cover image Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life

Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life

Tom Lewis. Viking Books, $27.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-670-86627-4

This brightly written history of the U.S. federal highway program is like the annual report of a successful company that has had grim second thoughts. The first half recounts progress made, while the second suggests that the good news is not quite what it seems. Lewis (Empire of the Air) begins with Thomas Harris MacDonald, who in 1919 became head of the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Public Roads and, before he retired in 1965, was to federal highway construction what J. Edgar Hoover was to law enforcement. The high points here include the building of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which set the pattern for 20th-century toll roads, and the maneuvering leading up to the passage of the 1956 law establishing the Interstate Highway System. Lewis also touches on such matters as the parkways of the 1930s, the education of civil engineers and the design of highway signs. With a successful late-1960s revolt by New Orleans preservationists against a highway through the French Quarter, Lewis begins to relate the darker side of road building and its lobbyists, which led to the malling of the landscape. Today, despite the great sociological changes they have made in the country, interstate highways, according to Lewis, are treated with complete indifference by Americans. Photos. (Oct.) FYI: A 90-minute PBS documentary based on this book will be broadcast nationally in October.