January 21, 1913: The First Congressional Hearing on Highway Aid

(Originally published by Transportation Weekly on January 21, 2013.)

One hundred years ago today, on January 21, 1913, the first-ever Congressional committee appointed to study the question of a federally funded program of road aid to states held its first hearing.

The Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads had been created in August 1912 by Congress as part of an appropriations bill that provided the first federal aid for a pilot program of aid to good roads.  The bill was signed into law by President Taft on August 24, and that same day the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House named the following members to the Joint Committee:

Senate House
Jonathan Bourne, Jr. (R-OR) Dorsey Shackleford (D-MO)
Boise Penrose (R-PA) Gordon Lee (D-GA)
Asle Gronna (R-ND) Daniel MacGillicuddy (D-ME)
Claude Swanson (D-VA) Martin Madden (R-IL)
Lee Overman (D-NC) Richard Austin (R-TN)

A subsequent history of the federal road program authored by the Federal Highway Administration in 1976 noted that the members of the Joint Committee “represented all shades of opinion from extreme national road advocates to local road supporters.”[1]

However, two days after the Joint Committee members were appointed, that session of Congress adjourned, so there was no time for the panel to meet or take any action.

The third session of the 62nd Congress convened on December 2, 1912 (as was the practice before the Twentieth Amendment was ratified in 1933), which allowed the Joint Committee to begin its work.

The Joint Committee held an organizational meeting on December 18, 1912 where they elected Senator Bourne (who was also the chairman of the standing Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads) chairman, appointed staff, and retroactively approved of letters sent by Bourne to all state governors (and, through the U.S. Secretary of State, to all U.S. ambassadors to foreign lands) requesting data on road systems, conditions, and funding and construction practices in U.S. states and foreign countries.

With some initial data received, the Joint Committee held its first hearing at 8:00 p.m. on January 21, 2013, in what was then room 201 of the (only) Senate Office Building.  That building is now the Russell Building, and the Senate Historian’s office says that the room number has not changed in 100 years.  As luck would have it, room 201 is now part the office suite of Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who was, until this month, the head Republican on the committee that oversees the highway program.  (Room 201 itself is now occupied by Inhofe’s legislative director, who was extremely amused when TW informed him of his office’s provenance.)

Other Congressional committees had considered road-related bills before (the Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee held a hearing in 1904 on a couple of specific road bills that had been introduced but which never became law), but the Joint Committee was the first panel specifically appointed to consider the issue.

The first Joint Committee hearing was interesting in several respects.  The questions asked by the legislators, while basic, are still being asked.  Here are a few of the questions asked by Chairman Bourne of the first witness 100 years ago today:[2]

  • “Should the assistance be for construction or maintenance, or both?”
  • “How would you make a distinction as to which roads shall and which shall not receive Federal aid?”
  • ‘To what extent do you think the Government should exercise control over construction and maintenance of roads upon which it spends money?”
  • “Would you advocate raising Federal road funds by a special tax?”
  • “Have you any idea as to what would be an equitable and practicable plan of apportionment of Federal aid among the different States?”
  • “Under a plan of equitable apportionment of Federal aid rendered to the different States, what would be the factors you would take into consideration?”
  • “Would it be practicable to determine, without enormous expense to the Government and the creation of a great bureau, what the volume of traffic is?”
  • “In arriving at your method of apportionment between the States, what allowance would you give to area, miles of road, and population? Would you give them each an equal value?”

Some of the Q & A foretold the future fairly well, as when Rep. Shackleford astutely predicted the coercive effect of federal funding on state and local decision-making: “I say, the disposition of the States and the people locally to get the extra fund, would in most cases cause them to yield to the Federal authority in any point of disagreement, with the result that the Federal authorities would, in fact, control.”[3]

Some predictions were less accurate.  Shackleford had this exchange with the first witness (Alfred Noble – not Nobel, Noble) that is, in retrospect, a howler:

Mr. SHACKLEFORD.  As to the use of roads, is it your opinion that highways will serve as successful competitors to railroads in long transportation lines, or as long-distance mail routes?

Mr. NOBLE.  I do not see my way clear to answer yes to that proposition.  I think it ought to tend to develop districts that are hardly within reach of the railroads.[4]

(The railroads were among the earliest boosters of federal aid for road improvement, and surely the most powerful.  At the time, their purpose was to encourage roads allowing farmers to bring their produce to railheads from more than the five miles or so that were practical over unimproved dirt roads.  It was only many decades later that interstate trucking began to become a direct competitor to freight railroads, causing them to change their attitude towards highway funding to some extent.)

Another fascinating feature of the first hearing was the witness list and what it reveals about the “stakeholder culture” of the highway program that persists to this day.  People who hang around the hearings and markups of the highway committees in Congress today quickly get to know the who’s-who of the stakeholder groups – FHWA, the state DOTs, local governments, the construction lobby (construction companies, raw material and equipment suppliers, and labor unions), and the various user groups (truckers big and small, motorists, etc.) as well as other, newer advocacy groups.  This is by no means a new situation.

The creation of the Joint Committee followed about 20 years of increasing pressure from the “Good Roads Movement” (originally started by bicyclists looking for level roads on which to ride), which was being accelerated by the growing popularity of the automobile.  The aforementioned 1976 FHWA history of the federal roads program notes this about the proliferation of stakeholder groups in the early 20th Century:

By 1910, there were literally scores of organizations in the United States devoted to the promotion of good roads.  A few of these were strong, effective and national in scope.  The American Automobile Association founded by motorists in 1902 and the American Road Makers, bringing together State engineers, road contractors and road machinery manufacturers, were in this category.  However, many of the good roads associations were primarily pressure groups whose purpose was to get improved roads by influencing legislation.  Most of these had no dues-paying members but depended on commercial interests – materials producers, automobile manufacturers – for financial support.[5]

The head of the FHWA predecessor office (the Office of Public Roads within the U.S. Department of Agriculture), Logan Waller Page, took it upon himself to organize these groups in a more useful way.  On November 22, 1910, Page convinced a variety of those stakeholder groups to form an umbrella group, the American Association for Highway Improvement.  Page, naturally, served as President of the umbrella stakeholder group (without pay) in addition to his duties as Director of the Office of Public Roads.

Here was the initial leadership of the AAHI (which changed its name to the American Highway Association two years later):[6]

  • President – Logan Waller Page, U.S. Office of Public Roads
  • Vice President – W.C. Brown, President, New York Central Lines
  • Treasurer – Lee McClung, former Treasurer of the United States
  • Chairman, Board of Directors – James S. Harlan, Member, Interstate Commerce Commission
  • Secretary – J.E. Pennybaker, Jr.
  • Board of Directors:
  • W.T. Beatty – President, National Association of Road Machinery and Material Manufacturers
  • W.C. Brown, President, New York Central Lines
  • George C. Diehl – Chairman, Good Roads Board, AAA
  • John J. Duff
  • Gen. Coleman du Pont
  • W.W. Finley – President, Southern Railway Company
  • John M. Goodell – Former Editor, Engineering Record
  • James S. Harlan – Member, Interstate Commerce Commission
  • Archibald H. Huston, President, Ohio Good Roads Federation
  • Dr. E.J. James – President, University of Illinois
  • L.E. Johnson – President, Norfolk and Western Railway Company
  • Joseph W. Jones
  • Clarence A. Kenyon – President, Indiana Good Roads Association
  • Bryan Lathrop – Member, Lincoln Park Commission
  • Lee McClung – Former Treasurer of the United States
  • James H. MacDonald – State Highway Commissioner, Connecticut
  • J. Hampton Moore – Member of Congress
  • Alfred Noble – Past President, American Society of Civil Engineers
  • Thomas G. Norris – President, Arizona Good Roads Association
  • Logan Waller Page – Director, United States Office of Public Roads
  • Walter H. Page – Editor, World’s Work
  • Lewis W. Parker – President, South Carolina Cotton Manufacturers Association
  • Dr. Joseph Hyde Pratt – State Geologist of North Carolina
  • A.G. Spalding – Member, San Diego Highway Commission California
  • Jesse Taylor – President, Ohio Good Roads Federation
  • John B. Thayer – Vice President, Pennsylvania Railroad Company
  • Leonard Tufts – President, Capital Highway Association
  • B.F. Yoakum – Chairman, Frisco Lines
  • Executive Committee – W.W. Finley (Chairman), L.W, Page, Alfred Noble, Archibald H. Huston, B.F. Yoakum

This stakeholder group quickly held the First American Road Congress in 1911.  The very first resolution passed by the First American Road Congress asked the United States Congress “to extend national aid to the several States of the Union for the purpose of aiding and encouraging them to build and maintain good roads…”[7]

Most TW readers will remember from their college political science classes the concept of the “iron triangle” – the alliance between a federal bureaucracy, the outside lobbying groups that support the programs overseen by that bureaucracy, and the Congressional committees with jurisdiction over those programs and that bureaucracy.  All three components of the iron triangle have a vested interest in increasing funding for the federal program and its administrative bureaucracy, which then serves the needs of the lobbying groups and their constituents while giving political power to the Congressional committee and providing tangible program benefits to the constituents of the members of the committee.

In that frame of mind, the fact that the head of the federal bureaucracy (small though it was at that time) in charge of road building should also be the president of the main lobbying organization trying to get more federal funding for road building should not come as a particular surprise.  With the establishment of the Joint Committee in 1912, the iron triangle had its third leg (although the Joint Committee was temporary, the House of Representatives went on to establish the first permanent Committee on Roads later in 1913, and Shackleford was its chairman).

All that background is to give perspective on the identities of the three witnesses at the first hearing of the Joint Committee, 100 years ago today:

  • First witness: Alfred Noble – Past president of ASCE and member of the Executive Committee of the American Association for Highway Improvement.
  • Second witness: W.W. Finley – President of the Southern Railway and member of the Executive Committee of the American Association for Highway Improvement.
  • Third witness: George W. Cooley – Engineer of the State Highway Commission of Minnesota (who was, by 1913, a Board member of the American Highway Association).

So, for its first hearing, the Joint Committee heard testimony from three members of the board of the stakeholder association lobbying for federal road funding (two of which were on the executive committee).

It is also amusing to think of how worked up good-government ethics groups get today about the “revolving door” system where individuals move back and forth between working for Congress or the executive branch and working for lobbying organizations with an interest in the programs those staffers worked on.

In that light, note this excerpt from the final report of the Joint Committee some time later: “The chairman of the committee employed Mr. J. E. Pennybacker from December 18, 1912 until July 26, 1914, as statistician in tabulating the data secured from States and foreign countries…”[8]  This means that, to run the numbers for the Joint Committee, the chairman hired the secretary of the lobbying group advocating for federal road funding.  A subsequent Good Roads Year Book for 1916 listed Pennybacker as the “Chief of Road Economics” in the Office of Public Roads, meaning that he had worked in all three sides of the iron triangle in a half-dozen years.

The Joint Committee did not issue its final report until 1915, but that report (while it did not give concrete policy recommendations) was a treasure trove of information about road building that gave Congress the information it needed to write the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 (the first real and systemic federal-aid highway law).  TW will have more perspective on the work of the Joint Committee (and the formation of the first House committee) later in the year.


[1] U.S. Department of Transportation.  Federal Highway Administration.  America’s Highways 1776-1976.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1976.  Page 84.

[2] United States Congress.  Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads.  Good Roads.  Hearings before the Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913.  Pages 6-8.

[3] Good Roads.  Hearings before the Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads.  Page 9.

[4] Good Roads.  Hearings before the Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads.  Page 9.

[5] America’s Highways 1776-1976.  Page 76.

[6]American Association for Highway ImprovementPapers, Addresses and Resolutions Before the American Road Congress (November 20-23, 1911).  Pages 1-2.

[7] Papers, Addresses and Resolutions Before the American Road Congress  Page 187.

[8] United States Congress.  Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads.  Federal Aid to Good Roads.   Report of the Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads.  63rd Congress, 3rd Session (House Document No. 1510).  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915.  Page 31.

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