Thomas MacDonald (1881-1957)
MacDonald was called the “man of the century” in highway development and his pioneering 35 years as head of the Bureau of Public Roads under seven U.S. presidents were critical to creating and refining today’s federal highway program that gave Americans unprecedented mobility.
A civil engineer, he became Iowa’s chief engineer in 1913 and was a key figure in the development of the 1916 Federal-Aid Road Act, a landmark law that provided the basis for the federal government’s leadership in highway construction. On July 1, 1919, he was appointed “Chief of the Bureau.” His title and the agency name would change several times, but he would retain the nickname “The Chief” until his retirement in 1953.
Early in his tenure, MacDonald revised the program and saw enactment of 1921 legislation that incorporated his innovation of limiting federal funds to a designated federal-aid system. His work in the 1930s and 1940s helped establish the foundation of the U.S. Interstate Highway System. In total, he supervised the creation of 3.5 million miles of highways.