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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: AASHTO promotes integrated national transportation system

Early interstate construction in Michigan. (Photo:AASHTO)

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) “is a nonprofit, nonpartisan association representing highway and transportation departments in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. It represents all transportation modes including air, highways, public transportation, active transportation, rail and water. Its primary goal is to foster the development, operation, and maintenance of an integrated national transportation system.”

AASHTO’s predecessor was the American Association of State Highway Officials, or AASHO, which was founded in 1914. AASHO strongly advocated for federal-aid funding to develop highway systems nationwide, as well as to “allow major routes to span state lines.” About 90% of what AASHO supported became part of the first federal law to fund roads. The Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916 was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on July 11, 1916.

Dirt roads (which often became roads of mud) were the norm well into the 1930s. 
(Photo: Federal Highway Administration)
Dirt roads (which often became roads of mud) were the norm well into the 1930s.
(Photo: Federal Highway Administration)

Following World War I, AASHO lobbied for improved financing for highway construction and “other issues not adequately addressed in the 1916 law (while still retaining that law’s general principles with respect to the federal-state partnership).” Much of what AASHO advocated was in legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Lawrence C. Phipps, a Republican from Colorado.

Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921 defined the federal aid road program to develop a national highway system, and it was the first detailed plan for the nation’s future roads. 

In concert with the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (or BPR, a predecessor of the present-day Federal Highway Administration), AASHO had worked to develop and promote the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921. 

However, the legislation was not without controversy. Before it was enacted there was a split between road advocates on how federal funds should be spent. Advocates of a national system of highways wanted the federal government to be responsible for building a national highway network. To satisfy them, the act “further strengthened federal participation in the state-level construction of highways.” A key provision of the act appropriated $75 million to the states for work on highways during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1922. The law mandated that the funding “had to be spent on 7% of each state’s total mileage, three-sevenths of which were required to be interstate in character.” Up to 60% of federal-aid funds could be used on interstate routes.

Because the law focused federal funds on a small fraction of each state’s highways, a more “efficient and better connected road system” would “replace the irregular, piecemeal segments” that had been previously constructed. In another key provision of the act, federal funds were contingent on a state’s compliance with “enhanced engineering standards for the adequacy, width and durability of its designated roads.”

Automobile traffic in Michigan in 1917. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)
Automobile traffic in Michigan in 1917. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)

But by retaining the federal-aid concept first used in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1916, it also satisfied advocates of local road building and farm-to-market roads. The various state highway agencies would be responsible for road-building in their states and would “consider local concerns in deciding the mix of projects.”

President Warren G. Harding signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921 into law on November 9. Among those at the bill-signing ceremony was William C. Markham, secretary-director of the Kansas State Highway Commission, who was also AASHO’s legislative liaison. (He later served as AASHO’s first executive secretary from 1923 to 1942.) 

At AASHO’s eighth annual meeting, state highway officials focused on the landmark federal law.

The 1921 law helped propel more standardized road-building. Moreover, the overall length of improved highways across the nation more than doubled (to about 470,000 miles) over the next decade. Many of the highways built during that decade were “not only hard-surfaced but also stronger, straighter and wider than before.”

A four-lane road was the exception, not the rule in this period. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)
A four-lane road was the exception, not the rule in this period. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)

The 1920s

In 1922, the BPR commissioned U.S. Army Gen. John J. Pershing to draw up the “Pershing Map” for construction purposes and to give the government a clear understanding of those U.S. roads that were the most important in the event of war. The Pershing Map was the first official topographic road map of the United States. For more information on Gen. Pershing’s role in planning the nation’s highways, read this FreightWaves Classics article

Working with AASHO and the state highway agencies, the BPR completed designation of the federal-aid system in November 1923. It totaled slightly more than 169,000 miles, or 5.9% of all public roads. The system expanded as states completed work on their original system.

A map of part of the Lincoln Highway. (Image: Library of Congress)
A map of part of the Lincoln Highway. (Image: Library of Congress)
An early sign for a federal highway. (Photo:
An early sign for a federal highway. (Photo:

As the number of automobiles and trucks increased in the 1920s, so did road building. For example, in 1922, federal-aid projects totaling $189 million helped construct or improve more than 10,250 miles of roadway. This was three times as much roadway as had been improved since the start of the federal-aid highway program in 1916. The projects usually involved providing graded earth, sand-clay or gravel surfaces.

On November 11, 1926, AASHO adopted the United States Numbered Highways System. As the network of highways expanded (due primarily to the 1916 and 1921 laws), a uniform approach to designating the nation’s primary roads was needed. This led to the U.S. Highway system for the major roads nationwide (with odd numbers beginning with U.S. Route 1 for north/south routes and U.S. Route 2 for east/west routes).

The 1930s and beyond

The Great Depression impacted virtually everything in the 1930s, including the federal-aid highway program. Federal funds were diverted from projects that focused on transportation needs to projects that provided work for the unemployed. Concurrently, as cars and trucks became bigger and faster, there were advocates (in and out of Congress), for transcontinental superhighways (often coupled with calls for these roads to be funded by tolls). 

In the late 1930s, it was evident to many that a war in Europe was on the horizon. It began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. The U.S. entered the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. 

World War II halted all efforts to expand the nation’s highway system and it wasn’t until the 1950s that what is now the Interstate Highway System was detailed, funded and construction began.

1930s trucks on the Roosevelt Highway. (Photo:
1930s trucks and cars on the Roosevelt Highway.

AASHTO today

“AASHTO works to educate the public and key decision-makers about the critical role that transportation plays in securing a good quality of life and sound economy for our nation. AASHTO serves as a liaison between state departments of transportation and the federal government. AASHTO is an international leader in setting technical standards for all phases of highway system development. Standards are issued for design, construction of highways and bridges, materials and many other technical areas.”

The AASTHO logo. (Image: AASHTO)
The AASTHO logo. (Image: AASHTO)

One Comment

  1. Jerry Roane

    Adding high speed elevated guideway can finally end traffic congestion. At $200,000 per guideway mile it can be financed as a toll system. No tax money required. Each high speed guideway moves 9,000 passengers per direction per hour. That is at 1.3 passengers per four passenger vehicle. Texas HB2702 79th legislature connects it to rail and highways in Texas.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.