After months of negotiations, a bipartisan group of Senators agreed on Wednesday to a $1.2 trillion infrastructure proposal. While the eventual fate of the legislation remains unclear, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to take up debate on the bill, clearing an important procedural hurdle just hours after reaching an agreement. The major Republican sticking point during the fractious negotiations was a $48.5 billion public transit allocation, which Republicans bargained down to $39 billion. On “The Human Toll of Infrastructure,” this week’s episode of Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman contrasted the GOP’s current infrastructure recalcitrance with the party’s post-World War II championing of ambitious spending. Heather and Joanne focused especially on President Eisenhower’s passionate push for the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, then the costliest public works project in American history. Republican support for forward-thinking infrastructure did not end with Eisenhower, however. Another Republican president—Richard Nixon—made public transit a large part of his own domestic policy agenda. 

At 7:37 AM on June 24th, 1969, President Nixon alighted on Marine One for a tour of Washington D.C.’s highways. His Democratic urban affairs advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, chief domestic aide John Ehrlichman, and Secretary of Transportation John Volpe joined him. During the 40-minute tour, Nixon volleyed critical comments about traffic jams across the metropolis. Hovering above the crammed parking lot at the Seven Corners Shopping Center in Arlington, Nixon said, “I used to drive out here. There used to be nothing more than a country store.” Looking down at a traffic jam on nearby Route 50, Nixon uttered, “Sure not many buses.” When the helicopter landed back at the White House, Nixon summed up his impressions: “I’m glad that I don’t have to drive to work.”

Nixon’s recognition of Washington’s transit woes came at a fortuitous moment. From 1945 to 1967, national public transportation profits had declined from $313 million to just $27 million; ridership had decreased to 1/3 of post-War levels. 

Eisenhower’s highway legislation was partly to blame. City planning departments were mired in “highway revolts” by neighborhood activists who opposed Interstate construction, and public transit funds were often held hostage amid the standoffs. Nixon’s helicopter ride came amid a fierce local debate over the proposed Three Sisters Bridge, a controversial highway project over the Potomac. House Appropriations Chair William Natcher was withholding federal funds for the planned D.C. Metro unless the bridge was built. Clearly, the federal government needed to broker a better balance between freeways and subways. 

Transportation Secretary Volpe, the man most tasked with breaking the logjam, had resigned the Massachusetts Governorship to serve the Nixon administration. Volpe was a former construction executive whose firm built the Department of Transportation building three years earlier. He was ostensibly pro-highway, having served as the first Federal Highway Administrator after Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. 

Nixon and Volpe set to work on a mass transit funding bill. On August 7th, 1969, Nixon presented his plan in a written Special Message to Congress. The package called for $9.5 billion in capital investments for public transportation and $500 million for research and development over the following 12 years. “About a quarter of our population lack access to a car,” Nixon stated. “For these people—especially the poor, the aged, the very young and the handicapped—adequate public transportation is the only answer.” Nixon particularly praised buses, calling them “an attractive alternate to private-car use, because we have finally learned that it is impossible to build highways fast enough to make driving pleasant.”  

Despite the soaring rhetoric, The Washington Post called the proposal “relatively modest.” Democrats agreed. Manhattan Representative Ed Koch, soon to become New York City’s mayor, said, “After having spent $25 billion to take two men to the moon, with plans for sending a few more men to Mars in the next decade at the cost of another $40 billion, President Nixon now proposes that we spend only $3.1 billion in the next five years for public transportation.” Mayors also criticized Nixon’s unilateral decision—against Moynihan and Volpe’s advice—to fund the proposal with the Treasury’s General Fund rather than a more secure trust fund system. 

Even with the plan’s limitations, Nixon’s focus on public transit had a snowball effect in Washington. In July 1970, the House Banking and Currency Committee heard testimony from San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto and New York Mayor John Lindsay. Alioto touted his city’s $1.2 billion Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) project, which was set to come online in 1971, while summing up the national shift toward public transit: “You are getting an organized revolt of the citizens against the monopoly which the automobile has enjoyed in public legislative halls, both State and Federal, for too long.” 

On October 15th, 1970, Nixon signed the Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act, the bill that resulted from his plan. At the signing ceremony, he singled out Secretary Volpe for particular praise: “When the record of the Cabinet is written during this session of the Congress, my guess is that the highest batting average will be that of Secretary Volpe. I don’t want him to get puffed up about it, because, as I have pointed out, it happens that transportation is one area where there is no partisanship.”

 By the time that Nixon signed the Act, Volpe had embraced public transit beyond Nixon’s agenda or anyone else’s expectations. In April 1970, Volpe put highway planners formally on notice. “Either they come up with decisions on their own to save the environment and help people or we might well have to take the project involved off the freeway system,” he told the press. “Freeways that adversely affect our environment cannot be built.”

Volpe vetoed plans for an invasive expressway through New Orleans’ French Quarter, San Antonio’s parks, and New Hampshire’s picturesque Franconia Notch. The Wall Street Journal reported, “These moves are alarming road builders, who expected a clear path when Mr. Volpe joined the Nixon Cabinet, while winning praise from a number of freeway enemies.” 

By 1972, Volpe advocated sharing money from the Highway Trust Fund established by Eisenhower with transit agencies. His advocacy culminated in Nixon’s 1973 signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973, which opened Trust Fund money for high-speed rail and local transit agencies and doubled investment in transit from the 1970 Act. And this isn’t even getting into the central role that Volpe played in convincing a reluctant Nixon to sign the 1970 Rail Passenger Service Act, which created Amtrak. 

Nixon’s public support for transit peaked in September 1972, when he traveled to San Francisco to announce a $38.1 million federal grant for the BART system. He even went for a BART ride in the East Bay and toured the command center at Oakland’s Lake Merritt Station. “The Federal role in BART underscores the commitment I made in 1969 to treat public transportation as one of the chief domestic priorities of this Administration,” Nixon wrote in a statement. “The speedy resolution of America’s chronic and worsening traffic jams is far too urgent a matter to be stalled any longer by legislative or bureaucratic logjams, and I will continue my own determined efforts to keep it moving ahead.”

Nixon’s transit programs never reached the funding levels desired by mayors or congressional Democrats. However, his administration’s transportation moves are still a far cry, in both rhetoric and financial commitment, from the current GOP resistance. Even in the rightward-turning Nixon years, then, what Heather called “the old Republican idea of creating social infrastructure” was still alive. The bipartisan agreement on infrastructure—and the inclusion of transit—may signal some hope for a return to this spirit.

For more on Nixon’s relationship to public transit, check out Department of Transportation articles on his 1969 helicopter ride, the Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1970, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973

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