The Race To Catch Up In Building An Expressway System

In December 1955 a 2.5 mile segment of the long-awaited Congress Expressway opened to traffic. The section ran from 1st Ave. in Maywood west to Mannheim Road and was one of the last segments to be built with the county’s earlier bonding authority but left the expressway significantly short of the planned Chicago CBD to Du Page County reach.  The two miles west of Addison Creek to 1st Avenue had been paved in 1953 but not opened to traffic until the creek was bridged and the road connected to Mannheim.  The last half-mile of pavement was poured by Bill Cagney’s Contracting and Material Company in November, just in time to beat the winter weather and provide a December opening.  The section to be opened was judged by both professionals and citizen’s to be of limited usefulness because of inconvenient east west connections and it’s short length.  Despite these shortcomings within two months it would attract 11,000 vehicles per day.  Further progress west was impeded by the inability of the county to reach an agreement on the cost of a piece of the Consumers Company quarry west of Mannheim and the need to await a decision by the tollway engineers on the location of the Tri-State route.  Problems east of the opened section included the need to move 3,762 bodies in a what was a protracted process from the three cemeteries just east of 1st Avenue and to consummate an agreement with the Baltimore and Ohio Chicago Terminal Railroad to relocate their tracks for the new road way.  In November Cook County Highway Superintendent Bill Mortimer and Roger Nusbaum the State Expressway Engineer told the Chicago Tribune that the railroad agreement would require the work to be done in stages, first building a temporary run-around track and later permanent track, all without disrupting rail movement. As was the case with all of the superhighway mileage put in by the county up to this point, this bit of highway reflected Major Quinlan’s earlier decision to spend what little money he had in the suburbs.  In January of 1956, despite over a decade and a half of effort, just over 21 miles of the much sought-after superhighways had been built.  Much of it had been constructed under the direction of the Cook County Highway Department and funded with county motor tax resources.

The 21 miles in Illinois put the state seriously behind the other large states in the country-New York, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.  California for instance had completed the Arroyo Seco Parkway (later named the Pasadena Freeway) in 1940 connecting Los Angeles with Pasadena.  Their plans in 1948 called for more than 1/2 billion in construction in the coming years.  By the mid 1950’s California was building over 100 miles of freeway per year including 182 miles of freeways in 1954, giving them a total of over 800 miles of expressways open to traffic.  California's goal was to build 240 miles of freeway per year for the next several years.  New York, which got a start before the war with the construction of 158 miles of parkway had also constructed several hundred miles of limited access roadway since the war.  A good number of states had enacted major motor fuel tax increases within five years after the war was over but Illinois was not among them.  Michigan's 1950 motor fuel tax increase provided $135 million more per year for highways and they quickly began to purchase right-of-way and bank land for future expressways.  Governor Stevenson in his 1948 campaign and later when in office blamed former governor Green for the deplorable state of Illinois roads.  Governance had little to do with it-the Illinois two-cent gas tax was only about a third of what most states were collecting.  Legislative recommendations for an increase in 1949 went unheeded by Stevenson who did not back a tax increase until 1951.  In his budget message that year he said, “I shall not dwell on the familiar and deplorable condition of our highway system” and cited the “destruction and decay of our primary system” in calling for a 100 percent increase in funding for highways. The 2-cent increase in motor fuel taxes that the administration got through the legislature belatedly brought the state into a position to upgrade their system and became a factor in building the Chicago area superhighway system, but would not would not fully effect construction until 1953 when William G. Stratton was governor.

Despite the progress in some states, nationally the situation looked similar to that in Illinois.  Many states had accumulated their fuel tax funds during the war but for a variety of reasons this did not translate into significant progress in building highways in the following years.  That happened because the increase in local spending drove up prices, quickly making the amount of money set aside inadequate.  Nationally, steel and concrete were in short supply because of the great demand for housing.  The lack of adequate housing also created a huge problem when cities attempted to acquire right-of-way for urban expressways and slowed this process down until the housing stock caught up with demand.

In the first decade after the war the ability of the US government to respond financially was limited.  In 1947 massive military aid was authorized for Turkey and Greece to fight Communist insurgents and in April 1948 Congress authorized $17 billion for the Marshall plan to extricate Europe from the economic chaos of World War II.  By the latter years of the 1940's construction costs had doubled nationally at the same time public works funding throughout the nation was being curtailed to check inflation.  With federal dollars going unmatched and therefore unspent, the Truman administration cut federal highway appropriations in 1948 and Congress eliminated authorizations altogether in 1949.

The country was back on the battlefield in 1950 when President Harry Truman committed US forces to resist the invasion of South Korea. The initial funding set aside for the Interstate from the 1950 Act became a victim of the war when federal spending again required a cut. The war also exacerbated lingering steel shortages further limiting road construction.  Under the rules of that era, BPR processed all steel requests for highways built with federal funds, their records show that only about half of the steel plate and a quarter of the structural steel required for state construction programs could be obtained at that time

Nationally an inadequate supply of engineers had developed by 1946.  Many who had worked in the public sector before the war did not return to state, county or city agencies because in many cases the pay scales were still at depression and prewar levels.  There were plenty of much higher paying jobs available, the resulting lack of draftsmen and engineers left many public agencies unable to develop the plans for the new highways.  Some, like the Cook County Highway Department were able to develop a large professional staff by gradually increasing salaries during the latter half of the 40's and early 50's.  But the State of Illinois had to wait until 1953 when a multi step pay increase for state engineers was approved by the legislature from the new MFT tax increase to finally become competitive in the quest for engineering talent.

By 1953 the average state gasoline tax was almost 6 cents per gallon. That year the National Governor’s Conference urged that there be no increase in the federal motor fuel tax and proposed that the US government begin to disengage from their financial role in building highways.  The real issue was that only a portion of the 2-cent Federal motor fuel tax was being used for highway purposes, the rest was diverted.  At the same time if states wanted to receive full federal funding the Hayden/Cartwright Act of 1934 prohibited them from diverting their fuel tax for non-highway purposes.  The states were aware that the federal motor fuel tax generated about $1 billion per year but that Congress was only authorizing about $500 million annually.  This effort, led by California, resulted in congressional hearings on the issue and by 1954 a 50% increase in federal funding.  By increasing the authorization to $870 million in 1954 they moved in the direction of matching the authorization with the yield from the tax.  Untouched was the additional billion dollars that came from the U.S. excise tax on autos, trucks, tires and the lubricant’s the road users purchased.  Linking the amount of money generated by the federal motor fuel tax and the authorization level embodied an understanding that they would continue to be tied together in future federal legislation. 

The problems encountered were exacerbated by the fact that Congress reorganized itself and, for the first time in 20 years, US Bureau of Public Roads (BPR or Bureau) and American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) engineers were not at the table providing technical information as a means of making allocation and other highway legislative decisions.  By late 1954 things began to return to normal when the BPR engineered a compromise that would hold rural spending of federal funds to 30% of the total highway funding. The agreement was reached when the rural interests concluded that urban congestion would force significant increases in overall federal highway spending benefiting them as a result.

The Bureau recognized that the country was rapidly losing the battle of meeting the travel demands of US road travelers, going so far as to author a report in 1949 in which it estimated that the new roads built that year would not provide enough parking space for the 41/2 million cars produced that year.  The states responded by building 1900 miles of new roads in 1950, up from just 45 in the previous year.  At the beginning of 1952 a shift in priorities was evident when 65% of the federal highway program was allocated to the construction of limited-access highways.  As part of this change, a major national effort began on the part of both the public and private sectors to increase public awareness of the need for more and better roads.  To a large degree this was in response to the public’s lack of knowledge as to what would be required to provide the kind of urban highway system that was deemed appropriate by the Bureau and the states to deal with traffic congestion.  The campaign that followed was instrumental in moving Congress and the Eisenhower Administration toward the revolutionary 1954 highway legislation, which in turn lead to the 1956 bill creating the Interstate program with dedicated federal funding.