Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) (1918)

(renamed Public Roads Administration, 1939)

When the New Deal began, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) was an existing federal agency that had been created in 1918, with several predecessor agencies dating back to 1893 [1].  It built roads in national parks and forests, assisted states with road construction, helped beautify highways, and conducted various transportation studies (e.g. safety and collision research, subsurface examinations, erosion testing, and maintenance-cost studies).  The agency was lodged within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

BPR began receiving enhanced funding during the Hoover Administration, but the agency’s road building expanded dramatically under the New Deal [2].  During the Roosevelt Administration, BPR worked on two kinds of highway projects related directly to New Deal employment efforts.  The first group was called “work-relief highway projects” and received funding for material and equipment from the Public Works Administration (PWA) and funding for labor from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and, later, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  BPR assumed the administrative and supervisory role, in cooperation with the various state road agencies.  The second kind of BPR intervention was “loan-and-grant highway projects,” where federal money would be loaned or granted to the states and then the states would hire private contractors to perform the work [3].

During fiscal years 1934 through 1939, the BPR supervised and administered at least 7,000 miles of work-relief highway projects and 17,000 miles of loan-and-grant highway projects [4].  BPR also worked with the WPA on other projects, such as traffic safety improvements and the reconstruction of flood-damaged bridges [5].

In 1939, the Bureau of Public Roads was put under the Federal Works Agency and renamed the Public Roads Administration.  During the entire New Deal period, Thomas “Chief” MacDonald was the supervisor of the Bureau of Public Roads and Public Roads Administration [6].  In 1970, after several additional reorganizations, the Public Roads Administration ceased to exist and its functions were absorbed into the newly-created Federal Highway Administration [7].

Sources (all reports of the Bureau of Public Roads noted below can be accessed at the Internet Archive, http://archive.org/): (1) “Records of the Bureau of Public Roads,” National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/030.html, accessed May 15, 2015, and “Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, 1938,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Public Roads, Washington, D.C., September 15, 1938, p. 1.  (2) Compare the Reports of the Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads for 1931, 1934, 1935 and 1938, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Public Roads, Washington, D.C.  (3) See 1938 report at note 1, pp. 51-54.  (4) “Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, 1939,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Public Roads, Washington, D.C., September 1, 1939, p. 55-56.  (5) “Traffic Problem: Relief Funds Improve Roads,” Work: A Journal of Progress, District of Columbia WPA, October 1936, pp. 30-31; and note 3, 1938 report, p. 50.  (6) “Thomas Harris MacDonald,” Federal Highway Administration, http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/administrators/tmacdonald.htm, accessed May 16, 2015.  (7) See note 1, “Records of the Bureau of Public Roads.”

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.