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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 kick-started U.S. road-building

A too-familiar scene in rural Texas. (Photo: University of North Texas)

A 2.55-mile section of roadway between the cities of Albany and Richmond in Contra Costa County, California, received a certificate of completion on this date in 1917. In terms of the size and scope of the project it was rather insignificant. However, what made it newsworthy was that it was the first project that was issued a certificate of completion under the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916.

Therefore, January 30, 1917 is a key date in the development of the U.S. highway system. The U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (the BPR, which became the Federal Highway Administration) issued the certificate of completion. 

Most rural roads in the U.S. were dirt roads. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)
Most rural roads in the U.S. were dirt roads. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)

The BPR classified the project as “California Federal-Aid Road Project No. 3.” However, locally the project was known as “Alameda County boundary to Richmond road.” The project began on September 1, 1916, which was less than two months after President Woodrow Wilson signed “the authorizing federal measure into law during a White House ceremony.” The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 apportioned funds for highways based on area, population and post road mileage.

At that time, most roads in the United States outside of major cities were often rutted dirt trails that had been created during the horse and buggy era. They were muddy in the rain and dusty the rest of the time. Although the number of automobiles and trucks was growing daily, any trip required time, as well as “tire-patching equipment, tools, spare parts, and emergency food and fuel.”

Details of that first project

Contra Costa County’s project included “grading the roadbed; draining and then installing culverts flanked with concrete headwalls; laying a Portland cement concrete base that was 20 feet wide; and laying a bituminous concrete top.” The project cost nearly $54,000; the federal government contributed $24,244.56.


Again, the project itself was fairly insignificant. But its certificate of completion “marked a defining moment for the landmark 1916 law, which paved the way for the sustained federal-state partnership in road building efforts nationwide” ever since. George P. Coleman served as the state highway commission chairman in Virginia, as well as president of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO). He described the significance of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and the “resulting federal-state partnership” when he spoke at an AASHO meeting that took place in 1939. “The importance of the passage of this bill on the highway movement of the nation cannot be overestimated,” he said.

A scene that was not unusual in rural areas of the United States during the first decades of the 20th century. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)
A scene that was not unusual in rural areas of the United States during the first decades of the 20th century. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)

The push to involve the federal government in road construction

Road construction and maintenance had been universally recognized as state and local responsibilities since before the Civil War. Roads at that time were relatively unimportant; it was an era when railroads dominated interstate travel and commerce. The railroads were owned by their shareholders, and while they were regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission beginning in the late 1880s, the costs to build or add to their networks was their responsibility, not the government’s. Therefore, the attitude about roads was that they were not a national concern.

However, that attitude began to slowly change in the 1890s. Why? The broad adoption of bicycles generated new interest in better roads. In 1891, New Jersey was the first state to adopt a “state-aid” plan. The state appropriated funds that were available to its counties for road improvements. 

The rapid adoption of bicycles was the genesis of the Good Roads Movement. (Photo: fhwa.gov)
The rapid adoption of bicycles was the genesis of the Good Roads Movement. (Photo: fhwa.gov)

This was followed in 1893 by the creation of the federal Office of Road Inquiry (ORI). Its purpose was to advise state and local officials on the best methods of improving their roads. Martin Dodge was the second man to lead the ORI. He became an advocate of “federal aid” to the states for road-building purposes. M.O. Eldridge was Dodge’s assistant, and he drafted federal-aid legislation that was introduced in Congress by Rep. Walter P. Brownlow of Tennessee in December 1902. 

The legislation called for the creation of a Bureau of Public Roads that would administer $20 million annually in federal road aid. “Grants would be made to any state or county that agreed to pay 50% of the road construction cost. The federal government would prepare the plans and specifications for the roads, but the state or county would administer and supervise the contracts.”

However, Brownlow’s legislation was not acted upon by Congress. Many of its members did not believe the federal government had the constitutional authority to enact such a program. Other members of Congress questioned the need for a program “that would be a constant drain on the treasury.” Over the next 10 years, a number of other “good-roads” bills were introduced, but none were acted upon. However, several things gradually changed the reluctance by Congress to consider the concept of federal-aid. 

First, the good-roads movement was a priority for many farmers and agricultural interests. (At that time a much higher percentage of Americans were members of farming families and agriculture was very important to the national economy.) The involvement of farmers “reinforced the importance of roads in everyday life.” Most farmers resisted being taxed to pay for good roads at first, but became advocates after Rural Free Delivery (RFD) began (which depended on the existence of passable roads for home delivery of mail). To learn more about RFD, read this FreightWaves Classics article.)

The second reason that Congress began to consider the idea of federal aid for road-building was the increasing number of automobiles in the country. This was particularly true after 1908, “when Henry Ford introduced the low-priced Model T.” Ford’s automobile was priced so that average Americans could afford one. In addition, the American Automobile Association (AAA) – and its members in nearly all Congressional districts – became key advocates for federal involvement in U.S. roads.

A third reason was that the Supreme Court “settled the constitutional question.” In Wilson v. Shaw, a 1907 case, Supreme Court Justice David Brewer wrote that “Congress had the power to construct interstate highways” under its constitutional right to regulate interstate commerce.

A fourth reason for Congress to be involved was the formation of AASHO (which became AASHTO later in its existence) in December 1914. AASHO gave the states an effective voice for the first time to advocate on behalf of a national road improvement program.

Members of AASHO pose after a meeting with President Wilson at the White House. (Photo: fhwa.gov)
Members of AASHO pose after a meeting with President Wilson at the White House. (Photo: fhwa.gov)

The final reason was Logan Waller Page. Page became director of the Office of Public Roads (OPR) in 1905. He was a scientist who believed that “scientific experts could best address the nation’s road problems by applying apolitical judgment, based on irrefutable data, free of political taint and corrupt influence.”

By 1912, the importance of an increased federal role in the nation’s roads was “reflected in passage by the House of Representatives of a good-roads bill by a vote of 240 to 86.” The legislation had been introduced by Rep. Dorsey W. Shackleford of Missouri, and it proposed a $25 million “rental plan”– the federal government would make a “rental” payment to counties for the use of roads for mail delivery. These payments would be used for road improvements that “would help get farmers out of the mud.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate failed to pass Shackleford’s rental plan. A key reason was the opposition of AAA and other motorist groups. Their position was that a national road program should follow the railroads’ model – by first building the most important lines (roads), “the long-distance arteries of commerce.”

An early roadbuilding project in Virginia. (Photo: Virginia Museum of History and Culture)
An early roadbuilding project in Virginia. (Photo: Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

How to unite the factions?

There was a basic division of ideas on how to proceed that had to be resolved before federal aid for roads could move forward. Farmers wanted all-weather, farm-to-market roads to help move their products more efficiently, as well as to end their isolation. On the other side, motorist groups and automobile manufacturers sought hard-surfaced, interstate roads. 

Because of the conflicting viewpoints, Congress chose to study the issue in two ways. The Post Office Department Appropriations Bill for 1913 (which was enacted on August 24, 1912) appropriated $500,000 for an experimental program to improve post roads. The appropriated funds were made available to state or local governments that “agreed to pay two-thirds of the cost of the [road] projects.” The legislation also authorized a joint congressional committee to “prepare a report on the issues involved in providing federal aid for highways.”

The post road program had numerous problems. First and foremost, “many state and local officials resented OPR’s oversight of their projects.” In addition, many state and local officials objected to key federal requirements, such as a requirement for an eight-hour day for workers and an executive order that barred convict labor on government work. 

Logan W. Page. 
(Photo: highways.dot.gov)
Logan W. Page.
(Photo: highways.dot.gov)

Ultimately, post road projects covered fewer than 457 miles of roads in 28 counties in 17 states. This led to the decision that federal aid should be given only to the states, not to counties within states. 

The joint committee reported to Congress in January 1915. While the report dismissed the constitutional issue and also endorsed federal aid, it did not resolve differences on the details of providing federal aid.

Congress began consideration of a federal road program early in 1916. The House of Representatives authorized $25 million to improve “rural post roads.” The federal share was set at “not less than 30% nor more than 50%.” The funds would be apportioned to the states – half on the basis of population and half based on mileage of RFD delivery routes. The various states would select projects (subject to federal review of surveys, plans and estimates). The work itself would be supervised and controlled by the states. Beginning in 1920, any state that received aid had to have a state highway agency. The legislation was passed by the House 281 to 81, on January 25, 1916.

However, opponents stated that the apportionment formula gave “too little aid to the states that needed it the most.” Others questioned spending so much for roads at a time when national defense funding was needed because of World War I. Others thought that state and local officials would use federal aid for “pork barrel” projects to reward political supporters. This faction was in favor of direct federal construction of a highway network to solve the “pork barrel” issue.

The House legislation was referred to the Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, which was chaired by Sen. John H. Bankhead of Alabama. He was a long-time advocate of federal aid for roads, and was also a close associate of Page. 

Senator John Bankhead of Alabama. (Photo: senate.gov)
Senator John Bankhead of Alabama. (Photo: senate.gov)

When AASHO was founded late in 1914, its first effort was to draft a federal-aid bill for roads. Unfortunately, AASHO was split by the conflicting interests of the heavily populated states (many of which had already built rudimentary “highways” with state funds) and the less-populated states that had not yet built roadways. In September 1915 a small group of AASHO members met in an attempt to draft a federal-aid bill that struck a balance between the two factions. Thomas H. MacDonald, at that time the chief engineer of the Iowa State Highway Commission (who was also an associate of Page), headed the small group.

AASHO’s draft legislation proposed that Congress appropriate $75 million over five years to be apportioned to the states by formula: “one-third based on total area, one-third by population, and one-third by mileage of rural delivery routes.” The federal share of road-building funding would be 50%, but payments could not exceed $10,000 per mile. “Each state was required to have a state highway agency that would select the rural post road projects, but they would have to submit their programs of projects – as well as the surveys, plans, specifications and estimates – to the Secretary of Agriculture for approval.”

In addition, all improved roads had to be toll-free and maintained by the state. Moreover, no money could be spent by any state until its legislature had agreed to the provisions of the act.

Bankhead amended the House of Representatives-passed bill by substituting the AASHO bill. On May 8, 1916, the Senate approved Bankhead’s legislation with some amendments. Among the amendments was an additional $10 million ($1 million per year for 10 years), which was to be used for roads and trails within the national forests.

The House-Senate conference committee agreed to a slightly modified version of the Bankhead legislation on June 27. Both houses of Congress approved the bill the same day.

The legacy of the legislation

The ideas (and ideals) of OPR’s Page were the backbone of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. Under its terms, each state had to have a highway agency that employed engineering professionals to carry out the federal-aid projects. Page and his OPR engineers had approval authority over the state projects, so they could make sure the projects were designed and constructed properly. The 1916 Act also enhanced life in rural America; it focused on rural post roads over the long-distance roads preferred by AAA and others. 

President Wilson signed the bill in a White House ceremony on July 11, 1916. Attendees included key members of Congress, as well as representatives of AAA, AASHO, farm organizations and others. The federal-aid highway program that was underpinned by federal-state cooperation was ready to kick-start the first large-scale road-building projects in the United States.

A map that also promoted the ideas of the Good Roads Movement. (Photo: Library of Congress)
A map that also promoted the ideas of the Good Roads Movement.
(Photo: Library of Congress)

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.