Highways and Cost Control

I’ve been reading Earl Swift’s The Big Roads, and the early biography of Thomas MacDonald had passages that jumped at me. Unlike Owen Gutfreund, who focuses on MacDonald’s industry ties and use of astroturf, Swift portrays MacDonald as a Progressive reformist who believed in better engineering as a way to improve society, literally paving the way to the future.

While he used special interests to further his goals, he was also concerned with efficiency. He first made his name as the chief of the Iowa State Highway Commission, where he built a road system with virtually no budget; neighboring states had several times the planning budget Iowa had. At the time, the building contractors had colluded, dividing the state into regions with each enjoying a local monopoly; this drove up costs twice, first by increasing construction costs, and second by requiring more maintenance since the work was shoddy. MacDonald’s contribution was to break up the monopolies and demand that contractors compete.

MacDonald also believed in personally instructing local officials and contractors in good road construction methods. He’d often be visiting construction sites and participate in construction, partly for the photo-ops but partly for showing the locals how good engineering is done.

As a result, MacDonald became famous among road builders for his success in building roads, and was made the head of the Bureau of Public Roads. Iowa at the time had one of the highest car ownership rates in the US, about 1 per 7 people (about the same as Manhattan today). The person who became Governor toward the end of his tenure in Iowa was anti-roads, but this did not slow down highway and car growth.

The importance of this for good transit advocates is threefold. First, it shows that it is in fact possible for government officials to promote good government and increase efficiency. Of course we must not neglect broader social trends, but sometimes well-placed competent individuals can make a major difference.

Second, it reminds us that many of the rules that are currently associated with government dysfunction were passed with opposite intent and effect back in the Progressive Era. Lowest-bid contracts were an effort to stamp out corruption; civil service exams were an effort to reduce patronage; teacher tenure was meant to make teachers politically independent; the initiative process was intended to give people more control over government. All of those efforts succeeded at the time, and took decades of social learning among the corrupt and incompetent to get around. Although programs built under these rules often turned out badly, such as the Interstate network, with its severe cost and schedule overruns, this was not due to the contractor collusion seen in the 1910s or today.

And third, it’s a warning to those who hope that placing well-meaning individuals in power is enough. Every person with power thinks that his power is used for good and wants to extend it. Thus, once MacDonald became head of the Bureau of Public Roads, he made sure to maintain control over highway funding and gave himself the power to sign contracts with states, which Congress was then obligated to fund.

Good engineering can improve engineering standards, but it cannot improve society. Although the decisions to tear apart neighborhoods were made by local officials more, of whom Robert Moses is the most infamous, the idea that a cadre of technocrats who look at cities on maps and in models know what cities ought to look like more than the people living in them was an inherent part of this attitude. Indeed, the 19th century impetus for suburbanization, using rapid transit rather than roads, came from the same class of reformists. The Interstate system was simply when they had enough money and power to impose their modernist vision nationwide.


  1. Nathanael

    There’s a final lesson from this: monopolies are terrible public policy.

    Of course, everyone and his brother WANTS to have a monopoly, which is why it’s so hard to break them up….

    • Alon Levy

      First, thanks for commenting.

      Second, it’s just my interpretation of how companies and organizations that stood to profit from road expansion created pretend-grassroots organizations advocating more roads. MacDonald’s essay contests are one of these cases of astroturf; GM’s American Highway Users’ Association is another.

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