ARTBA– Leadership: Ike & the Interstate

By Steve McGough
ARTBA Chairman
President & CFO, HCSS

Dwight D. Eisenhower believed the road to U.S. economic prosperity and strong national defense began with infrastructure investment.

That was one of the key takeaways from granddaughter Susan Eisenhower’s Oct. 21 presentation at ARTBA’s National Convention, where she promoted her new book, How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions.

“He truly believed that infrastructure is the fundamental backbone of our national economy, and our economy is fundamental to our national security,” Susan said.

That line struck me because of the interesting parallels with ARTBA’s founding, our leadership role on transportation issues during the past 120 years, and our mission today.

Leaders serve causes greater than oneself, which Eisenhower demonstrated as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and as a two-term president in the 1950s. ARTBA embodies the same quality. When our founder, Horatio Earle, articulated in 1902 a vision of a federally-led “Capital Connecting Government Highway” that would connect “every state capital with every other state capital and with the United States’ capital—Washington,” he had top of mind economic development, safety and national defense.

Eisenhower famously experienced America’s nascent road network as a lieutenant colonel during his 1919 U.S. Army led cross-country convoy from Washington to San Francisco. The long slog, with its muddy quagmires and frequently damaged vehicles, took 62 days. Susan writes it was a “tortuous” experience. Eisenhower’s subsequent exposure to the German Autobahn during World War II solidified his views on the need for a similar system in the U.S.

Therefore, it’s no surprise Eisenhower fully embraced Earle’s vision to create what became the Interstate Highway System. And it’s no surprise the American Road Builders Association (ARBA), as we were then known, and its volunteer leaders worked with Ike’s administration to make the 1956 Interstate system law a reality and championed the creation of the Highway Trust Fund to finance its construction. Our members then set about the massive undertaking of designing and building the system and continue to help manage it to this day.

Ike, as soldier and statesman, was a “strategic rather than operational leader,” Susan says. He always kept in mind the entire enterprise. That’s also true of ARTBA in the strategic pursuit of its transportation investment mission. We cover the entire construction marketplace, from legislative, regulatory and legal advocacy to modern-day value added tools and services such as our economics dashboards and safety training programs.

The final leadership lesson Susan Eisenhower learned from her grandfather is as simple as it is profound: “Leave the place better than you found it.” That view is synergistic with the new vision statement articulated in the June 2020 ARTBA Board-approved strategic plan: “A dynamic transportation network that enriches American life.” An opportunity to achieve as much begins anew in the Nation’s Capital this January.

My best wishes for a safe and healthy New Year!

(This column appears in the November/December issue of ARTBA’s Transportation Builder magazine.)