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Bertram D. Tallamy, who served as a leading figure in the development of the U.S. highway network, died on September 14, 1989, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 87.
Born on December 1, 1901, in Plainfield, New Jersey, Tallamy was the son and grandson of general contractors. He earned a degree in civil engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1925 (and was awarded an honorary doctorate by that institution in 1957). Tallamy rapidly established himself in the construction field. He went on to acquire significant engineering experience in waterworks, dams, sewage treatment plants, roads and bridges.
From the late 1920s to mid-1930s, Tallamy was a consulting engineer in New York. In 1937, he became deputy engineer of the Niagara Frontier Planning Board in western New York state.
Mentoring from Robert Moses
Later in his life, Tallamy cited Robert Moses, New York’s master road builder, as his mentor. The relationship between the two started in 1926, when the young civil engineer visited Moses – without an appointment – to ask advice regarding a road-building project from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. Author Robert Caro interviewed Tallamy while he was working on a biography of Moses. Caro recalled the story:
“When [Tallamy] was finally admitted, he began to unroll his blueprints on the huge table… Tallamy had spent days coloring different parts of the blueprints so that Moses could more easily study them. But Moses shoved them impatiently aside without looking at them. ‘The first thing you’ve got to learn,’ he said, ‘is that no one is interested in plans. No one is interested in details. The first thing you’ve got to learn is to keep your presentations simple.’”
Tallamy told Caro that the principles on which the Interstate Highway System was built were the same principles he learned from Robert Moses during a series of private lectures that followed their first meeting.
State positions in New York
Tallamy was hired as Deputy Superintendent of the New York State Department of Public Works in January 1945. (This agency became part of what is now the New York State Department of Transportation in 1967.) In addition to supervising the state’s post-war road construction program, “he guided the development of the state arterial route plans for almost half of the state’s cities.” In July 1947 Tallamy was named Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department; in that position he was responsible for reviewing the design standards for all of the state’s expressways.
About 15 months later, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey chose Tallamy to be Superintendent of Public Works on October 1, 1948, a position he retained until December 31, 1954.
Construction on the New York State Thruway had begun in 1946. (To read a FreightWaves Classics article about the New York State Thruway, follow the link.) The state planned to build toll-free segments of the Thruway as state funds became available.
Because progress was too slow, the state legislature created the New York State Thruway Authority in 1950 to issue bonds to finance faster construction. Tallamy is given much of the credit for the Thruway because of the way he helped win voter support for the plan.
He was then responsible for supervising and promoting the construction of what is now officially called the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway. He was appointed chairman of the three-member New York State Thruway Authority in 1950 for a term running through January 1, 1960. In his position, Tallamy directed the construction of the Thruway from New York City to Buffalo. He was also responsible for the building and maintenance of 14,000 miles of state roads.
Over the course of his tenure,Tallamy, who was an outdoorsman, hiked nearly the entire 427-mile route of the New York Thruway. In addition, he fought against highway billboards, stating they not only destroyed the view of a beautiful country, but “by causing drivers to become bored, and thus fall asleep, they contributed to the highway death toll.”
Tallamy also held leadership roles and responsibilities within the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO). In 1948 he was elected a member of the association’s Executive Committee, and became first vice president the following year. Tallamy then was elected AASHO’s 39th president at the association’s annual meeting in October 1951.
The United States was facing significant growth in population, ownership/registration of motor vehicles and traffic. Therefore, the various state highway departments were dealing with the need to build and maintain highways that were capable of accommodating those ever-increasing numbers. When Tallamy became AASHO president, World War II was still a recent memory, the Korean War was raging and the Cold War was getting hotter seemingly daily. Therefore, there was also a strong demand for highways that could serve the national defense.
During his term as AASHO president from October 1951 to October 1952, Tallamy emphasized the increasing importance of the nation’s highways, as well as the need for the state and federal governments to sustain and adequately fund that transportation network. He cultivated stronger public support for improved highways and advocated for passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 (which at the time was the largest federal-aid measure of its kind).
Federal Highway Administrator
On October 12, 1956, Tallamy was named by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as the first Federal Highway Administrator under the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Although Tallamy’s selection was widely applauded (and he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in February 1957), he was not available to assume the position until then. Therefore, President Eisenhower appointed John A. Volpe, who had resigned recently as Commissioner of Public Works in Massachusetts, to serve as interim Administrator until Tallamy became available.
Following his confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Tallamy was sworn into office on February 5, 1957 by Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks. Weeks described Tallamy as “one of the world’s greatest builders of roads.” Thomas E. Dewey said, “There are not enough superlatives to describe Bertie Tallamy.”
When he assumed his office, a column in The Washington Post described him as a “tough engineer with a passion for esthetic design.” It noted that in New York, Tallamy had earned a reputation as a highly competent administrator and chair of the New York State Thruway Authority.
In his role as Administrator, Tallamy directed the initial construction of the newly authorized Interstate Highway System (IHS). At that time, it was planned to be a 41,000-mile network. At that time, it also was estimated that the IHS would connect 90% of all cities with populations over 50,000 and would carry 20% of all vehicle traffic.
Tallamy held the position as Federal Highway Administration Administrator throughout the remainder of the Eisenhower administration. During his nearly four years in office, he directed the building of the IHS with little fanfare and no scandal. He was able to generate bipartisan support for his programs and he also “steered his projects through the financial shoals of inflation.”
After leaving the Federal Highway Administration, Tallamy remained in the nation’s capital as a consulting engineer and stayed active in that capacity until 1970.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, dbpedia.org, the Federal Highway Administration and the Washington Post for information and photographs that contributed to this article.