The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT or DOT) is an executive department of the federal government, established by Congress in 1966. The department was formed to ensure “a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people.”
Agencies within the USDOT include the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), Federal Transportation Administration (FTA), Federal Highway Administration (FHwA), Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration (FHTSA), the Maritime Administration (MARAD), and more.
The legislation creating the USDOT was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) on October 15, 1966. Like the U.S. Department of Commerce, the DOT’s roots were in the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Upon its formation, the department inherited agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and gained regulatory power over recently constructed interstate highways and railway programs.
The fight to create the USDOT
When President Johnson signed the bill creating the department into law, it was the culmination of a long process of policy development and legislative action/inaction and wrangling.
More than a year earlier (September 1965), a Johnson Administration task force recommended the creation of the DOT. Six months later, LBJ delivered his transportation message to Congress, as well as proposed legislation creating the department. There were extensive Congressional hearings during April, May and June of 1966, and private committee meetings and discussions took longer. The House of Representatives passed its version of the legislation in late August 1966, and the Senate passed its version in late September. Then House-Senate negotiations on a compromise bill began.
By early October, the two chambers of Congress had appointed members of the conference committee to try to iron out the differences between the two bills. While there were many differences between the two versions of the legislation, there were four major areas of disagreement.
The first issue was whether the Federal Maritime Administration would continue to be part of the U.S. Department of Commerce or become part of the DOT. Other issues were section 7 of the Administration’s proposal, which gave the Secretary of Transportation the authority to set government-wide cost-benefit analysis standards for all transportation projects. The Senate version exempted nearly all projects from the provision and gave Congress final approval of the standards. The Senate version also bypassed the DOT Secretary in regard to statutory responsibility for key safety programs (and kept responsibility within the agencies that would become part of the department). The Senate bill also did not call for the various agency administrators and the Commandant of the Coast Guard to report directly to the Secretary.
In typical Congressional fashion, the final results were mixed. The Federal Maritime Administration did not become part of the DOT, the agency heads would report directly to the DOT Secretary, the cost-benefit analysis responsibilities did not go to the Secretary and safety responsibilities for aviation remained with the FAA Administrator but rail and motor carrier safety were responsibilities of the Secretary. The conference committee report on the legislation was filed on October 12.
The House and Senate both debated and passed the conference report the next day, October 13. In both Congressional chambers, further debate was brief and the bill was passed by voice vote.
The bill was signed into law less than 48 hours later. At 1:15 p.m. on October 15, 1966, President Johnson entered the White House East Room. About 200 people, including Senators, Representatives, agency heads, leaders of transportation companies, trade associations and unions, and staff members watched the president make short remarks and sign the bill into law at 1:25 p.m.
During his remarks, President Johnson said: “We have come to this historic East Room of the White House today to establish and to bring into being a Department of Transportation, the second Cabinet office to be added to the President’s Cabinet in recent months.
“This Department of Transportation that we are establishing will have a mammoth task – to untangle, to coordinate, and to build the national transportation system for America that America is deserving of.
“And because the job is great, I intend to appoint a strong man to fill it. The new Secretary will be my principal adviser and my strong right arm on all transportation matters. I hope he will be the best equipped man in this country to give leadership to the country, to the President, to the Cabinet, to the Congress.
“Among the many duties the new department will have, several deserve very special notice. To improve the safety in every means of transportation, safety of our automobiles, our trains, our planes, and our ships. To bring new technology to every mode of transportation by supporting and promoting research and development. To solve our most pressing transportation problems.
“A day will come in America when people and freight will move through this land of ours speedily, efficiently, safely, dependably and cheaply. That will be a good day and a great day in America.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation was created by Public Law 89-670. President Johnson announced on November 6, 1966, that Alan S. Boyd would be the first Secretary of Transportation and that the department would begin operations on April 1, 1967.
At the time of Johnson’s announcement, Boyd was serving as the Under Secretary for Transportation at the U.S. Department of Commerce. He was 44 years old and during his career he had served as general counsel of the Florida Turnpike Authority, chairman of the Florida Railroad and Public Utilities Commission. He had been appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB); Boyd became chairman of CAB in 1961. President Johnson had appointed him Under Secretary of Commerce in 1965.
Conceiving a Department of Transportation
Although the USDOT came into being during the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, the idea of a federal transportation agency was not a new one. In 1874, the concept had been raised due to a long-standing dislike of the railroads, their stock manipulations (which many blamed for the Panic of 1873), and their preferential rates for large shippers. Historians often credit U.S. Rep. Laurin D. Woodworth (R-OH), who introduced the first legislation to establish a federal transportation agency (in January 1874). Woodworth’s legislation regulated the management of railroad and transportation companies employed in interstate commerce. This eventually led to the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887, which regulated the railroads, the trucking industry and other industries during its administrative life.
Other proposals to regulate/coordinate transportation within a single federal agency or department continued from the creation of the ICC through the 20th century. President Eisenhower spoke of the idea in his final budget message to Congress in January 1961. None of the proposals were able to overcome the bureaucratic and legislative challenges of unifying rail, air, water, transit and highway transportation.
Each of these different transportation modes had developed independently, and were subject to unique technology, financing, laws and regulations. By the mid-1960s, railroads were in a steep decline (both for freight and passenger traffic), air travel was expanding rapidly, waterway travel was declining for many reasons (primarily for financial reasons), the U.S. shipping industry was being supplanted by ships from around the world, and ridership numbers on public transit were declining and the companies that had dominated that mode were either going bankrupt or simply exiting the business. This meant that cities were forced to operate the money-losing bus and rail lines. Increasing traffic congestion in and near the nation’s major cities reflected the growing dominance of highways for both freight and personal travel, particularly as the construction of the interstate highway system continued.
In a message to Congress on March 2, 1966, President Johnson called for legislation creating the Department of Transportation, establishing the National Transportation Safety Board, and improving highway and vehicle safety.
The concept of a single federal department to address the numerous and different issues of a complex transportation system was becoming more realistic, according to Administrator Najeeb E. Halaby of the Federal Aviation Agency. He was leaving office when he brought the idea up in a letter to President Johnson on June 30, 1965. Halaby recommended the establishment of a transportation department that would oversee all transportation modes. He wrote that such a department would bring “consistent, integrated transportation policies and a balanced national transportation system.”
Agreeing with Halaby’s recommendation, President Johnson created the task force in August 1965 to develop a transportation agenda for 1966. Boyd and Assistant Director Charles Zwick of the Bureau of the Budget led the task force. Boyd and Zwick prepared white papers to establish USDOT, reorganize the regulatory transportation functions, deregulation of certain functions to make transportation rates more competitive and a major highway safety program.
In his book, Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President (2005), historian Robert Dallek explained that Johnson’s support for a USDOT was not surprising. “The role of the Federal Government in managing the country’s transportation systems was a microcosm of Johnson’s views of Federal authority.”
LBJ’s push for action in 1966 – the back story
President Johnson proposed the creation of the USDOT In his State of the Union Address, which he delivered to Congress on January 12, 1966. He advocated for it “to bring together our transportation activities.” He pointed out that there were 35 government agencies involved in transportation; he said the “present structure… makes it almost impossible to serve either the growing demands of this great Nation or the needs of the industry, or the right of the taxpayer to full efficiency and frugality.”
Johnson then submitted a special message to Congress on transportation on March 2, 1966. “In a Nation that spans a continent, transportation is the web of union.” The “tenuous skein of rough trails and primitive roads” of the Nation’s early years had become “a powerful network on which the prosperity and convenience of our society depend.”
In addition, the president listed the current system’s deficiencies. In regard to the nation’s highways, he stated, “time-consuming, frustrating and wasteful congestion…” “super-highways for super-charged automobiles – and yet [we] cannot find a way to prevent 50,000 highway deaths this year,” … and a network of “new freeways to serve new cities and suburbs” that “carelessly scars the irreplaceable countryside.”
Johnson urged Congress to create the USDOT “to serve the growing demands of this great Nation, to satisfy the needs of our expanding industry and to fulfill the right of our taxpayers to maximum efficiency and frugality in Government operations.”
His message to Congress also highlighted the need for traffic safety legislation to reduce the number of Americans hurt or killed on U.S. roads and highways. Johnson cited the statistic that nearly 1.5 million people had died in car crashes, “more than all the combat deaths suffered in all our wars.” He told Congress, “The carnage on the highways must be arrested, [and] we must replace suicide with sanity and anarchy with safety.”
To create an “aggressive highway safety program,” he urged Congress to pass the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. As outlined by the president, the legislation had three key components. First, an increase in federal grants to the states for highway safety would assist the states with “driver education and licensing, advanced traffic control techniques, regular vehicle safety inspections, and police and emergency medical services.” Secondly, “automobile safety performance would be improved by requiring design and engineering changes to make cars safer.” Lastly, the “federal government’s highway safety research efforts would be expanded.”
President Johnson ended the special message by stating that with its growing population and industry, the United States needed “new institutions, new programs of research, [and] new efforts to make our vehicles safe as well as swift.” Modern transportation could be “the rapid conduit of economic growth – or a bottleneck.” It could improve the standard of living or multiply its costs. It could be a convenience and a pleasure “or it can frustrate and impede and delay.”
Information for this article came from the websites of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the ENO Center for Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. The author thanks these sources for the information provided.
** Left to right: Treasury Secretary Henry Fowler, Sen. Carl Mundt (SD), Rep. Florence Dwyer (NJ), Sen. Jennings Randolph (WV), Rep. Chet Holifield (CA), Sen. Warren Magnuson (WA), Sen. Henry Jackson (WA), Commerce Secretary John Connor, and House Speaker John McCormack (MA) watch President Johnson sign the Department of Transportation Act into law.