Federal-Aid Highway Program

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FEDERAL-AID HIGHWAY PROGRAM. Although the development and maintenance of public roads in the United States were, through much of the nation's history, within the authority of state and local governments, after the 1920s there was a steadily mounting participation by the federal government in highway construction and management, culminating in the building of the 44,328-mile interstate highway system between 1956 and the 1990s. The interstate highways were built largely at federal expense in order to ensure the completion of expensive urban highways and an integrated national highway system. States had to contribute only 10 percent of the total cost of construction. In addition, as of 2000, more than 155,000 miles of primary and secondary roads were maintained on a 50-50 cost-share basis by the federal government and the states acting jointly.

The Federal Highway Administration

The Bureau of Public Roads, from which the Federal Highway Administration evolved in 1970, had its origin in the Office of Road Inquiry, established within the Department of Agriculture in 1893. Following the passage of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921, the bureau became the chief agency for promoting a national network of highways. Successive administrative changes placed the bureau in the Federal Works Agency; in the Department of Commerce; and finally, in 1967, in the newly created Department of Transportation. This department was established to improve urban transportation planning, a national objective that was first listed in the Highway Act of 1962. At the time, both the department and the integration of transportation planning were opposed by rural states. They feared there would be a reduction in funds for rural roads and state influence over highway spending.

The Federal Highway Administration is charged with the administration of the Federal-Aid Highway Construction Program. In cooperation with the states, it administers the financial aid given to the states for highway construction. The administration works closely with state highway departments in correcting dangerous stretches on existing roads and in promoting safe, well-planned, well-built highways through a vigorous inspection program. It also seeks to improve the efficiency of inter-and intra-urban road systems, as well as to preserve the natural beauty along the roadways. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also within the Department of Transportation, is responsible for promoting safe and efficient travel on the nation's highways.

With the authorization and planning of the interstate system in the 1950s and 1960s, the main terms of the debates over highway legislation in the 1970s shifted to the use of highway trust funds for nonhighway uses. These included mass transit, highway beautification, and relocation assistance for those who were dislocated by highway construction. With the completion of the interstate system in the 1990s, influential members of the House and Senate committees that were responsible for highway and transportation spending sought funds for special highway and transportation projects in their states.

A National Speed Limit

Of particular note in the administration of the highway program were efforts by public safety advocates who sought to use highway funds to achieve their goals on the federal level to reduce state speed limits and drunk driving. In so doing, they sought to renegotiate the relationship between the national government and the states. A mandatory maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour (mph) was approved by Congress in 1973. It was passed as a short-term effort to conserve fuel during a national energy emergency. This temporary speed limit was made permanent in 1974 when the focus shifted to the lack of speed limit enforcement in the states. Highway legislation in 1978 required states to certify that they were enforcing the 55-mph speed limit or face penalties. The penalties for not doing so consisted of a reduction in the state's apportionment of highway funds by up to 5 percent for fiscal year 1980–1982 and up to 10 percent for fiscal year 1983 and beyond. In addition, incentive grants of up to 10 percent of the state's annual apportionment of highway safety funds were made available to states that further stepped up their enforcement efforts. The issue then moved off the formal agenda until 1986, when Senate lawmakers (primarily from the West) began suggesting that a 65-mph speed limit was appropriate for western rural interstate highways, which were far more lightly traveled than those in the eastern part of the country and were considered quite safe, given new safety features in roads and automobiles. President Ronald Reagan supported states' rights arguments that the power to set speed limits should rest with the state—not the federal—government. The federally mandated speed limit was repealed in its entirety in 1995.

A National Drinking Age

The issue of drunk driving was first attached to highway legislation in 1982. At that time, Congress offered incentives to the states by making those that cracked down on drunk driving eligible for extra highway safety funds. In 1984, the issue came up with more ferocity. The main focus was now on efforts to encourage states to raise their minimum drinking age to twenty-one. To achieve this goal, the government required withholding a portion of federal highway funds from any state that did not enact a minimum drinking age of twenty-one by 1987. Further, financial incentives were offered to states that instituted mandatory minimum sentences for drunk driving. The legislation became a states' rights issue. The Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives proposed separate legislation that would make it a federal crime under certain circumstances to sell alcoholic beverages to anyone under twenty-one. This legislation was advocated by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD). However, the proposed law never reached the floor of the House. Instead, incentives for compliance were added to the highway bill. In 1986, the legislation was strengthened: it said that funds that were withheld from states for failing to enact the minimum drinking age could not be recovered. Furthermore, all funds for fiscal year 1989 and beyond would be withheld for states that did not pass such a law. Beginning in 1988 and running through fiscal year 1991, grants totaling $125 million were offered to help states defray the costs of administering new drunk driving programs.

From Highway to Transportation Planning

Part of the impetus for the increasing role of the federal government in highway construction was to integrate highway construction and reconstruction to meet the objective of comprehensive transportation planning in states and metropolitan areas. Therefore, with the interstate highway system nearing completion in the 1990s, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991 and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) in 1998. These bills signified a new era. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, the leading sponsor, said, "This is the first transportation legislation of the post-Interstate era.…It marks the transition from system building to system performance" (Congress and the Nation VIII, 1989–1992, p. 437). As such, the focus of ISTEA was largely on giving states more freedom to spend funds as needed and on supporting mass transit as well as highways. TEA-21 made few major changes to ISTEA. It gave state and local governments even more flexibility and, thanks to a budget surplus, included huge increases in funding for both highways and mass transit. A focus on system performance meant that the federal government would allow more local control. The objective was to secure agreement from state transportation departments and urban planning agencies on proposals to ensure the most efficient use of highway trust fund dollars. Funds could be spent on repaving and redesigning roads and bridges or on providing mass transit in cities where creating more rights of ways for roads was opposed by citizens.


Comeau, Clifford, and David Smallen. "Highways and Bridges on the Brink of the New Century." Public Roads 64, no. 1 (July/August 2000): 43–47.

"Highway Authorization." In Congress and the Nation VIII, 1989– 1992. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1993: 436–442.

Kahn, Ronald. "Political Change in America: Highway Politics and Reactive Policy-making." In Public Values & Private Power in American Politics. Edited by J. David Greenstone. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Kadlec, Kevin, "Note, The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984: Once Again Congress Mails Home Another Fist." Cleveland State Law Review 34 (1986): 637–663.

Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life. New York: Viking, 1997.

Mazur, George D. "Federal Highway Funding—All the Basics."Transportation Quarterly 53 (Fall 1998): 19–32.

Mertins, Herman, Jr. National Transportation Policy in Transition. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1972.


See alsoInterstate Highway System ; Roads ; Transportation and Travel .

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Federal-Aid Highway Program