After enacting several pieces of transportation-related legislation, including the Highway Beautification Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the 89th Congress moved at the behest of President Johnson to centralize oversight of all transportation industries within a new cabinet-level department. Support for the initiative was broad, as many in Congress agreed with President Johnson’s assertion that the United States sorely lacked a coordinated national transportation policy. In an effort to remedy this issue, administration backed bills (HR 13200 and S 3010) to establish a Department of Transportation as America’s twelfth cabinet-level department were introduced by Representative Chet Holifield (D-CA) and Senator Warren Magnuson (D-WA) on March 2, 1966.
The bills enjoyed broad tacit support in the House and Senate, but many members also harbored concerns regarding how much authority a future secretary of transportation might hold. Particularly unsettling was Section 7 of the bill, which directed the secretary to develop a set of general standards to guide the allocation of federal funds in support of each different mode of transportation. Following presidential approval of the proposed guidelines, the secretary would then evaluate how funds for transportation facilities and equipment should be distributed and spent.
The provision was meant to correct the then-existing practice of judging and providing aid to each transportation sector on an individual basis and not within the context of broader national needs. However, some members, including West Virginia Senator Jennings Randolph, worried that the Section 7 provisions would erode Congress’ traditional oversight power as it related to transportation projects. Randolph was concerned that the provision would impact where and how federal funds for highway construction and other projects were awarded.
Representatives for the railroad, aviation, and trucking industries expressed similar concerns and feared that the unique needs of each sector would be lost or neglected within a large transportation department. In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Executive and Legislative Reorganization and the Senate Committee on Government Operations, they urged Congress to retain a strong and direct influence on the development of transportation policy and funding of transportation-related initiatives. Labor and business leaders representing maritime industries took these arguments one step farther, arguing for their full exclusion from the pending law.
The House Government Operations Committee’s approved a clean HR 13200 by 30-4 vote on June 22, but the disagreements over the department’s size, scope, and authority continued during the floor debates. Despite opposition from the Johnson administration, an amendment put forth by Representative Edward A. Garmatz (D-MD) to fully exclude maritime activities from the bill was accepted by a 261-117 roll call vote. The House also accepted John N. Erlenborn’s (R-IL) proposal to fully delete Section 7 of the bill.
Similar conflicts arose in the Senate, though with different results. Whereas the House bill excluded the maritime industry, the bill reported by the Senate Committee on Government Operations called for the establishment of a Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, and Federal Maritime Administration within the Department of Transportation. And rather than striking Section 7 from the bill entirely, the committee revised it to require congressional approval for all new standards relating to the evaluation and funding of federal transportation projects. Additionally, the Senate accepted by voice vote Senator Randolph’s amendment fully exempting federal grant-in-aid programs, including those supporting highway projects, from the secretary’s oversight authority.
The differences between the House and Senate bills were then addressed quickly by the conference committee. House and Senate conferees agreed to the Senate version of Section 7 and to the House provision excluding the maritime industry from the Department of Transportation. Both Houses adopted the conference report by voice vote on October 13, 1966. Two days later, President Johnson signed the compromise bill into law. On November 6, the president announced the appointment of Alan S. Boyd, former Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation, as the nation’s first Secretary of Transportation.
Once established in 1967, the Department of Transportation immediately became the fifth largest department in the federal government. In amending the administration-backed bill, Congress significantly weakened the powers granted the secretary of transportation. The act did direct the secretary to develop with other federal agencies broad programs and recommendations to address the nation’s transportation needs, however those plans required final congressional approval. The secretary was granted administrative authority over the interstate highway program, automobile and highway safety programs, the highway beautification program, the federal airport aid program, and the Coast Guard (except in wartime). The Department of Transportation Act also established three operating divisions within the department, the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Federal Railroad Administration, each headed by its own administrator, and it mandated the creation of an independent National Transportation Safety Board to oversee accident investigations and determine the cause of accidents.