-and-a-half additional tax on gasoline that I think is necessary to carry forward this road program effectively, then they ought to find the revenue to make good the deficits they would create in the general fund.”[10] He followed this up eight days later with a special message to Congress warning that “it will be impossible this year, without Congressional action, to apportion funds so that States may make commitments for future highway construction” and opposing both a diversion of auto excise taxes and a proposed Byrd Test waiver as fiscally unsound. And he pointed out that states were expecting their new 1961 highway apportionments in less than two months.[11]

But there was still no action in Congress. At the regular meeting with GOP Congressional leaders at the White House on May 28, Eisenhower stressed repeatedly the importance of providing funds for carrying on the highway program” and asked staff for a paper that would quantify the economic impact of shutting down the highway program. But both House Minority Leader Halleck and Rep. Leo Allen (R-IL), the ranking minority member on the House Rules Committee, “felt that it would be impossible to obtain an increase in the gasoline tax, hence the probability that the program would have to be cutback.”[12]

The Administration squeezes the states

By this point, the White House felt it needed to provide legislators with tangible information on how the pending Byrd Test shutoff of new Interstate funding would affect their constituents. The Bureau of Public Roads sent all 50 state road agencies telegrams in early June 1952 asking them for the approximate date they would have to stop awarding new Interstate construction contracts if the Byrd Test cuts took place as scheduled in July.

The responses, which were released to the public on June 23, showed that ten states, including California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, would have to cut off all new contracts by September 1959 if the Byrd Test cuts took effect. The report was printed in the Congressional Record on June 25 (see p. 11852 here), and by coincidence, the Senate was debating an unrelated tax bill that day. Senator Gore then offered an amendment to the tax bill diverting an estimated $964 million of existing taxes on new cars, trucks and trailers, motor oil, and auto parts from the general fund to the Trust Fund, which was functionally the same as throwing the federal budget out of balance by that amount.

A competing amendment was offered by Sen. Richard Neuberger (D-OR) that instead would have given the President his 1.5 cent gasoline tax increase (but only for two years). Both amendments failed – Gore’s by 32 to 47 (with all Republicans opposed, Southern Democrats split almost evenly, and other Democrats supporting by about a two-to-one margin), and Neuberger’s by 33 to 46 (with Democrats of both stripes largely opposed and Republicans largely in favor).

Even with the Byrd Test cuts in new Interstate funding authority, it still appeared that the Highway Trust Fund might run out of cash in fall 1959. To put more pressure on states, Eisenhower sent letters to the Commerce Department and the Budget Bureau on July 2, asking them to develop, in the absence of a tax increase or a general fund appropriation, means of making sure that the Trust Fund did not run out of money.[13]

After internal discussions, the Budget Bureau’s hard line won out, and Public Roads sent a letter to states on July 13 informing them that not only would they be receiving no new Interstate construction funds for a while, a general “moratorium on new contracts and right-of-way purchases” would have to begin soon and “would have to continue until the spring of 1960, at which time new contracts could be started and right-of-way purchases resumed against existing apportionments but at a reduced rate” – and “State vouchers for both ABC and Interstate System reimbursements, of about $500 million, will have to be held unpaid until the trust fund receipts exceed expenditures. The holding of vouchers would have to begin this fall.”[14]

The prospect of a complete, nationwide Interstate and non-Interstate program shutdown, with states left waiting for months for reimbursement of funds they had already spent, set off mass panic at the state level, which was quickly communicated to Congress. The House Ways and Means Committee finally began holding hearings on the issue on July 22, at which most highway stakeholder groups were against not just Eisenhower’s proposed 1½ cent gas tax increase, but were opposed to balancing the Trust Fund’s revenues and spending with any kind of additional highway user tax. (The state highway bureaus, however, did not endorse any specific position.)

At a meandering two-day markup session later in July, Ways and Means heard, and voted down, a number of proposals that called for a tax increase before finally approving a plan that revolved on issuing $1 billion in special Trust Fund bonds (outside the federal debt limit), to be repaid with future tax revenues, plus diversion of some general fund highway user taxes, and partial Interstate apportionments in 1961 and 1962. (The press release and draft bill and committee report can be read here.)

Borrowing to fill the Trust Fund revenue gap was not only unacceptable to the White House, it was (predictably) unacceptable to Senate Finance chairman Harry Byrd, who put the Byrd Test into law in the first place and who was one of the four Senators who voted against its temporary waiver in the 1958 bill. (Byrd’s statement of August 6 is here starting at page 15263.)

Congress caves in

But the Administration’s funding pressure on the states was starting to pay off. The annual Governor’s Conference was held from August 2-6, and Eisenhower’s emissary to that conference reported back that “there finally developed a full appreciation of the problem and that many Governors indicated privately that they would forego opposition to the gasoline tax increase.”[15]

Ways and Means also had the problem of sharing jurisdiction on this issue with the Public Works Committee – then, as now, Ways and Means had purview over taxes, and the availability of money going out of the Trust Fund, but the actual spending itself (how much, and on what) was Public Works., which approved a bill completely contradictory to Ways and Means on August 6.

At an August 11 White House meeting with Republican leaders, Senate Minority Whip Thomas Kuchel (R-CA) said that even if the House passed a bill without a gas tax increase, “the Senate might give approval to a 1-½¢ increase on a new vote; this could be accomplished by amendment if the House sent a bill to the Senate.” At the end of the meeting, “It was agreed that the Administration effort would continue for increased revenues.”[16] A memo from the Treasury Secretary to the new White House chief of Staff, Gen. Wilton Persons, later that day suggested a plan that would have a 1 cent fuels tax increase for 1960 and 1961 plus the option for the Administration to transfer a portion of the auto excise tax for fiscal years 1962 and 1963 if the overall federal budget was showing a surplus large enough to spare the money from the general fund.[17]

Ways and Means then changed its mind and adopted a plan on August 13 with a two-year, 1 cent gas tax increase plus some revenue diversion of other taxes, which the White House was apparently willing to accept. (In his preparation for his August 12 press conference, the notes given to President Eisenhower said “The Administration will accept a one cent a gallon increase.”[18])

But Public Works still wouldn’t go along, because its chairman, Charles Buckley (D-NY), wanted to use the Trust Fund issue as leverage to force approval of a separate proposal to spend $4.3 billion in federal money to reimburse states like New York who had built roads pre-1957 that were then incorporated into the Interstate system.

Speaker Rayburn had to get personally involved, convincing 18 of the 22 Public Works Democrats at an August 24 meeting to support a compromise plan for a one-year, one cent gas tax increase, with a four-year diversion of half of the automobile tax and two-thirds of the auto excise tax from FY 1961-1964. Rayburn said that while he had opposed the tax increase in the past, “We’ve reached the point now where we’ve got to get some money from some source.”[19]

But Ways and Means voted to reject the Speaker’s compromise – it failed by a vote of 12 yeas, 13 nays, with 9 Republicans and 4 Democrats voting “no” and holding out for the longer duration gas tax which the panel had originally approved. At that point, Eisenhower sent Congress yet another special message on the subject on August 25, calling a one cent tax increase a “step in the right direction” but warning against tax diversion (in the absence of budget surpluses), and opposing Trust Fund revenue bonds.[20]

On August 27, Wilbur Mills addressed a closed caucus of Public Works Democrats. At the meeting, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Public Works Committee Chairman Buckley (D-NY) said he saw no choice but to accept the Ways and Means Committee plan or lose jurisdiction altogether. On a voice vote most of the Public Works Committee Democrats agreed to back the plan,” and the 1.0 cent, 21-month gas tax increase bill (with diversion of half of the general fund automobile taxes from fiscal 1962-1964) was approved in committee on September 1.[21]

The House debated and passed the bill on September 3, with the majority floor manager pointing out that the bill was “temporary, emergency legislation. It meets the immediate problem. It leaves the way clear for a revision of highway financing legislation in 1961, when the appropriate studies will become available.”[22] Chairman Buckley’s face-saving amendment adding a “sense of the Congress” provision on toll road reimbursement failed, 98 to 170, and then the bill, with the temporary gas tax increase, was approved, 243 to 162. 75 percent of Republicans (105 members) voted for the bill, as did 60 percent of non-Southern Democrats (96 members) and 40 percent of Southern Democrats (42 members).

The Senate took up the bill two days later, and Albert Gore immediately offered an amendment to kill the gas tax increase and speed up the diversion of auto taxes from general revenues. To make the general fund whole, his amendment would have increased federal taxes on stock dividends. But the money raised by his “pay-for” would not have made the general fund fully whole, and Gore’s amendment lost by a vote of 35 yeas, 50 nays. Republicans were nearly unanimous (30 to 2 against Gore), Southern Democrats split 10 to 10, and other Democrats backed Gore, 23 to 10.

The Senate then passed the amended bill, 70 to 11, and sent it back to the House, which agreed to the Senate changes by voice vote on September 9. Once the White House received the phone call informing them that the House had cleared the bill and it was too late for anything to go wrong, the official announcement was made: the President was requesting Congress to “make a temporary advance of $359 million from the general fund to the highway trust fund, to be repaid before June 30, 1960.”[23] The request did not seem to make the national news (people were preoccupied with Eisenhower’s veto of the public works bill that day, and whether or not it would become the first of Ike’s vetoes to be overridden, which it was).

The temporary advance was appropriated by Congress in an unrelated bill and signed into law on September 28, but the Highway Trust Fund did indeed repay that loan, with interest, to the general fund by the end of the fiscal year.

As for the tax bill, Eisenhower signed it into law (73 Stat. 611) on September 21. His signing statement made clear what was about to happen to state highway departments, and why:

Because the bill does not provide the level of revenues required for continuing the highway program on the schedule contemplated under existing authorizations, it will be necessary to make orderly use of these authorizations so that spending can be held within limits that will avoid future disruption of the program. This action will be required if the Federal Government is to meet promptly its obligations to the States and at the same time adhere to the self-financing principle upon which the highway program has been established. Of necessity, such actions may lead to some deferment or delay in the completion of the Interstate System as originally contemplated.[24]

Contract controls

The Administration had been working on the plan for contract controls to lower the rate of highway spending, coordinated by the Bureau of the Budget, since mid-July. On September 16, before the President signed the bill, the Bureau of Public Roads sent a preliminary memo to its regional engineers warning that “In order to assure that funds will be available to meet anticipated reimbursement requirements during the current and next fiscal years, it is necessary to provide for an orderly scheduling of obligations and contracts…obligations will be scheduled at an increasing rate during the year. Special accounting records are to be established to insure that obligation totals are not exceeded.”[25] The official contract control circular was sent to states dated October 6, and the public announcement was made by the Commerce Secretary on October 8 (see both here).

Of the total (post-Byrd-test) apportionments available for obligation in FY 1960 – $900 million for regular “ABC” roads and $1.8 billion for Interstates, totaling $2.7 billion – states would collectively be able to obligate up to $600 million in the first quarter of the fiscal year, another $300 million in the second quarter, another $900 million in the third quarter, and a final $900 million in the fourth quarter. The notice included a table showing each state’s total apportionments and states were then given a multiplier – up to 22 percent in the first quarter, then 33, 67, and 100 percent of the total in successive quarters – that synced up with the overall $300-$600-$900-$900 million totals, but the individual state ceilings ensured that faster-spending states could not leave slower-spending states in the lurch.

Senator Gore sent President Eisenhower a long letter on September 16 about the contract controls he had heard rumors of, stating that they were contrary to the intent of Congress and that they would “destroy the concept of the program which you recommended and which Congress approved.” Eisenhower’s response letter three weeks later stated that if Congress had given him what he asked for (a 1.5 cent per gallon gasoline tax increase, effective on July 1, 1959) instead of what they gave him (a 1.0 cent per gallon increase, effective on October 1, 1959), the contract controls would not be necessary, so Congress “is directly responsible” for the need for the contract controls. Unless Congress put additional revenues into the Highway Trust Fund, he wrote, it is clear to me that orderly scheduling of new contracts is the only prudent and equitable course to follow. “[26]

The contract controls issued in 1959 were the first-ever limitation on the ability to obligate highway contract authority. They continued for several years based on the projected Trust Fund receipts, but after 1960, the ceilings were significantly higher than the states needed, allowing obligations over the next few years to exceed new apportionments as the states “burned through” the unobligated balances of contract authority created by the FY 1960 crisis. But a precedent had been set, Presidents Johnson and Nixon would use that precedent to impound massive amounts of highway contract authority until Congress responded with the Impoundment Control Act of 1974. After that, the balances of highway funding held by states had grown so large that Congress was forced to begin enacting contract controls legislatively, as a “limitation on obligations” in the annual transportation appropriations bill, a practice that continues to this day.

As for the Byrd Test Commerce and Treasury Secretaries exchanged letters on October 7 confirming that the Byrd Test had been activated for the first time, and because of that, it was necessary to defer $200 million of the authorized $2.0 billion FY 1961 Interstate Construction apportionment until a later year. The $1.8 billion apportionment went out to states. (The $200 million in deferred funding was never apportioned – it was retroactively canceled by the 1961 highway act).

The Byrd Test would not be triggered again until FY 2004, whereupon Congress first waived the test temporarily (in section 10(d) of Public Law 108-280) and then, in section 11102 of the 2005 SAFETEA-LU law, amended the test so that the Trust Fund could actually run out of cash before the test was triggered. Which, of course, happened three years later.

After 1959, revenue issues were settled for the duration of the Eisenhower Administration. The next President would receive the long-in-the-making cost allocation report and an updated Interstate cost estimate in January 1961, which would enable them to work with Congress to make more long-term Trust Fund revenue decisions before the temporary 1 cent per gallon fuels tax expired, and the diversion of general revenues was to begin, on July 1, 1961.

Program reevaluation

In February 1959, Bragdon wrote to the Bureau of Public Roads asking for clarity on how urban highway routes were being chosen. Discussion of the burgeoning cost of those routes led to a back-and-forth with the Bureau of the Budget and the Commerce Department in spring 1959 the led to the outline of a study of the highway program. Eisenhower agreed to request such a study, led by Bragdon, in July 1959, as the Trust Fund insolvency crisis was making news.

Following a long back-and-forth with Commerce and Budget about whether or not Congress had intended urban Interstate connections (with Commerce and Budget both adamant that they had), Bragdon finally got a one-on-one meeting with Eisenhower in November 1959, at which the President told Bragdon (according to Bragdon) that “his idea had always been that the transcontinental network for interstate and intercity travel and the Defense significances are paramount and that routing within cities is primarily the responsibility of cities. The President was forceful on this point.”[27]

Things came to a head in April 1960, when the President met with Bragdon, the Secretary of Commerce, and the head of the Bureau of Public Roads. Bragdon brought his “First Interim Report,” a 103-page tome urging that the Interstate system be refocused on “an intercity, interregional, interstate highway systems” and that “other pressing needs be lme by local means or urban Federal-aid funds.”[28] He also wanted any urban Interstate segments to be “developed as a part of the area’s economic growth and land use plan, that as soon as possible the formulation of substantial, adequate economic growth and transportation plans be made prerequisite to the adoption of the highway plan.”[29] (Bragdon’s report also advocated new toll roads, because he always advocated new toll roads.)

Public Roads came to the meeting armed with a six-page analysis (more to Eisenhower’s attention span in meetings), “Memorandum on the Interstate System in Urban Areas,” which traced the origins of the Interstate back to the “Toll Roads and Free Roads” report of 1939, which called for “express routes into the center of the cities,” and the 1944 “Interregional Highways” report, which called for “adequate routes directly into the larger cities.”[30]

At the meeting, Eisenhower said he had never seen the Yellow Book of urban Interstate maps before, and the subsequent discussion of the urban Interstate extensions is so remarkable it needs to be quoted at length (again, from Bragdon’s recollection):

The President went on to say that the staff had also advised him that in the course of the legislation through the Congress, the point had been made that cities were to get adequate consideration on a ‘per person’ basis in view of the taxes they paid; in fact, that they were to get more consideration since they paid much more in taxes per person and in total than persons in rural areas.

The President added that this was what the Congress had been told, and that he was given to understand that this, together with the descriptions in the Yellow Book which they had before them when considering the legislation, were the prime reasons the Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act. In other words, the Yellow Book depicting routes in cities had sold the program in Congress…

He went on to say that the matter of running Interstate routes through the congested parts of the cities was entirely against his original concept and wishes; that he never anticipated that the program would turn out this way. He pointed out that when the Clay Committee Report was rendered, he had studied it carefully, and that he was certainly not aware of any concept of using the program to build up an extensive intra-city route network as part of the program he sponsored. He added that those who had not advised him that such was being done, and those who had steered the program in such a direction, had not followed his wishes.[31]

Bragdon said that at the end of the April 1960 meeting, Eisenhower “reiterated his disappointment over the way the program had been developed against his wishes, and that it had reached the point where his hands were virtually tied.”[32]

However, Bragdon may not have been a completely reliable narrator. Bertram Tallamy, from Public Roads, was also in that meeting, and later told interviewer Paul Mertz that it went down this way:

Tallamy: We had the meeting in the President’s Office. I was defending what we were doing, obviously, and Bragdon had an easel there with a lot of display charts with some young officer operating the charts for him, and he started the discussion and continued at quite some length. Then, I think, the President interrupted him and said “I’d like to hear what Mr. Tallamy has to say.” I could see that the President was getting nervous about the time he was spending on this, probably to him, minor detail. So I didn’t want to spend any more time than was absolutely necessary so I said, “Mr. President, I would like to show you this book which was on everybody’s desk at the time the Interstate legislation was approved.”

Mertz: This was the “yellow book?”

Tallamy: Yes. Then I leafed through and showed a couple of charts showing the cities and said, “These are the routes in them.” He said, “Are you sure? This was on everybody’s desk?” I said, “Well I’m pretty sure. I wasn’t there at the time, but I am as certain as can be that that was the case.” I’m not sure of this, but pretty sure, he turned and asked General Bragdon if that was his recollection too, and I am quite sure he said it was. Well then, I think the President said “I didn’t realize that that was the case”–something to that effect. Then he said, “The meeting’s over gentlemen, I’ll let you know what I decide.” This is the way it ended.[33]

Tallamy’s recollection is consistent with what William Ewald, Eisenhower’s research assistant and ghostwriter on his White House memoirs, remembers about Eisenhower’s general practice: “to Eisenhower, the written word was the final arbiter.”[34] Ewald says that whenever Eisenhower’s memory was challenged by a contemporary written record, Eisenhower admitted that his memory must have been wrong.

(Tallamy’s memory also seems right on the charts – Bragdon had prepared 27 pages of double-spaced text to read while presenting his charges, and his notes show he only got through 24 of them before Eisenhower lost patience.)

How could something so important as Interstates crossing urban areas have escaped Eisenhower’s notice for almost five years? As we wrote in the 1955-1956 article, there were always 2,882 miles of “urban thoroughfares” built into the original 37,681-mile Interstate map negotiated in 1947 – but they were too small to see on the national map, and by the 1950s, the fine print associated with the map was no longer circulated along with the map itself to high-level policymakers.

And as for Eisenhower never seeing the Yellow Book, which showed detailed city maps showing the original 2,882 miles of urban thoroughfares together with the extra 2,319 miles of beltways, bypasses and spurs, the calendar may have had something to do with it. The date in the Yellow Book indicates that the Commissioner of Public Roads gave his formal approval to the maps of the urban extensions on September 15, 1955, and the maps were then published by GPO and sent to Congress, presumably, a few weeks later.

After the 1955 session of Congress had ended, Eisenhower headed to Denver on August 14 for a planned six-week stay at his “Summer White House” there. On September 24, Eisenhower had a massive heart attack. The President’s appointment books show that Eisenhower was virtually incommunicado for the first two weeks of his recovery and was hospitalized, on light duty, in Denver until November 11, and then recuperated at his farm in Gettysburg for most of another month. During this time, Vice President Nixon presided over the regular Cabinet and National Security Council meetings, including ones on September 30 and October 28 when the highway program was discussed.

It is entirely possible that the selection the last 2,319 miles of urban Interstate routes and the transmission of the Yellow Book to Congress just didn’t rise to the level of what the White House staff thought was important enough to raise with Eisenhower during his vacation in Denver and subsequent hospitalization.

The end result of the April 1960 meeting was a one-page memo from Eisenhower to the Commerce Secretary on April 11, directing no deletions of urban routes from the Yellow Book (but, when determining routes near smaller cities, “bypass routes and spurs are to be preferred to penetrating routes”), and also stating that “Solution of the rush hour traffic problems in metropolitan areas is not considered a function of the Interstate System.”[35]

Bragdon then left the White House at the end of June to fill a vacancy on the Civil Aeronautics Board. The follow-up report to his Interim Report on the Interstate system was finished by someone else after most of Bragdon’s staff was let go, was only 12 pages long, and was called “a masterpiece of bureaucratic aridity” by its author.[36] It was submitted to the President on December 28 and was promptly ignored.


[1] U.S. Senate. Committee on Public Works. “Federal-aid Highway Act of 1958” (hearings on S. 2939, S. 3033, S. 3088, S. 3150, S. 3220, S. 3414, and S. 3429, 85thCongress, 1stSession, January 8 – March 11, 1958) p. 189.

[2] Unsigned document entitled “Notes on Cabinet Meeting – January 24, 1958” located in the “Cabinet Meeting of January 24, 1958” folder in Box 10 of the Cabinet Series of the Ann Whitman File of the Eisenhower Presidential Papers 1953-1961 in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas.

[3] L.A. Minnich, Jr. memo entitled “Legislative Leadership Meeting – March 4, 1958 – Supplementary Notes.” Located in the “Legislative Meetings 1958 (2) [March-April]” folder in Box 3 of the Legislative Meetings Series of the Ann Whitman File of the Eisenhower Presidential Papers 1953-1961 in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas.

[4] Ibid.

[5] L.A. Minnich, Jr. memo entitled “Notes on Legislative Meeting – April 15, 1958.” Located in the “Legislative Meetings 1958 (2) [March-April]” folder in Box 3 of the Legislative Meetings Series of the Ann Whitman File of the Eisenhower Presidential Papers 1953-1961 in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas.  All subsequent references to what was said during this meeting are from this source.

[6] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Statement by the President Upon Signing Federal Highway Act of 1958, April 16, 1958. Reprinted in Public Papers of the Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1958 as document 77 beginning on p. 322 (quote is from pp. 323-324).

[7] Budget of the United States Government for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1960, pp. M11-M12. Retrieved online August 24, 2019 from https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/files/docs/publications/usbudget/bus_1960.pdf

[8] Gerald Griffin, “Democrats Rap Budget on 3 Fronts,” Baltimore Sun, January 21, 1959, p. 1.

[9] Congressional Record (bound edition), January 20, 1959 p. 862.

[10] Dwight D. Eisenhower, The President’s News Conference (May 5, 1959). Reprinted in Public Papers of the Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1959 as document 94 beginning on p. 360 (quote is from p. 368).

[11] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Special Message to the Congress Urging Timely Action Regarding the Highway Trust Fund, Housing, and Wheat (May 13, 1959). Reprinted in Public Papers of the Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1959 as document 104 starting on p. 393.

[12] L.A. Minnich, Jr. “Notes on Legislative Leadership Meeting – May 26, 1959.” Located in the “Legislative Meetings 1959 (4) [May-June]” folder in Box 3 of the Legislative Meetings Series of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Papers as President (Ann Whitman File) 1953-1961 at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

[13] Letter from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Maurice H. Stans dated July 2, 1959. Located in Box 96 of the Subject Files of the Director, 1962-1961 (52.1) series of the Records of the Bureau of the Budget at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

[14] Letter from Bertram D. Tallamy to A.E. Johnson dated July 10, 1959. Located in the “Highway – Financing – Legislative Branch Matters, May, June, July 1959” folder in Box 15 of the General Records (Relating to the Transportation Study) 1955-1963 of the Office of the Under Secretary of Transportation of the Department of Commerce at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. See also July 13, 1959 memo from Under Secretary for Transportation to Administrator, BPR in the same folder for clarification on the send date.

[15] L.A. Minnich, Jr. “Notes on Legislative Leadership Meeting – August 11, 1959.” Located in the “Legislative Meetings 1959 (6) [July-September]” folder in Box 3 of the Legislative Meetings Series of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Papers as President (Ann Whitman File) 1953-1961 at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Unsigned memorandum from the Treasury Secretary to General Persons (no subject line) dated  August 11, 1959. Located in the “OF 141-B Highways and Thoroughfares (Roads (22)” folder in Box 612 of the White House Central Files in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Records as President, 1953-1961 at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

[18] “Notes on pre-press conference, Gettysburg, August 12, 1959.” Located in the “Staff Notes Aug. 1959 (1)” folder in Box 43 of the DDE Diary Series of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Papers as President (Ann Whitman File) 1953-1961 at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

[19] Lew Haskins (Associated Press), “Caucus Backs Gas Tax Rise,” The Washington Post, August 25, 1959 p. A1.

[20] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Special Message to the Congress Urging Timely Action on FHA Mortgage Loan Insurance and on the Interstate Highway Program, August 25, 1959. Reprinted in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1959, as Document 187 beginning on p. 600.

[21] “House Works Unit Democrats Accept Gasoline Tax Rise,” The Wall Street Journal, August 28, 1959 p. 5.

[22] Congressional Record (bound edition), September 3, 1959 p. 17954.

[23] White House press release dated September 9, 1959. Located in the “OF 141-B Highways and Thoroughfares (Roads (22)” folder in Box 612 of the White House Central Files in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Records as President, 1953-1961 at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

[24] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Statement by the President Upon Signing the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1959. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, retrieved online September 8, 2019 at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/234252

[25] U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of Public Roads. Circular Memorandum to Regional Engineers dated September 16, 1959 with the subject line “Reimbursement Planning.” Located in the “Reimbursement Planning 1959” folder in in Box 15 of the General Records 1955-1963 of the Entry A1 26 Office of the Under Secretary for Transportation in the records of the Department of Commerce in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

[26] Both letters are in Eisenhower, Dwight D.: Records as President (White House Central Files), 1953-61, Official File, Box 612, folder “OF-141-B Highways and Thoroughfares (23),” Eisenhower Library.

[27] J.S. Bragdon. Memorandum for the Record – November 30, 1959. Located in DDE’s Papers as President, Ann Whitman File, Administrative Series, Box 7, folder entitled “Bragdon, John S. (1),” Eisenhower Library.

[28] “Progress Review and Analysis, Federal Highway Program – Interim Report, Prepared by the Special Assistant for Public Works Planning, March 1960.” p. 7. Original located in the Papers of John S. Bragdon, Eisenhower Library.

[29] Ibid p. 8.

[30] U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, “Memorandum on the Interstate System in Urban Areas.” Undated, but entered into White House files on April 7, 1960, and bearing a note that it was brought to the White House by Administrator Bert Tallamy. Original in

[31] J.S. Bragdon. Memorandum for the Record – Meeting in the President’s Office – Interim Report on the Interstate Highway Program – April 6, 1960, 10:35 a.m. Located in DDE’s Papers as President, Ann Whitman File, DDE Diary Series, Box 49, folder entitled “Staff Notes – April 1960 (2), Eisenhower Library.

[32] Bragdon Memo for the Record – April 6, 1960.

[33] Lee Mertz, “The Bragdon Committee.” Retrieved online from the Federal Highway Administration website on September 13, 2020 at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/bragdon.cfm

[34] William Bragg Ewald, Jr. Eisenhower the President, Crucial Days: 1951-1960. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1981 p. 102.

[35] Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Memorandum for the Secretary of Commerce,” April 11, 1960. Located in folder OF-141-B “Highways and Thoroughfares (Roads)(25) in Box 612 of the Official File series of Dwight D. Eisenhower: Records as President, White House Central Files, 1952-1961 in the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas.

[36] Mertz, “The Bragdon Committee.”

Share
Be Part of the Conversation
Sign up to receive news, events, publications, and course notifications.
No thanks