An engaging, appropriately sprawling history of the Texas Highway Department over its first century.
It’s entirely fitting that an agency of Texas government should have been mired in controversy at the outset. As Texas novelist and historian Dawson (House of Plenty: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Luby’s Cafeterias, 2006, etc.) and former Texas Department of Transportation official Polson observe, for the first 15 years, officeholders struggled to control “the largest, wealthiest department or agency ever devised for any state in the United States.” It’s surprising, perhaps, that the narrative should take so straightforward a view of the shadier aspects of the department’s past, in which a couple of governors helped themselves to highway funds, a couple of others used roads as political favors, and the national government had to flex plenty of muscle to direct federal funds toward road-building within the state. Indeed, as the authors write, as far back as the early 1920s, owing to the odd way funds were distributed across the counties, “the federal government actually pronounced Texas ineligible to participate in a federal project to begin determining the location, design, and construction of interstate highways.” For all its birth in corruption, though, the department emerges in this account as competent and capable of herculean tasks, such as building the great span over the Pecos Gorge and funneling traffic safely through the gnarled metropolises of Houston and Dallas. Furthermore, the interstate actually did get built, despite the reluctance of Texans to float bonds in favor of a pay-as-you-go system: the first miles laid outside Corsicana in 1956, the last a stretch of highway between Amarillo and Lubbock completed nearly four decades later. Texas was among the last of the states to finish up the job, but then, “the other states’ task seldom compared with a fraction of what Texas had to accomplish.”
Road warriors and transportation buffs will be pleased with this well-illustrated, well-written volume.