by Mark D. Hughes
Jefferson City – the Capital of Missouri – was sited roughly in the center of the state high on the bluffs along the Missouri River, which served as a transportation avenue for those who would come there for business or government matters.
Just over the hill from the great Missouri River and the state Capitol is a highway system that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from Canada to Mexico. Visitors to Jefferson City traveling along U.S. Hwy. 50 may notice a few small signs telling them they are on the “Rex Whitton Expressway.”
Rex Marion Whitton was a modest, slow-talking Missouri farm boy whose leadership built America’s interstate highway system. And he did it by successfully addressing the kind of funding challenges that daunt Missouri’s transportation system to this day.
Whitton was born on a farm in Jackson County in the late 1890s. He worked his way through the University of Missouri, earning an engineering degree in April 1920. He went to work for the state’s highway department after graduation as a levelman, at a salary of just over $100 a month.
In 1951 – after 31 years of steadily working his way up – he became chief engineer, the top official in Missouri’s highway department. In this role he became involved in, and in 1955 president of, the American Association of State Highway Officials. As AASHO president, Whitton represented this key group in debates in Congress that led to the passage of the Interstate Highway program. President Eisenhower signed it into law 60 years ago this month, on June 29, 1956.
The first concrete in the interstate system was poured in Laclede County, under a contract let in August 1956 to pave a stretch of Interstate 44.
The federal highway bill of 1958 set aside the interstate pay-as-you go system. Increases were authorized, but not funded. A recession diminished revenues bringing construction to a virtual halt. In 1961, President Kennedy made Whitton head of the Federal Highway Administration.
In his first months in office, Whitton headed to Capitol Hill to tackle the funding crisis facing interstate highway construction. After much debate, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1961, which increased revenue and re-established the pay-as-you go system. President Kennedy signed the bill into law on June 29, 1961. The President presented the signature pen to Whitton, who kept it as a treasured possession.
Whitton retired from the federal position in 1966 and returned to Missouri where he worked as a civil engineer until retiring in 1975. In 1981, he died in Kansas City, at age 82.
Ten years after Whitton’s death, the Interstate Highway System he had persuaded one Congress to enact, and another Congress to successfully fund, was completed. It was 46,000 miles long and involved construction costs estimated at $516 billion.
The Interstate Highway System now carries 25 percent of the traffic in the nation and stands as the largest and most ambitious public works project in the history of the United States.
This year, the Missouri Senate passed a scaled-down version of a proposal to let voters consider a tax increase to help maintain Missouri highways and bridges. The plan died in the House.
Lawmakers approved a transportation budget that was $29 million more than last year – including $18 million more in General Revenue than the governor requested. MoDot estimates that it will have to let $485 million in new construction contracts each year to maintain the state’s highway system at its current level.
It is appropriate that the “Rex Whitton Expressway” honors the man from Missouri whose leadership built our nation’s interstate highway system. If a farm boy from Missouri can figure out how to build and finance an interstate highway system across our nation, surely the rest of us in Missouri can figure out how to fund maintaining one across our state.