Tag Archives: Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916

Modern Highways are 100 Years Old

While doing some research this fall, I remembered the birth of our modern highways are 100 years old. Sure, some of our roads and trails predate 1913, but those routes were the precursor’s of today’s modern highway system.

In 1913, 180,000 cars were registered in the nation of 2.5 million miles, but less than seven percent were improved in any fashion. Most travel was in urban areas, with travel into the country being attempted in fair weather. Rain quickly turned country roads into thigh-deep mud ruts, making travel extremely difficult. Many travelers had to enlist the aid of a nearby horse team to extract them from the quagmire. Good roads came as automotive transportation and commerce expanded across the nation.

1907 Maxwell
1907 Maxwell on roads of the day

On July 1, 1913, a group of automotive capitalists met in Detroit to form the Lincoln Highway Association. Their goal: “To procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges: such highway to be known, in the memory of Abraham Lincoln, as “The Lincoln Highway.” All they needed was a route.

Realizing the importance of reawakening interest in the Good Roads Movement, the Indiana Automobile Manufacturers Association decided that its 1913 Indiana-Pacific Tour in addition to promoting Indiana-built automobiles should also generate interest for building better roads.

Marmon No 22
The Lincoln Highway sponsored Marmon
On the 1913 IAMA Indiana-Pacific Tour

When the IAMA Tour left Indianapolis on July 1, 1913, the tourists experienced some delay due to the rains and the enthusiastic reception along the way. The rain continued for more than half of the trip. There were some soft spots on some of the hills. This was evidence that improved roads were needed.

The trail blazing efforts, like those of the Lincoln Highway Association and the IAMA Tour, soon leveraged road improvement efforts. On September 16, 1914, G.S. Hoag, secretary of the Nevada Automobile Association, communicated an urgent plea to both branches of Congress that a measure appropriating a substantial sum of money for public roads be distributed to several states and furnish needed employment to thousands of idle men. Mr. Hoag suggested the Lincoln Highway as the one road demanding first consideration.

The Lincoln Highway was no highway in the spring of 1915. Instead of being a completed highway to San Francisco, it more resembled a mudhole extending form Illinois to Wyoming. For the most part, the route was marked, but the little real improvement previously accomplished had been quickly swallowed up by the floods of spring. The route would never be this bad again.

1915 Studebaker
A 1915 Studebaker somewhere in
Indiana on the 1915 Coast-to-Coast Film Tour

On July 11, 1916, affairs related to good roads took a decided turn for the better when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, the first of many that would eventually see the highways of America built at public expense. This act was the first to contain any real funding for the nation’s roads as a whole. It appropriated some $75 million to be spent over five years to improve rural post roads and $10 million to be expended in ten years on forest road construction and maintenance.

In November 1921, President Harding signed the Federal Highway Act of 1921. Like the 1916 act, this bill provided $75 million in federal money to be matched on an equal basis with state funds. This bill stated that federal aid should be concentrated upon “such projects as will expedite the completion of an adequate and connected system of highways, interstate in character.”

In 1924, The Bureau of Public Roads of the Federal Government estimated that within an additional 10 years we would see the adequate completion of a basic American highway system if congressional appropriations were continued at the present scale.

The LHA understood, from the first, that the greatest benefit from its investment in automotive transportation could only be realized to the extent permitted by adequate, connecting highway improvement.

The thanks for our modern high highway system goes back to the efforts of automotive pioneers over 100 years ago.

For more information on our automotive heritage follow this link.

The federal highway system is a great idea

Recently, we returned from a fall vacation road trip, and I marveled at how the federal highway system is a great idea. Federal funding and planning for our cross country highways is almost 85 years old making our leisure and business transportation is much better because of it.

1906 Maxwell on road
1906 Maxwell on contemporary road

In 1909, there were 2.2 million miles of road in the United States. Only about 190,000 miles were surfaced. Most travel was in urban areas, with travel into the country mostly being attempted in fair weather. Rain quickly turned country roads into thigh-deep mud ruts, making travel extremely difficult. If they got stuck in the mud, many travelers had to enlist the aid of a nearby horse team to extract them from the quagmire.

Road building and maintenance were entirely the province of local government. There were no federal funds for roads in those years. The tiny state and county appropriations were sometimes wasted on projects that had little effect on the conditions of roads.

In the fall of 1912, Hoosier auto entrepreneur, Carl G. Fisher announced his idea for a coast-to-coast rock highway from New York to San Francisco to alleviate the problem of bad roads. With the enthusiasm of Indiana auto manufacturers, Fisher began a letter writing and personal visit campaign to representatives of the automotive trades across the country. Fisher believed that the success of the infant auto industry revolved around the use of better roads.

Within 30 days of his announcement, Fisher raised over a million dollars in pledges and considerable ink in the nation’s press. In early December, Fisher received a letter from Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Motor Car Company, pledging $150,000 and recommending that the road be built in the name of Abraham Lincoln. In the summer of 1913, Joy became president of the Lincoln Highway Association. The Lincoln Highway ran through 13 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.

The optimism of non-governmental funding development for the road soon led to reverting to the earlier practice of states, counties, and communities providing the major funding. Joy proposed that the association fund and oversee the construction of “seedling miles” in places where improvement was most needed. This was the way most highway development preceded across the country until the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916. The act established provisions for the construction of rural Post Roads and construction and maintenance of National Forest roads in cooperation with the state and local authorities.

In fall of 1925, the federal highway plan introduced national numbered highways with a uniform style of regulatory and warning signs to replace the named routes across the country. With the completion of last section of U.S. Route 30 in Nebraska in 1935, the original Lincoln Highway became the first paved transcontinental highway in the country.

At mid-century, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. The act authorized construction of a highway network that promised to hurry the nation’s commerce and military and greatly reduce driving time by eliminating stoplights, sharp curves, intersections, and no-passing zones.

The Interstate Highway System that we know today revolutionized highway travel and interstate commerce. Now, on a good day, one can drive from central Indiana to central Florida in 16 hours. A large amount of the commercial products we use daily are transported via interstate highways. These benefits are made possible by a 90 percent federal – 10 percent state funding formula and Federal Highway Administration certification.

Federal highway programs still benefit us on other U.S. highways across the country. On our recent trip, for instance, in Kentucky we used U.S. routes 25, 50, 150, 127, and 421 to travel along lesser traveled roads from Mt. Vernon to Madison, Indiana. I especially enjoy these back roads to get a taste of how life used-to-be during a simpler time in America.

I want to say thank you to all of my friends and relatives across the country for making our federal highway system possible through their tax dollars. What a great idea!

For more information on our automotive heritage follow this link.