AASHTO 100th Anniversary Logo

September 17, 2014

Transportation Then & Now: The Challenge of Change

The following address, published in the October 1972 edition of American Highways, was given that same month by Ralph R. Bartelsmeyer at the annual meeting of the Southeastern Association of State Highway Officials (SASHO) in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Bartelsmeyer, a past AASHO president, had been appointed FHWA deputy administrator but was serving at the time of the SASHO address as the agency’s acting administrator.) In his address, Bartlesmeyer underscores the theme of change and the need to adapt to evolving new challenges that impact U.S. transportation. It is a theme that he had highlighted just the previous year when he began an address at the AASHO annual meeting in Miami Beach, Florida, with the following quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The old order changeth, yielding place to the new.” The opportunities and obstacles that come with change have similarly been – and continue to be -- common themes throughout the history of the U.S. transportation community and in particular AASHTO.

I am delighted to be here in Daytona Beach today and to have the opportunity to participate in this annual SASHO meeting. I want you to know, too, that Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe sends you his greetings and his best wishes for a successful meeting.

As a former State highway official myself, and one who had the honor and privilege of serving as president of the American Association of State Highway Officials, it is always a special pleasure for me to attend and participate in meetings of State highway officials. I also share a special pride in your remarkable achievements in providing this Nation with the highways which indeed are "America's lifelines." Particularly impressive, of course, is what you have already accomplished in building the Interstate System - the finest, safest, best-engineered roads the world has ever known. The entire Nation is indebted to you for this marvelous network of freeways -- already 80 percent open to traffic -- and the Nation is reaping tremendous dividends from it.

President Nixon has stated it well: Our highway program has been America's big success story of the past decade.

But life cannot remain in a vacuum; the accomplishments of the past must always be followed by the achievements of tomorrow. And the two do not always take the same direction.

Our transportation needs do not remain constant over the years. They fluctuate and change -- and as they do, we continually have to find new methods and new techniques to meet our new needs. As a result, our priorities and our emphases are in a constant state of evolution.

There is nothing new about this. Change has been a basic ingredient of the Federal-State highway program since its inception 56 years ago - back in 1916. I personally have been involved in the highway field during the past 41 Years - including the 10 years as Chief Engineer of the Illinois Division of Highways. I can remember well the changes that have come about during those four decades.

Some 40 years ago, highway engineers were faced with very basic and clearcut priorities: to get the farmer out of the mud, and to connect towns and cities to each other with all-weather roads. And that was about it; very little work was done in cities and urban areas. Usually, at each city limit the State erected a sign advising the motorist that "State maintenance ends here." Well, we did get the farmer out of the mud, and we did connect towns with two-lane paved roads, so that by the 1950's we were essentially concerned with cost - keeping the cost down, that is. The emphasis then was doing it cheaper. Cut out the fringe things, we were told, and keep the costs down.

The birth of the Interstate System in 1956 gradually led to a change in that policy. New requirements were enacted into law, which in tum led to some of the red tape we hear about from you so often these days.

But red tape aside, most of the new requirements were highly desirable ones, and have resulted in a much more dynamic highway program today than the one we had 16 years ago.

For example, while we did a pretty good job of landscaping after the project was built in those days we paid little attention to locating highways as they might affect community development, parks, schools, environment, etc. We had no mandate to do so; to the contrary, in fact, we were told to concentrate only on building the necessary roads as expeditiously and cheaply as possible. When people were forced to move because of a highway right-of­ way coming through their property, it was essentially a matter of a right-of-way agent deciding what price should be paid for the property. Where and how the occupants relocated was their concern.

Many practices taken for granted now were most difficult to bring into being then. I am referring to such things as full access control, wide medians, use of State and Federal Funds for purchase of right-of-way, no intersections and railroad crossings at grade, and many others. It took a lot of hard pioneering work to convince both the public and elected officials that these new concepts were necessary. And of course back in those days we just built roads -- we were not at all involved in mass transit; very few of us even gave much thought to the matter.

Now we have come to another fork in the road - and once again we must adapt to change.

John Donne wrote, "No man is an island." That principle applies to today's highway official. In our complex society of the 1970's, he cannot remain aloof from, or indifferent to, the problems and needs of other transportation modes. We can no longer afford such a parochial outlook -- if indeed, we ever could.

As President Nixon has said, "If we are to keep our country from falling behind the times, we must keep well ahead of events in our transportation planning." We no longer can be concerned only with roads; we must be concerned with where roads fit into our total transportation system - and with how that transportation system can best serve the American people. In developing such a total transportation system, mobility is the key word - the ability to move people. And the way to obtain mobility is to improve all transportation modes so that they all will function efficiently and cooperatively as component parts of the overall system.

I am aware, of course, that you are concerned about the future of the highway program, and I want to reassure you in the strongest possible way that the Department of Transportation has absolutely no intention of abandoning or minimizing highways. Secretary Volpe has frequently emphasized the vital importance of highways to America's present and future, and because they are so vital, we intend to see to it that they are always fully capable of fulfilling their function.

In fact, one of the conclusions of the 1972 National Transportation Report was -- and I quote -- "Even allowing for an overstatement of transportation needs, it is evident that any realistic assessment of the Nation's transportation investment future will have a substantial high­ way component. This would be the result of a continuation of current national growth trends in an automobile-oriented society."

So highways, by their very nature, must continue to be the backbone of our total transportation system for as far into the future as anyone can presently foresee -- for only highways can tie together all of the modes, and only highway transportation can provide the individual flexibility of movement that is so indigenous to the life-style of present-day America.

At the same time, however, we cannot continue to do business at the same old stand. We cannot continue to function, and to pursue the same goals, as we did, say, in the Fifties and the Sixties. And we do not intend to, for much that was desirable and appropriate then is undesirable and inappropriate now.

Today, one of our top priorities must be in providing adequate transportation facilities for our mushrooming urban areas. Some 70 percent of our people now live on two percent of the land - that is, in and around urban areas. It is imperative that we provide them with the means for greatly increasing mobility.

No longer can we afford to ignore or evade the fact that we simply cannot move everyone in automobiles anymore. That day is past. In itself, travel by individual cars in metropolitan areas is a most uneconomical means of transportation -- but even more significant, it is wasteful of fuel. As we are all becoming increasingly aware, the United States' fuel supply is not inexhaustible; in fact, it could soon become critical. This is not a problem that we can postpone action must start conserving our fuel supplies, and the most obvious method is by reducing consumption. A decrease in the use of private automobiles -- particularly to commute -- in urban areas is a proper step in that direction.

Further, as highway officials, you are particularly aware of the fact that traffic congestion has been thickening so consistently in our cities that massive rush hour traffic jams have become an unwelcome, but twice a day, way of life for commuters and shoppers in most of our urban areas. Bumper-to-bumper traffic is now so commonplace that it has become a caricature of itself.

This steadily worsening situation cries out for a solution -- and the Department of Transportation has been emphasizing what it is: providing expanded and improved mass transit facilities. It no longer is a question of whether cities need them -- they simply must have them, and now.

Undoubtedly, you are familiar with the highly publicized and highly successful exclusive bus lane program on Shirley Highway (I-95) in Washington, D.C.'s northern Virginia suburbs. This is a most encouraging example that many commuters will leave their cars at home when you provide them with improved mass transit service - service that is fast, convenient, comfortable, and reasonably priced.

Since this program was launched three years ago, ridership has increased from 1,900 to 7,150 -- or 275 percent -- during the morning rush hours at a survey point midway along the exclusive bus lane. Ridership on the bus lane crossing the bridge over the Potomac River into the District of Columbia is approximately 10,000 persons daily. In all, more than 15,000 bus riders utilize some portion of the exclusive bus lane during the morning rush hours.

The most important thing about this, as you well know, is that these 15,000 bus riders would add another 10,000 cars to the rush hour traffic stream -- which would make the presently bad rush hour traffic situation an impossible one. Similar preferential treatment for transit buses is acutely needed in most of our urban areas, and it can be provided, relatively quickly and inexpensively. It is up to you, as State highway officials, to provide the needed impetus to this worth­ while program and I hope that you will do so as expeditiously as possible.

However, today we must go much farther than this -- we must broaden our perspective even more.

As State highway officials you are going to have to think increasingly of how to improve urban transportation in your planning. And this doesn't mean just highway transportation. In your planning process, you must determine whether new facilities in an urban area should be rubber tire-oriented or rail-oriented. In other words' which will do the best job for the people who live there? And if studies show that it is rail transit, then this is what must be considered.

It is no longer an either/or situation between highways and rail transit. They are not mutually exclusive. That type of thinking is long outdated, and it has no validity in the times in which we live. No worthwhile purpose can be served by the supporters of the two modes being competitive; we need both modes in some of our big cities, and they must not only co-exist, they must truly interrelate.

Now I realize of course that such an approach is going to require some changes in our thinking, and in our approach to the planning process. But we cannot live in the past, nor can we remain blindly rooted to past traditions or procedures. Times change, and we must move with the times. Because we had an approach that was sound and desirable a decade or more ago does not mean that it is still sound or desirable today. After all, our sprawling urban areas of the early 1970's little resemble our cities of even 25 years ago.

As a practical matter, of course, because of economics, population or geography, only a relatively limited number of our large cities can be expected to install new rail transit systems.

But I emphasize again, where they are needed and will do the job, let them be built!

So as highway officials, let us start thinking in terms of providing transportation corridors in our urban areas, rather than just highway corridors. And in these corridors, let us provide room for transportation facilities, even though there may not presently be funding for them. Even if they were never to be built, the highway would still benefit from a wide median strip or a desirable green area

But let us go even further, and think of joining with, and providing space for, such modernistic modes of transportation as people-movers or car-movers. All sorts of new technology could be just down the road, and we should not close our minds to this possibility.

There is another area in which the highway program has already changed, and the highway official must change with it. That is the increased emphasis that has been placed on preserving and protecting the environment and the ecology.

You and I both know that highway officials have always been concerned about beauty and the environment. But we also know that the word "ecology" was little-heard and little-known until recent years. And there is no denying that high­ way officials do have a greatly expanded awareness of environmental considerations today - as do most Americans.

Environmental impact statements have become a part of your regular routine in State highway departments, and they should receive the attention of top officials - they should not be merely delegated down the line. For I can assure you, they are here to stay, and there must be no attempt to ignore them, defy them or circumvent them. Because it just can't be done. Some of you may well disagree with the requirement for these environmental impact statements. There is no question that they can make life more difficult for you, but they are the law of the land - and that law has been upheld repeatedly in the courts.

When highway officials fail to file environmental impact statements, or prepare them carelessly, they are inviting litigation. And the anti-highway people will be only too eager to accept that invitation. The inevitable result, of course, is needless delay and added costs.

Let me state unequivocally that the Federal Highway Administration has a firm commitment to observing the spirit as well as the letter of the law in environmental matters. As an indication of this commitment, during the present calendar year, we will process some 800 final environmental impact statements and some 150 4(f) statements - far more than any other individual agency of government.

I am happy to tell you that most States are now doing a pretty good job in identifying and addressing the environmental issues in the environmental impact statement. They are making the necessary adjustments because they realize that environmental considerations are not going to be a short-term matter, but are here to stay.

There are still weaknesses, however, and we believe the new Process Guidelines issued by the Federal Highway Administration will help correct them. As you know, these Guidelines were required by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1970.

The Process Guidelines are aimed at influencing the methods by which Federal-aid highway projects are developed, rather than by at­ tempting detailed supervision or control of plans or projects. You are aware, of course, that each State highway department is required to prepare an Action Plan, spelling out the organizational arrangement, assignment of responsibilities, and procedures which it proposes to follow in developing projects. These may be either new or existing, but in any event they are to be worked out by each State to meet .its special needs and circumstances.

At FHWA, we are convinced this is a sound approach. The preparation of an Action Plan is a one-time step, rather than a series of measures to be repeated for each project. And the result should be full consideration of environmental factors by every State highway department - with, I can assure you, far less paperwork and red tape than other possible approaches.

Some State highway departments have already begun to effect changes which will result in greater attention to environmental factors -- and the Process Guidelines are intended to reinforce those efforts. For those States that are lagging in this regard, the Process Guidelines will make it very clear that they must make these changes in procedure.

You also are aware that the Department of Transportation has promulgated new noise standards to be applied to Federal-aid highway projects. We know that the highway­ related noise problem is complex and that there is no quick or easy solution. We know, too, that the application of these standards may well cause you some difficulties, but this is unavoidable. The reaction we have received from the States indicates that you are accepting the need for facing this issue squarely. To achieve substantial improvement in the highway-related noise problem will require the coordinated efforts of many programs, agencies, industries, and institutions. Basically, it requires a three-point approach:

(1) Reduce the noise at its source in the motor vehicle; (2) control the use of land in the vicinity of highways; and (3) control noise through the planning and design of highway projects.

Now as highway officials, of course, you can assume primary responsibility only for that aspect of the problem having to do with the planning and design of highway projects, and our noise standards focused mainly on these considerations. But as highway officials, you do have an obligation to furnish to local officials any relative information concerning the need for land use controls adjacent to new highway projects.

The point is, because of the interrelated nature of the noise problem, everyone concerned with the planning and building of highways should actively participate with others in developing a comprehensive approach, even, if necessary, to assuming the initiative in such efforts.

So the foregoing are a few -- and only a few -- of the changes that have come about in the highway program. More changes undoubtedly are on the way. As you know, we do not yet have final legislation on the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1972; but you can be certain that in whatever final form it takes, it will embrace changes in old methods, and provide for new ways of doing things.

I know that it is not always easy to adjust to change. Sometimes it is painful. But the cooperation of the State highway officials in our changed Federal-State highway program is imperative if we are to maintain a viable program.

So I ask you to work with us in providing America with the total transportation system it needs so acutely in these final decades of the 20th Century. For, after all, although we are highway officials, we are all, first and foremost, concerned American citizens who have as a common objective doing the things that are best for this country as a whole.

There is no turning back the clock. We must accept and adapt to these changes, and those that will inexorably follow, or we will be left behind. There is a Latin proverb which goes, "While we consider when to begin, it becomes too late." As a lifelong highway engineer, I implore you; don't let it ever become too late!

Thank you for having invited me here today. It has been a distinct pleasure for me.