Tom Lewis: Divided Highways

Tom Lewis
Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life

THE STORY OF the interstate highway system reminds us that "big government" isn't some kind of liberal plot, but an inevitable pragmatic response to the needs of a growing nation, with triumphs and failures. Both can prove instructive, if only we're inclined to learn.

Unfortunately, that's a big if. Authors can motivate us, but Tom Lewis's new book, Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life, treats those triumphs and failures more as background texture than as source material. Instead, his story highlights the history of America's overland passage and its infrastructure as a story of individuals and anecdotes. For the most part he chooses these well; he begins with Thomas Harris McDonald, a farmboy educated at Iowa's land-grant college (itself a legacy of 19th-century "big government") whose experience with mud-obstructed farming transport led him to see road-building as "a calling of higher moral purpose." McDonald combined integrity and high technical standards as Iowa's first chief highway engineer, then as head of the Federal Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 until 1953.

A number of men, most famously Robert Moses, took the next step of building regional and then state-wide limited-access highways. FDR strongly backed the Pennsylvania Turnpike; its engineering success and popularity suggested what a national system could do. Eisenhower finally got the interstate program started, motivated partly by his vision of roads as a vital defense need--dating back to his experience on the first cross-country military convoy, a 62-day trip in 1919. He also considered highway projects as a Keynesian means of stimulating the economy through government spending.

But the victims of this well-intended program were more often than not the same population left out of the economy in the first place. Lewis observes--in passing--that minority, and primarily black, neighborhoods were prime targets for destruction, hurrying the decline of cities through shifting jobs, abandonment, and falling tax bases. The narrow educational background of America's civil engineers, it seems, left them ill-prepared for leadership in determining highway placement and design.

Lewis, however, never gets around to discussing what approaches should have been taken--though he briefly quotes major critics like Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg. And to this extent Divided Highways leans more heavily on anecdotes about development--like the colorful story of two graduate students who played a key role in preventing an urban interstate from ruining New Orleans's French Quarter--instead of a more thoughtful examination of what comes after the pavement ends.

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