McNichol Calls Interstate System an Engineering Marvel

Thu March 20, 2008 - National Edition
Ron Long



There is a battle for the hearts and minds of the public on highway and bridge construction financing. Dan McNichol might be the voice that wins the battle for construction. He comes from a family of builders but it’s not clear how he came to write the best selling book ever about the U.S. Interstate Highway System. At one point it was selling on the Internet at up to $300 a copy. People are listening to him — and watching.

He has emerged as a leading national voice on the subject, particularly when broadcast television needs to explain to America what has happened, or is expected to happen, to our roads and bridges. Immediately following the collapse of the bridge on I-35W in Minnesota, McNichol was one of the few people allowed into the sealed site by the State of Minnesota DOT.

This summer McNichol authored a chapter for the upcoming book; Governing in the Twentieth Century: United States Governors 1908-2008, in which he outlines the roles of governors in the building of the U.S. Interstate system. Also this summer, McNichol’s book, Asphalt in America, was awarded the Independent Publisher Book Award medal for nonfiction.

In 2003 The American Society of Civil Engineers Boston Chapter recognized McNichol as the journalist of the year. That same year, Wentworth Institute of Technology awarded him with an honorary Doctorate of Engineering Technology for his contributions to the transportation and engineering communities.

McNichol has written for the New York Times and the Boston Globe. He has been featured in USA Today, ABC World News Tonight, The Jim Lehrer News Hour, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and numerous National Public Radio broadcasts. In 2005, McNichol traveled with the History Channel’s television production crew as an on-air historian for a Modern Marvels program based on his book, The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate system. Upon completion of The Roads That Built America, McNichol purchased a 1951 Hudson traveling 24,000 mi. of America’s Interstate system in what was heralded as The Great American Road Trip.

As a George H.W. Bush White House Appointee, McNichol served at the U.S. Department of Transportation. He also spent time with the international construction giant Bechtel. In 1992, he worked for Andrew H. Card, Commander in Chief of the Hurricane Andrew relief effort, witnessing the Interstate system’s role in getting Floridians back on their feet. He also served two governors while working on the largest, most complex civil engineering project in American history known as The “Big Dig” that is believed to be the last dollar and last mile of the original construction of the U.S. Interstate system.

I recently interviewed McNichol before he addressed a group of engineers, DOT staff members, and the interested public at the wonderful Saratoga Automobile Museum, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. One of the points he made lingers: in building the U.S Interstate system, our engineers and contractors have built the most incredible feat of engineering in the world’s history. No other country in the world has built a comparable highway system (although the Chinese are working on one now). Despite its unique scope and functionality, engineers have done a lousy job of promoting it. While the world is in awe of our Interstate, Americans disparage it and take it for granted.

“The Interstate system is unrivaled. It’s bigger than the Great Wall of China, the pyramids, any of the canals, the Suez and Panama. And we seem to just think it’s like running water. It’s just going to be there for us. Well, in this country, we seem to have forgotten about our greatness, about building great, civil structures, like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building.”

Interstate System Began With Military Public Relations Campaign

In his book, The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate system, McNichol reveals the many origins of building the Interstate system, including going back to what was essentially a public relations campaign conducted in 1919 by the U.S. Army which was cooperating with the Lincoln Highway Association.

The Army undertook crossing the United States with a convoy of officers and enlisted men, including a 28-year old Lieutenant Colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower. During World War I, the Army had found French roads to be superior to anything in the United States. Together with the Lincoln Highway Association, the Army undertook its own public relations campaign to build highways believed needed for our national defense. They were treated by the American public like a liberating Army. More than 2.2 million Americans cheered them as they made the arduous journey across a mud and dust filled continent over a virtually non-existent road. The government may not have taken action, but the seed was planted.

Many in the industry today ponder what will persuade the public and politicians to invest in our infrastructure. Today the only event likely to draw attention to the needs of our infrastructure is the tragic collapse of part of the Interstate, such as I-35W in Minnesota. That’s what brought me to listen to Dan McNichol talk about the bridge failure on a cool fall night recently. His abilities to connect with and explain to the public may be part of the solution that brings needed attention to our conundrum: will the public support revenue generation to rebuild our roads and bridges?

McNichol may well be to American highways and bridges what Rachael Ray is to popular cooking. There may be experts in both fields who know more about the engineering details (or say the chemistry in a soufflé) but both communicate the salient points of their respective subject matter clearly and easily. McNichol has a relaxed but passionate sense about the importance of our highways. What struck me most when I first heard him was his grasp of the urgency of fixing our highways and bridges and his clear understanding that it was up to the public, to motivate politicians to authorize rebuilding.

He is a natural AGC ally who knows our national organization’s history. He also knows better than most how the rest of the world sees our current state of affairs. This came through loud and clear when he spoke of a conversation he had with his father-in-law, who happens to be a Chinese engineer. While making his annual visit this year to China, he quoted his father-in-law as saying that the Chinese people “never expected to see an American bridge collapse,” the way the Minnesota bridge did this past summer. From the way McNichol related the conversation it seemed the engineer was almost feeling sorry for us, briefly, and then McNichol added forcefully, “and they [China] would like to eat our lunch!” It felt like a call to action.

Part of McNichol’s focus is working to communicate to the public, and through them, to their elected representatives that our magnificent system is in trouble and we need to fix it. He lamented the condition of the interstate in many parts of the country and he was especially sad to proclaim that Indiana had sold its section of I-90 to a coalition of Spaniards and Australians. He thought President Eisenhower would be very disturbed by the current state of affairs.

McNichol made clear his deep admiration for President Eisenhower and his Interstate highway legacy. Following his experiences as a young officer and the 1919 PR convoy, General Eisenhower was “stunned” when he saw the German autobahn firsthand during WWII as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

“Eisenhower wanted to take us from kind of a backwater rural highway system to an autobahn-like system he had seen in Germany. So, this idea of limited access to him meant faster movement of commerce, safer roads. There was a lot of carnage on the roads in the ’50s. And probably most importantly on his mind, was an atomic war. And he knew that we wouldn’t be able to get out ahead of a nuclear missile, but the retrieval and the rescue would take place over the Interstate system.”

The future president knew how much the United States needed a similar military and commercial system and it was his first order of business after being elected president.

According to McNichol, Eisenhower is often misunderstood as a “disengaged, laissez-faire … politician.” However, he makes a compelling argument that no one has had greater long-term vision about where we needed to go. Nor has another president done more to bring the United States together physically as a nation than Ike. It’s easy to forget that a road trip from New York to Los Angeles in 1952 meant more railroad crossings, stop signs, street lights and 30 mph zones than can be dreamt of. We take the Interstate system for granted, more than our public utilities and our telecommunications. In the early part of the 20th century experts and the public didn’t see the need for an Interstate system. The railroads delivered freight and people and small trucks delivered goods locally to and from railroad depots. It took a broad vision to see beyond this limited horizon.

Highway Funding Obstacles in the 1950s

It may be discouraging now to consider political resistance to raising taxes to fund highway construction. It was far worse over a half century ago. On his first full day of the presidency, President Eisenhower greeted Colorado Governor Dan Thorton in the White House.

“With the pleasantries out of the way … Gov. Thorton made it clear to Ike that the states wanted the federal government to stop building roads with money collected from the taxing of gas of Coloradoans, not to mention the other 47 states. The governor went a step further to say that the federal government should get out of the highway-building business altogether, leaving money and work to the individual states.”

According to McNichol, “the President had no intention of leaving the work of such overriding national importance to the states. Over the next few years he struggled to win support from the public and rally Congress to his thinking.”

McNichol may have broken new ground in revising the historical context of the legacy of this president as a man who is tied to one of the era’s symbolic quotes: In 1953, General Motors chief executive Charles E. “Engine Charlie” Wilson stated, “What is good for General Motors is good for [America].”

With respect to the states, Eisenhower shrewdly left enough of the details to them that they shared ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the plan. As McNichol paraphrased Eisenhower’s directive to the states 48 governors, “Go figure out what you want and let’s build it!”

The plan envisioned all work to be completed by 1972.

Spontaneous Construction Throughout the United States

AGC members know that there was golden era of highway construction in the United States. McNichol said, “From 1956 to 1966, it was like spontaneous combustion, spontaneous construction all over the United States. And it started right outside of St. Louis. But, in 1956, they started great guns on building. And, then, by 1966, just 10 years later, they had built half the system. The entire country modernized itself along the Interstate system. If you think about the franchises and the companies and the businesses, all of them wanted to be near it. All of them gravitated toward it, leaving the old U.S. routes and repositioning themselves along the interchanges along the Interstate system. There are 14,000 interchanges across America. And the founders of McDonald’s and Holiday Inn took to the air in their private aircraft, flying all over the country during those years of construction, looking for the ideal locations. And, then, following them were gas stations and hotels, a whole tourism industry, shipping, trucking. You name it. Everybody grew up along the Interstate system.”

McNichol acknowledged that the AGC and other organizations, especially AASHTO, played an important role in the planning, development and construction of what eventually became our Interstate system.

McNichol’s book is endlessly fascinating concerning the details of how this system was actually brought to fruition. And if you are discouraged by today’s funding climate, take heart. The Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw has called it, faced obstacles that make this era’s pale in comparison. It was ultimately Eisenhower who won the people over in this country when Congressional leadership and state governments were dead set against federal involvement. Surprisingly, even those who could have benefited from a good Interstate system could not see the wisdom of having gas and diesel taxes paying for the system. Just before a key vote on funding, over 100,000 truck drivers sent telegrams to members of Congress urging them not to fund highway construction. It would take several more years for Eisenhower to lead a breakthrough.

McNichol points out that the Interstate system is only 1 percent of our total highway system, our total road net. But it carries 25 percent of all the traffic.

“It’s about $9 trillion a year. We’re the owners of an antique. It’s a magnificent system, but it’s outdated. It’s congested. And the same issues that plagued Dwight Eisenhower when he launched the construction of the Interstate system are plaguing us now, loss of life on the Interstate system, congestion because of clogged arteries. And, most importantly, to prepare ourselves for a hurricane or another terrorist attack, the system needs to be improved to facilitate commerce during those critical moments.”

Today, in the absence of political leadership on highway and bridge funding, it may be voices like Dan McNichol’s who help lead the public to pay for the rebuilding we need. Stay tuned.

This article was reprinted from Low Bidder magazine, November/December 2007.