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Talking Headways Podcast: Highway Fighting in Texas

Jeff Wood talks to Megan Kimble about an amazing footnote to the creation of the Interstate Highway system.

Great minds think alike. Earlier, Streetsblog USA Editor Kea Wilson interviewed Megan Kimble (and later podcasted the conversation) about her book, City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality, and the Future of America’s Highways. But this Texas-sized battle over highway is big enough for two of America’s great podcasters to get into the action, so this week, we present Jeff Wood’s interview with Kimble. Wood talks to Kimble about winning the fight against highways, the history behind building big roads, and what the future looks like for advocacy.

Wood’s full unedited transcript is here, but if you want an excerpt (with fewer AI typos!), just read below:

Jeff Wood: I want to go back in time a bit. You explore some of the rumored but perhaps lesser known history about the interstate system and I’ve always heard that Eisenhower wasn’t actually a fan of going through cities. He just wanted to go to cities. So I want to hear more about the history and what you were learning and kind of that untold part of the discussion, which is maybe they weren’t a good idea at the time and they’re still not a good idea now.

Megan Kimble: I loved that reporting. The historical part of the book starts with the 1939 World’s Fair. Norman Bel Geddes is this industrial designer who came up with this exhibit called Futurama, and it basically sold the future of car-centric cities when cars were still very new. And so he like came up with this massive model showing how we could connect far-flung hamlets with urban areas and those urban areas would be cleaner and more technologically oriented as we had these like wide ribbons of beautiful highways. And I really wanted to start from like a place of empathy of like the car was this amazing technological advancement, and understandably people flocked to it.

It gave them freedom, it gave them autonomy. It was a miracle for travel for a lot of people. And so people started buying cars by the millions. Fast forward to the Eisenhower administration in 1956 and the Interstate Highway Act. There’s a memorandum that you can find online that captures a meeting in April 1960 of Eisenhower saying that it was “against my wishes to build highways through cities.” But I was thinking there’s gotta be more there, so I drove to Abilene, Kansas, which is where the Eisenhower presidential library is.

I spent three days going through the archives and learned about this guy John Bragdon, whom Eisenhower had appointed to oversee the implementation of the Interstate Highway Program. So Bragdon starts looking into the program in 1959 and 1960, he finds out it’s running massively over budget. It was a $25-billion program, it’s running $11 billion over budget largely because states have been taking the generous federal contribution — the federal government agreed to pay 90 percent — and building urban highways to accommodate all these millions of cars that were suddenly kind of pouring onto city streets.

And Bragdon looks into that and he asked Congress if the intent of this legislation was to allow cities to build highways through them or was the intent really to connect the country to build connections between cities? There’s a report that’s produced, it’s called Legislative Intent with Respect to Interstate Routes and Urban Areas. And I saw that and I was like, “Oh this is it, right? Like this is the documentation of whether or not this was the intent of the interstate highway system.” Spoiler alert, it was not the intent of the Interstate Highway Program.

So Bragdon basically writes up his findings in a report, it’s called the Interim Report and it’s a really amazing document that lays out very compellingly how urban highways were not what federal money was supposed to be spent on. The federal money was for a national objective which was connecting the country.

It’s the Cold War. Eisenhower was really worried about like evacuating cities in case of nuclear attack, moving arms across the country, moving troops potentially across the country. And the national aim was connecting the country.

Bragdon ultimately presented his report to Eisenhower and all the traffic experts agree that the way to solve urban congestion is not with highways, it’s through transit systems. Cities are taking all of this federal money and they’re actively tearing out transit to build roads. And he gives a bunch of examples and says we should require cities to undertake proper urban planning.

It’s this really amazing statement which I think most urbanists today would fully agree with, and it’s happened in 1960 with a Republican engineer presenting to Eisenhower. And there I was, reading actual note cards that Bragdon actually read to Eisenhower. I mean I’m in the presidential library saying, “Oh my god! Amazing!” It’s like quiet, you know, it’s like hushed space.

And then Eisenhower’s published a memorandum a few days later, saying that running interstate routes through the congested part of cities was against his wishes and those who had implemented the program that way had done so not following his direction.

So I like saw that and was like, “OK, so Eisenhower did not want it to be this way, but why didn’t he change anything?” Bragdon had told him to tell the Bureau of Public Roads to give more guidance to states that federal money should not be spent to build urban highways. But it was four years into the Interstate program, a lot of money had already been allocated to states and it’s also an election year. So that is captured in like a note by Eisenhower’s secretary, who has a diary that she writes every day of the day’s events, Eisenhower’s reactions, and in her diary from that day she says these people were in for a meeting on the roads program and people think it would be murder to move in an election year.

So like best I can tell like the reason Eisenhower didn’t do anything is he felt like his hands were tied. It would be politically difficult to direct states to do otherwise and he didn’t want to risk pissing them off in an election year

Jeff Wood: Nixon [Eisenhower’s vice president] ended up losing to Kennedy anyway, so it’s like an interesting kind of footnote in the whole history of transportation.

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