During his State of the Union address in January 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced plans to develop the Department of Transportation. “A new Department of Transportation is needed to bring together our transportation activities,” he said. “The present structure—35 government agencies, spending $5 billion yearly—makes it almost impossible to serve either the growing demands of this great nation or the needs of the industry, or the right of the taxpayer to full efficiency and real frugality.”
Development of the DOT started after the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Najeeb Halaby, suggested that the disheveled system monitoring and regulating national transportation needed to be reenergized. Halaby said, “One looks in vain for a point of responsibility below the president capable of taking an evenhanded, comprehensive, authoritarian approach to the development of transportation policies or even able to assure reasonable coordination and balance among the various transportation programs of the government.”
Despite congressional hawing, in October 1966 Johnson signed into law the bill that bundled almost three-dozen federal groups and agencies into one executive department. The DOT was up and running in about six months, quickly becoming the fourth-largest federal agency with almost 100,000 employees. The Federal Highway Administration emerged as the largest and most active branch of the DOT, spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to maintain the nation’s interstate highways. The DOT has influenced the evolution of the automobile, especially in the mid-’80s when then-director Elizabeth Dole pushed states to pass laws requiring seat-belt usage and called for the ubiquitous installation of the “Dole brake light” (commonly known as the third brake light).
Today, the DOT’s automotive efforts focus not on cars but the forward-thinking infrastructure that will surround cars of tomorrow. The DOT’s Smart City Challenge asked America’s biggest cities to come up with transportation solutions that would fulfill all resident needs, regardless of socioeconomic status, and could cope with an increasingly digital and connected community. Of the 78 cities that applied, Columbus, Ohio, came out on top. Its holistic plan to deploy three, all-electric, fully autonomous shuttles linking a bus transit center to a retail district convinced the DOT to give the city about $40 million.