Monday, September 1, 2008

Federal Bureaucrats and the Greening of American Highway Policy

On Saturday, surface mail (remember that?) brought the latest issue of the Journal of Policy History (20:2, 2008) and its lead article, "The Interstates and the Cities: The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Freeway Revolt, 1966-1973," by Raymond A. Mohl, University of Alabama at Birmingham. Professors of administrative law will find it very useful reading (alongside Peter Strauss's contribution to Administrative Law Stories) when they teach the landmark case, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe (U.S. 1971). Of more general interest is Mohl's argument that changes in the structure of the federal bureaucracy opened up highway policy to environmental, aesthetic and racial justice concerns. As Mohl writes, the transformation of American highway policy is "generally attributed to the persistence of grassroots, neighborhood opposition movements around the nation," the "Freeway Revolt" of the 1960s. Mohl argues that the transfer of the Bureau of Public Roads from the Department of Commerce to the new Department of Transportation paved the way (as it were) for the greening of highway policy under Lyndon Johnson and, in something of a surprise, Richard Nixon. The reorganization meant that the "barbarian" highwaymen of the BPR, who believed that "God's greatest gift to America was concrete," had to report to officials with a broader view of American transportation policy. (In this, the article may usefully be read with other works on bureaus and their departments discussed in one of my earlier posts.) Federalism also figures prominently in Mohl's account: the devolution of decisionmaking to new local planning bodies, such as Councils of Government, permitted the Nixon administration to appear responsive to the public interest while shifting the burdensome task of placating private interests to someone else.

Mohl has previously written about the popular protests in "Stop the Road: Freeway Revolts in American Cities," Journal of Urban History 30 (2004): 674-706, but they remain offstage in "The Interstates and the Cities." Presumably fitting the two together is a major concern for transportation and urban historians--I know it was one of Zachary Schrag's goals in Great Society Subway (2006)--just as relating recent studies on the development of political institutions to longstanding and ongoing research on social movements is high on the research agendas of legal and constitutional historians. Photo credit.