The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation that is focused on highway transportation. The FHWA supports state and local governments in the design, construction and maintenance of the national highway system as well as roads on federally and tribally owned lands.

Oversight of the FHWA is conducted by an administrator appointed by the President by and with the consent of the U.S. Senate. The administrator works under the direction of the Secretary of Transportation and Deputy Secretary of Transportation.

The FHWA was created on October 15, 1966, but its predecessor agencies go back to the 1890s. In 1967, the functions of the Bureau of Public Roads were transferred to the new agency. The FHWA was one of three original bureaus along with the Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety (now the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA) and the National Highway Safety Bureau (now known as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA).

The agency’s major activities are grouped into two programs – the Federal-aid Highway Program and the Federal Lands Highway Program. 

A busy highway. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Agency functions

Under the Federal-aid Highway Program, the FHWA has oversight of the federal funds used for constructing and maintaining the National Highway System (NHS). The system consists of the Interstate Highway System, the U.S. Highways and most state highways. The majority of this funding comes from the federal gasoline tax and goes primarily to state departments of transportation. FHWA oversees highway projects using these funds to ensure that federal requirements and construction standards are adhered to.

The FHWA also provides highway design and construction services to federal land-management agencies such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. 

The agency performs and sponsors research on roadway safety, congestion, highway materials and construction methods. It also provides funding to disseminate research results to state and local highway agencies.

Trucks use highways to move America’s goods. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

History of the agency and its predecessors

The FHWA had several predecessor agencies, as well as a complicated history. Previously, its role was performed by the Office of Road Inquiry, Office of Public Roads and the Bureau of Public Roads.

In 1893, the Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) was founded. In 1905, ORI’s name was changed to the Office of Public Roads (OPR), which became a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency’s name was changed again in 1915 to the Bureau of Public Roads and to the Public Roads Administration (PRA) in 1939. The agency was then transferred to the Federal Works Agency, which was abolished in 1949. At that time the agency’s name was changed back to the Bureau of Public Roads and it was placed under the Department of Commerce.

In the 1890s bicycles were becoming more commonplace. With them came an interest in improving the nation’s streets and roads. Up until then the traditional practice was that local landowners shouldered the burden of maintaining the roads. This was changed in 1898 beginning in New York State, and the traditional system had been discarded virtually everywhere by 1916. 

Calls for local and state governments to take charge of the condition of streets and roads grew, particularly after 1910, when automobiles became more common. Across the country (and particularly in the more populous areas), efforts were made to upgrade and modernize dirt roads that had been used for horse-drawn wagons. 

Dirt roads were the norm outside of most cities in the 1910s. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)

In 1910, the American Association for Highway Improvement was created. At that time its funding was derived from automobile registration fees and taxes on motor fuels, as well as state aid. 

In 1914, there were 2.4 million miles of rural dirt rural roads in the U.S.; 100,000 miles had been improved with grading and gravel, and 3,000 miles were given high quality surfacing. The rapidly increasing speed of automobiles, coupled with growth in the use of trucks, made maintenance and repair a high priority. Concrete was first used to build roads in 1893, and its use grew until it was the dominant surfacing material by the 1930s.

The Federal-Aid Road Act, which was approved in July 1916, is historic; it established the Federal-Aid highway program in cooperation with the states. The U.S. Congress appropriated $75 million over a five-year period for road improvements. The expenditure of these funds was supervised by the Secretary of Agriculture (through the Bureau of Public Roads), in cooperation with state highway departments. 

From 1917 through 1941, 261,000 miles of highways were built by the states with federal aid, and cost $5.31 billion. Federal funds totaled $3.17 billion, and state-local funds were $2.14 billion.

Recognizing the importance of providing missing sections of road needed for transcontinental highway travel, to aid state and community development and to provide access for the conservation and development of natural resources, the Federal Highway Act of 1921 made  more effective administration of the Federal-Aid cooperative highway program possible. It also substantially increased funding available for highways through national forests and parks. 

Trucks moving along a paved city road in 1919. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)

National Park roads

Once the National Park Service (NPS) was created, it was evident that road building by the states and federal agencies on public lands needed to be closely correlated. While cooperation between the NPS and the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) had been “on the books” since 1916, the NPS had not taken advantage of the agreement. However, Stephen T. Mather, Director of the NPS, was concerned about adapting park roads to automobiles. He contacted Thomas H. MacDonald, Chief of the BPR, to collaborate on a highway through Glacier National Park. 

In 1924 Congress authorized funds for road construction in the national parks. A memorandum of agreement between the BPR and the NPS was signed in 1926. The agreement established the basis of interagency cooperation for the construction of roads and parkways under the jurisdiction of the NPS.

Trucks were much smaller and lighter in the 1930s. (Photos: Brakebush Brothers)

The Great Depression

During the 1930’s the federal highway construction program expanded significantly. Congress sought to fight the effects of the depression by allocating money to increase public works. The Public Lands Highway Program was established and state departments of transportation submitted projects to the BPR for approval and funding.

Notable Depression-era BPR projects include the George Washington Parkway, Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Colonial Parkway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the Suitland Parkway. 

On July 1, 1939, the BPR was transferred from the USDA to become the Public Roads Administration of the Federal Works Administration (FWA). BPR’s internal organization remained intact and it continued federal construction programs.

Highway signage was rudimentary in the 1940s. (Illustration: Federal Highway Administration)

World War II and the 1950s

Because of World War II, construction of highways in national parks and forests was suspended. Federal defense-oriented projects such as the Alcan Highway, Inter-American Highway, the Pentagon network of roads, and roads to provide access to sites where military and war-related activities were undertaken. The FWA was abolished and the Public Roads Administration was transferred temporarily to the General Services Administration. The Public Roads Administration was renamed the BPR and the agency was shifted to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

During the 1950s the direct federal construction program grew in both size and complexity. More funding was available and work to modernize forest highways that had been built much earlier and were no longer adequate. There was also a large increase in recreational travel across the U.S.; the BPR was tasked to build roads as the national park system grew.

Road construction was also done for other federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Bureau of Land Management.

Until the interstates were built, state and national roads often went through cities and towns. (Photo: Texas Historical Commission)

Creation of U.S. Department of Transportation

On April 1, 1967, the U.S. Department of Transportation was established, and the BPR was transferred to it from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The BPR was renamed the Federal Highway Administration. 

The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 was enacted. which created the Federal Lands Highway Program (FLHP) on January 6, 1983. Under FLHP’s terms, more than 90,000 miles of federal and public-authority owned roads would receive funding from the Highway Trust Fund.