History of TPUG

By Douglas N. Jones, Ohio State University

As it is good to be reminded of one’s own roots, it is also good to be reminded of an organization’s origins. Our Transportation and Public Utilities Group surely has an interesting and rather distinguished history. It is sketched here at the request of TPUG Chairman Johannes M. Bauer as the organization begins its 62nd year.

Displeased that the AEA annual meeting in 1938 had no transportation or public utility papers in its program 24 members signed a petition to then-president Alvin Hansen at the initiative of Professors James C. Nelson, Charles L. Dearing, and Ralph L. Dewey. The omission, according to Nelson, was occasioned by the AEA’s “… mistaken belief that Professors Taussig, Pigou, and J. M. Clark had settled all questions involving economic theory in these two fields.” New AEA president Jacob Viner agreed to have sessions on these topics for the 1939 annual meeting – a practice continued to this day – and allowed the formation of a transportation and public utilities entity within the AEA.

In 1946 in Cleveland, Ohio and organizing meeting was held by 15 interested members and resulted in the formation of the “Transportation and Public Utilities Section” of the AEA. A constitution and by-laws were agreed to be drawn up. During Professor Joseph Schumpeter’s presidency in 1946 he informed the new organization that the AEA does not allow “sections” within itself and that another name would have to be found – thus the name for our organization became Transportation and Public Utilities Group. Dues were set at $1 and were not raised until 1969 – to $2.

That not all the economic issues in these two fields had been resolved is indicated by some of the early titles of the papers: at the 1939 session Charles S. Morgan spoke on “Possibilities of Economics by Railroad Consolidation”; in 1940 James C. Bonbright gave a paper on “Major Controversies as to the Criteria of Reasonable Public Utility Rates”; and in 1945 Kent T. Healy spoke on “Workable Competition in Air Transportation”. The number of sessions allowed on the AEA program varied over time. For a number of years the TPUG papers were published as part of the Papers and Proceedings along with the rest of the program. Pressure for space in the Proceedings apparently built, and in 1964 and again 1969 TPUG session papers were published in Land Economics.

In 1964 the Transportation Research Forum, which had traditionally met with the AEA group, invited TPUG to split off from AEA and join it. Then-TPUG chairman James C. Nelson opposed the move partly on grounds that the fixed utilities scholarship would be left without any base anywhere in AEA. In that year he created a committee to decide on recognition awards (including plaques) for distinguished members of TPUG. In the first year of the awards (1965) three were given – to Bonbright, Glaeser, and Locklin. The award has been made every year since, and the list includes the names of Pegrum, Lewis, Nelson, Harbeson, Clemens, Troxel, Gray, Kahn, Taff, Owen, Sampson, Due, Trebing, and Wilson, along with others. Perhaps the most distinguished of the distinguished awardees is Professor William Vickrey, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1996, who was TPUG chairman in 1969 and AEA president in 1992.

One of our early TPUG newsletters reminded us that “… a central purpose throughout has been to promote recognition of our field in the Association programs and by economists generally.” Aided by new topics to research, new problems to attend to, new approaches to apply, and new scholars to do it TPUG seems to be accomplishing this goal.

* Prepared from materials and archival documents supplied by John Spychalski (Penn State University) and conversations with others. February 26, 2001.