U.S. Department of Transportation: A Reference History

U.S. Department of Transportation: A Reference History

U.S. Department of Transportation: A Reference History

U.S. Department of Transportation: A Reference History


Tracing the antecedents and the creation of the U.S. Department of Transportation, this work assesses its role in both the control of transportation and the encouragement of big businesses in the industry. The U.S. government has struggled for over a century with the complex issue of transportation regulation. The prevailing view from the 1880s until recently was to consider private transportation a public utility, which led to the creation of the DOT in 1966. This work covers much of the regulation/deregulation debates from Hoover to the Nixon presidencies, and focuses on the bipartisan crescendo for deregulation led by Gerald Ford and Edward Kennedy. Whitnah also analyzes the heated debate over airline deregulation that resumed in the Carter years and continues to have an impact today.


One of the most important and vexing problems of twentieth-century transportation involved the amount of government control and regulation of business. Rampant business in the late nineteenth century resulted in Congress establishing the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) (1887) and mild but helpful restrictions on such abuses as the long- and short-haul disparity in railway shipping rates.

Americans became accustomed to further governmental (both national and state) monitoring and setting of rules for the economy during the heralded Progressive Era (1900–1917). Then, so important was transportation during our brief stint in World War I that the United States took over control of the railroads until the early 1920s. More than one railroad CEO dreaded the resumption of private ownership in the turbulent world of transportation and finance of the postwar years.

Elsewhere, the United States Coast Guard long exerted assistance and some regulation of the waterways. Reorganized as the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) in 1915, certain of its regulatory duties dated back to 1790. The Shipping Board (1916) began a series of related agencies to regulate the shipping industry.

Advances in early twentieth-century technology introduced the motor vehicle and airplane, which led to extended debate over the question of regulation and assistance from the government sector. Control of civil aviation had commenced with the Air Commerce Act of 1926, although many authors cling to the view that meaningful rules were inaugurated only in 1938. Motor vehicle controls dated mainly from 1935.

Until the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) evolved in 1966, there ensued a parade of agencies, labels, reorganizations, and heated debates as to the proper supervision of all transportation facets. Conveniently, one might classify these controls as dealing with safety and/or economic issues.

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