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More Highwaymen

Brass Tacks

By Thomas P. Southwick

GOVERNOR LESTER MADDOX of Georgia, during his short-lived presidential candidacy last year, identified the most critical problem facing the nation as the need to build more highways. As on several other issues, Maddox was more than a few years behind the times. Fortunately the governor has gone back to Georgia, but indications are that the men now in charge of the nation's transportation system share at least some of his views.

The massive interstate highway program launched by the Eisenhower administration has vastly expanded the country's highways in a very short period of time. The long belts of concrete which cut across the western states were the most important development in that part of the country since the completion of the transcontinental railroad a century ago. The highway system was such a universally praised program that its supporters began to think of it as the answer to almost all the nation's ills.

One of the people most responsible for the early success of the highway program was John A. Volpe, the nation's first Federal Highway Administrator. Today, however, Volpe's responsibilities are much broader than those of his earlier job. Instead of merely concerning himself with the problem of how to build more and better roads he must now weigh the needs of airlines, railroads, urban populations, and a vast range of national problems in making transportation decisions. It was encouraging to hear Mr. Volpe say, in his first press conference as Secretary of Transportation, that "highways alone won't do the job. In practically any major metropolitan center you are going to have to think in terms of rapid transit."

But Volpe's first actions affecting urban populations have been anything but encouraging. In announcing the appointment of Francis Turner as Federal Highway Administrator, Volpe declared that, "some people think I should have appointed a city planner to the post. I happen to think that a good highway man will make a good highway administrator." Such thinking ignores the fact that highways are now a major urban problem.

Volpe himself is clearly a highway man and is certainly capable of representing the interests of the highway builders in the Executive Branch. Therefore it would have seemed only equitable to have appointed a city planner, or at least someone familiar with urban problems, to the post of Highway Administrator. But Turner is, in the words of one high official of the Johnson administration, "one of the cement pourers," and enjoys the reputation of being a captive of the highway lobbies. For planning roads in Colorado or Wyoming, Turner is fine; he is a competent engineer and has been with the Bureau of Public Roads since 1929. But to design roads which cut through congested urban areas a city planner is needed. The Cambridge Inner Belt fight clearly demonstrates how delicate are the problems of where to place a road, what people will be displaced, what buildings will be torn down, and how they will be replaced.

One of the most pressing of these issues concerns the relationship of federal highways to mass transportation systems and what should be the federal role in financing the two. Last month Rep. John Bingham (D-N.Y.) introduced in the House a bill to help finance mass transportation with money which now goes to highways. Highway construction money comes out of a special trust fund which was set up only after the most intricate and laborious legislative maneuverings. Bingham's bill proposes to use money from this highway trust fund for mass transportation needs, such as building and improving subway systems. Bingham has run into strong opposition from lobbies like the American Automobile Association whose position he called "no more responsible than the position taken by the National Rifle Association on the issue of gun control."

Bingham's experience is nothing new. For years the highway lobbies have successfully blocked attempts to cut road construction funds. But there is more than just lobby opposition hindering federal aid to mass transportation.

The Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives is in charge of procuring revenue for use by the federal government. The committee responsible for designating how this money will be spent is the Appropriations Committee. Since the setting up of a special trust fund involves both the raising and spending of money, both committees are involved. When the highway fund was set up the two committees held simultaneous hearings and worked together to write the bill. It was a most difficult process to get these two powerful, jealous and sensitive committees and their chairmen to work together.

If there is to be a special fund for mass transportation or if money from the highway fund is to be used for urban transit, the proposal will have to get strong backing from the administration. President Nixon has apparently not yet made any decision on the matter. But from the past records of Volpe and Turner it seems unlikely that Nixon is being advised to cut highway funds in favor of mass transportation.

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