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The Public Roads Administration

The Public Roads Administration

Dowell Construction Co., 1942 In contrast to the celebrations attending the construction and “opening” of the Corps of Engineer’s pioneer road, much less attention is generally given to a second, parallel, construction project that followed in the wake of the pioneer road. The Public Roads Administration (PRA) had constructed a series of highways as relief measures and make-work projects during the Great Depression. They had the professional staff, expertise, and, in a series of PRA, Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Projects Administration warehouses across the United States, the equipment necessary for a major construction project. The PRA had an important, but less high profile job. Operating alongside the Corps of Engineers, and starting operations in 1942, they were to work from the pioneer road, relocating the route to more permanent ground and building a highway to proper civilian standards. To do so, they secured the services of several large American and Canadian construction firms: E.W. Elliott and Dowell Construction of Seattle; R. Melville Smith of Ontario; Okes Construction of St. Paul, Minnesota and C.F. Lytle and Green Construction Company of Sioux City, Iowa. These companies operated on lucrative cost-plus contracts (all expenses were covered and the companies received a management fee for their work). These firms then turned to the highly competitive North American market for skilled construction workers, a  difficult challenge when so many young men and women had been called up for military service. The large contractors, in turn, hired a total of 79 smaller firms (16 of them Canadian) to tackle portions of the work.

The PRA’s project was more expensive, more carefully managed, and designed to last. As a consequence, their road location often strayed miles away from the hastily and often poorly positioned original pioneer road, much to the chagrin of the Corps of Engineers, who were angry at the PRA both for reasons of both pride and cost. As Brigadier General J.A. O’Connor said:

The Public Roads Administration has been a hindrance to the execution of the completion of the Highway. There seems to be no question as to the ability of the PRA employees, but their attitude is such as to slow up the work….They cannot divest themselves from the idea that their mission is to construct a finished highway of the highest peace time standard. Consequently, they do not push the contractors with the idea of putting through a road suitable for present requirements in the shortest time possible.1

The PRA persisted, although military protests became progressively louder. Expensive bridges replaced the log structures put in place in the summer of 1942, miles of road were relocated, and dozens of wooden culverts were replaced.

1 Coates and Morrison, The Alaska Highway in World War II, p. 57.

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