Frank Turner and the Interstate

Bruce E. Seely
Chair, Department of Social Sciences
Michigan Technological University
Houghton, Michigan

Of all the people who played crucial roles in the development and implementation of the Interstate, Frank Turner stands out. The Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) history labeled him "the 'Father' of the Interstate Highway System."1 From 1929 to his retirement in 1972, highway engineer Turner worked for FHWA and its predecessor, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR). By the early 1950s he was assistant to the long-time Commissioner of the BPR, Thomas MacDonald, and found himself to be in a perfect position to contribute to the political debates and discussions about the future direction of the American federal-aid highway program. The Interstate Highway program arose from those debates.

Beginning in the late 1940s, as a flood of traffic demonstrated the inadequacy of the nation's road network, Congress debated but could not envision a means of paying for an expanded road program. Frustrated with the congressional deadlock, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed an Advisory Committee on the National Highway Program, headed by his former wartime colleague General Lucius Clay. Turner became the Clay Committee's executive secretary and performed much of the work behind the report, drawing upon the full resources of the Bureau for statistics and other material. Congress rejected the Clay plan in 1955.

Turner's role did not end, as he became the BPR's behind-the-scenes point man on federal highway legislation. In 1955 and 1956 during the final political struggles to develop the Interstate system, Turner assisted various House and Senate committee chairs as they refined their ideas. Turner's conception of highway policy, which reflected many longstanding principles of the BPR, quietly but effectively shaped the debates about highway policy. In 1956 Congress created the National System of Interstate and Defense, adopting many of those principles. Turner's diplomatic skills and reputation for technical expertise proved essential in moving the Interstate initiative through Congress.

From 1957-1967 Turner was Deputy Commissioner and Chief Engineer for Public Roads, effectively serving as the operating officer of the BPR. His primary challenge was to implement the program he had worked so hard to move through Congress. In 1967, he became the Director for Public Roads, and then in 1969 reached the pinnacle of the road building community in this country as Federal Highway Administrator. He held this post, which had primary responsibility for connecting road builders to the executive branch and to Congress, until his retirement in 1972.

Frank Turner helped manage a difficult transition as the nation's highway planning and construction was transformed into the largest public works project in history. Perhaps his most crucial accomplishment was helping the nation's road builders adapt to changes in funding, politics and construction while preserving the traditional federal-aid partnership with the states.

Bruce E. Seely was the recipient of the Public Works Historical Society's Abel Wolman Award for his outstanding book, Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987). He can be reached at (906) 487-2459 or bseely@mtu.edu.

1 FHWA, America's Highways, 1776-1976, p. 186.