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Genesis: Historical research

On the eve of the era of "highways": on the History of Federal Highway Construction in the USA

Makurin Andrei Igorevich

PhD in History

Associate Professor, Department of General History, A.I. Herzen Russian State Pedagogical University

191186, Russia, gorod Sankt-Peterburg, g. Saint Petersburg, nab. Reki Moiki, 48, of. 20

Ulianova Ira Andrisovna

Master's degree, Department of General History, A.I. Herzen Russian State Pedagogical University

191186, Russia, gorod Sankt-Peterburg, g. Saint Petersburg, nab. Reki Moiki, 48, of. 20




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Abstract: The object of the study is the history of the formation of the federal highway construction system in the United States before the First World War. The subject of the study is the economic, social and political prerequisites for the emergence of the idea of federal financing of road construction. The article examines the socio-political struggle that unfolded in American society at the beginning of the XX century on the need for federal participation in the creation of a highway network. The most important link in the Government's road policy was the creation of a system of federal agencies dealing with road construction problems. The study of this issue allows us to trace the evolution of the approaches of the public and politicians in solving the problem of the separation of powers of the states and the federal government in the field of road construction. The scientific novelty of the study lies in the fact that the issue of federal funding is considered in the context of traditional discussions about the separation of powers of the states and the federal government, as well as the problems of strategic planning. The authors' attention is focused on the fact that previously the allocation of money for the construction of roads from federal funds was considered an unacceptable measure that violates the constitutional autonomy of the states. But strategic problems demanded a new look at this feature of the US state structure. The results of the study allow us to conclude that the Federal Road Assistance Act of 1916 meant recognition of the need for federal regulation of road construction and became an important precedent that opened up the possibility of creating a nationwide road network in the future.


road construction program, traffic for roads, federal road legislation, Management of Public Roads, rural express, road construction, highways, public roads, road departments, World War I

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

The history of road construction, which acquired not only important economic but also political significance in the era of the formation of nations, in the United States was associated with solving the problem of the division of powers between the federal center and the state authorities. Since colonial times, the local authorities and the owners of the land next to which the roads passed have been engaged in road construction. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, the situation had changed — the growth of the national market and the entry of the United States into foreign markets required the development of a nationwide transport infrastructure. However, the current practice of road construction and management did not meet the new conditions. First of all, this was reflected in the sphere of railway transport, the functioning of which was not regulated at all before the Civil War, and private companies built roads by buying up vast expanses of land. The roads were often very winding and subsequently had to be straightened. By the beginning of the XX century, the demand for conventional roads (highway, intercity and rural communication) was increasing and, taking into account previous experience, financing and planning of the process of construction and development of these roads began to be carried out under the control of the federal authorities.

How and why do the United States come to a purposeful policy of regulating road construction and highway management? To answer this question, it is necessary to consider the state of highways and rural roads at the beginning of the XX century. The maintenance of the house was carried out at the expense of funds received from local taxes. As a rule, the tax on their maintenance was insignificant and it could be replaced for a few days of working out. In this case, the repair of roads was carried out by local residents who did not have sufficient qualifications, so the quality of roads was unsatisfactory. The roads that ran between the states by the middle of the XIX century were also controlled by local authorities who did not have the means to repair and develop. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, there were several road projects funded or even carried out with the help of the federal government, but before the adoption in 1916 of the Federal Aid Road Act (1916), the roads were in a deplorable state: poor quality, poor maintenance. New roads were practically not built. The sum of the existing routes could not even be called a road network — they were not sufficiently interconnected. Only 150,000 miles of the more than 2.2 million miles of public highways used in 1904 could boast of a good surface for that time [7, p. 54]. The country's main communications were railways, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, their insufficiency became apparent — they could not meet all the transportation needs of Americans.

Firstly, agricultural producers were interested in conventional roads: before transporting agricultural products by rail, it must be delivered to the station. Difficulties in transportation led to the fact that the product remained unrealized and partially rotted in the fields, in addition, in bad weather, a trip to the railway station could be dangerous for the horse. Transportation on bad roads took a lot of time and led to high costs. For farmers who had to drive their product to the station for a long distance, this road excessively increased the cost of the product, which, in turn, hampered the development of farming and affected the price of agricultural goods [1, p. 36-55].

Secondly, the industry was interested in good roads. The main type of fuel at the beginning of the XX century was coal, which was transported by rail, but it had to be delivered from the station to the consumer. The growth of industrial production, coupled with the beginning of motorization, had a beneficial effect on urban roads, but the poor condition of country roads limited the development of industry to the city limits, tied industrial enterprises to the railway network. The interested party also included representatives of industrial sectors directly related to road construction or the automotive business: manufacturers of tires, glass, road equipment, concrete, owners of quarries where sand or gravel was extracted, representatives of the oil industry. Moreover, some of these groups (if not all) had their representatives in the government who were ready to lobby for their interests [4, p. 239].

Thus, the railway industry was interested in road construction. This interest found expression in the actions organized in 1901. The Good Road Movement in conjunction with the Illinois Central Railroad. The "Train of good roads" followed a certain route, and during stops at stations campaigned for high-quality road construction. The train was equipped with installations demonstrating advanced methods of road construction, lectures were held during stops. In August 1901, the train stopped in sixteen cities in five states [1, p. 48-49].

The beginning of motorization of the USA, which occurred in the last decades of the XIX century, also showed that the rural road system did not meet the requirements of modernity. By 1900, there were 8 thousand cars in the USA [1, p. 54]. The problem was not only that it was difficult to move along unrepaired roads in rainy weather (and in dry weather the roads were heavily dusty), but also that heavy cars destroyed the fragile road surface.

Motorists and cyclists created a social movement that fought for high-quality road construction. It was called The Movement for Good Roads (The Good Road Movement). The movement, which originated in the 1880s, quickly became nationwide. Supporters of the movement were united by the magazine "Good Roads", in addition, the movement included many local societies in each individual state. The movement initially relied on farmers and motorists [5, p. 5]. It was engaged in publicistic activities, organized meetings, rallies and actions like "Trains of good roads". However, at the beginning of the century, farmers who still used horse-drawn vehicles before the First World War began to perceive motorists as road pests due to the fact that cars destroyed the road surface. Thus, farmers and motorists have lost their former unity in the struggle for road construction.

Nevertheless, public concern about the problems of road construction has led to a discussion of the problem of road construction at the level of state authorities. In 1883, the first Iowa Road Convention was convened in Towa City. In 1894, the first national road conference was held, attended by representatives of eleven states. States Highway Departments are also beginning to be established, the first of which was established in Massachusetts. These departments will become an important link in the creation of the national road network system [1, p. 43-45].

At the federal level, in 1893, the Office of Road Surveys was established (ORI — Office of road inquiry, since 1899; OPRI — Office of public roads inquiry, since 1905; OPR — Office of public roads; since 1915 BPR — Bureau of Public Roads), the first agency dealing with the problems of road construction.  His competence did not include the management of road construction or influence on the road construction of the states. It was engaged only in studying the ways of road construction and informing about the results of the study. The head of the Department, Roy Stone, was forbidden to interfere in the road policy of the states. Such a system was considered correct from the point of view of compliance with the constitutional powers of the states.

In the early years, the Department consisted of two people: General Stone and a secretary. Until 1904, it was not even considered as a permanent department, and was very poorly funded: in 1893, the Department received only 10 thousand dollars [2]. Despite this, a campaign was launched to collect statistics and publish bulletins (in cooperation with the Movement for Good Roads) with information on road construction methods. One of the most effective was the program "The object lesson road". The idea was to build small sections of roads with Management money, as a demonstration of construction methods. Only minor sections of roads were built to avoid accusations of federal influence on the policy of state road construction — although many governors asked them to build more such facilities [1, p. 36-52]. The Office of Road Research, transformed from 1905 into the Office of Public Roads (OPR) it also provided advisory services directly to state road departments and other local services. From 1906 to 1916, federal road engineers visited 144 counties in 28 states [7, p. 56].

In 1905, the Testing department of the Bureau of Chemistry merged with the Office of Public Roads Research (OPRI). Logan Page became the head of the newly created Department of Public Roads (OPR). He had extensive experience in laboratory work, which was relevant in those years, since the Department in the first decade of the century intensified the study of the properties of pavement materials. The research base of the Department was one of the most serious in the world — comparable to the research base of the French National School of Bridges and Roads (?cole nationale des ponts et chauss?es) — the oldest civil engineering educational institution, leading in the field of road construction since the end of the XVIII century. Engineers of the Department and later the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) developed a large number of specialized equipment for testing the road surface. Logan Page himself had a hand in creating such equipment, he created a coating testing machine (Page Impact Machine) [2, p. 3]. The services of the Bureau were used by government officials, contractors and manufacturers of materials, and the testing of materials was free of charge [7, p. 55].

The Department of Public Roads needed research to develop a coating that would not leave huge clouds of dust when it was operated by road. In the first decade of the century, this was considered a serious problem. Soon, the researchers faced the task of creating a coating that would not collapse under the weight of cars, as gravel roads were destroyed. After considering a variety of options, asphalt was chosen as the optimal coating [3, p. 206].

The resolution of road problems was really important for the US economy — the lack of high-quality roads hampered the development of the country's domestic market, hindered industry and negatively affected the standard of living of farmers. State highway departments could not cope with road improvements either due to conservative management or due to a shortage of engineers, although the Office (OPR) constantly provided consulting services and opened courses to train engineers. The existing road network was initially poorly designed, both in terms of location and construction methods. For example, roads were initially not properly drained, were poorly positioned or laid with a slope. To solve these problems, it was necessary to develop and apply national construction standards, but the Office (OPR) did not have the authority to do this, and despite all efforts to promote scientific methods of road construction, the same mistakes continued to be reproduced in many districts [7, p. 54].

The Office (OPR) worked closely with social movements to issue a kind of manifesto on road construction issues. In 1910, The American Highway Association (The American Highway Association) was established, an organization that united a large number of local communities. A year later, the Association's Congress issued a resolution in Virginia declaring the basic technical and administrative principles and requirements for road construction. The requirements were addressed to the state and federal authorities, and included the unification of traffic rules, control over road construction by the state authorities, mandatory maintenance of roads. According to the resolution, the construction should be led by experienced engineers, the states should have contributed to the construction (including through legislative regulation of the labor of prisoners in the construction of roads). Not all of these requirements were implemented, but they reflected not only the problems of road construction, but also public expectations [1, p. 78-79].

The U.S. Postal Service played an important role in lobbying for the interests of road construction in rural areas. The problems faced by the postal service in rural areas largely determined the format of future federal support for road construction. However, the postal service not only faced problems, but could also become part of the solution. In a law passed on July 28, 1916, on government funding of the U.S. Postal Department, the Postmaster General was authorized by Congress to conduct research to determine how the postal service could facilitate the sale of agricultural goods by providing direct transactions between producers and consumers. The investigation was supposed to involve the study of possibilities for expanding the work of the Parcel Post System [10, p. 424].

The created system was called "Rural Express" (The Rural express), and provided for motorized delivery of agricultural products from producers to stores. The development of this service was handled by Herbert Hoover, the future US president, who then held the position of head of the US Food Administration. The goals of the service, given in the magazine “Engineering News-Record”, provided for stimulating the production of more agricultural products, increasing the standard of living of farmers, preserving products already produced.

Hoover claimed that up to 50% of the manufactured products fell into disrepair before they hit the market. He also argued that the "Rural Express" was supposed to reduce the need of farms for horses and this would allow farmers to use pastures in the future to increase the acreage for food crops. Hoover also stressed that this system would lead to the development of domestic trade and a drop in product prices, by reducing transport costs [6, p. 599].

The poor condition of roads in rural areas affected not only the economic condition of farmers, but also left them in social isolation — poor roads prevented communication even with neighbors. It was only since 1893 that mail delivery to rural areas began to work, but delivery was carried out if the road met the requirements. The condition of the roads depended on whether farmers would be able to receive newspapers and conduct correspondence [1, p. 80-82]. The Rural Free Delivery of US mail and Rural Express programs have had a decisive impact on the transition to federal funding for road construction.

Since a large number of farmers wanted to participate in the free mail delivery program, they demanded better road conditions in their districts.  Congress listened to this problem and passed the "Post Office Appropriation Bill" (1912), which was the first attempt at federal funding for road construction [9, p. 539-560]. However, most of the states refused to participate in the program, citing the fact that the bill conflicts with state law, or the state authorities do not have enough authority to implement such a program. A small number of roads were built as part of this program, but it allowed us to draw important conclusions about the difficulties the federal government will face when interacting with local authorities.

The main conclusion was quite simple: interaction should be built between the federal authorities and the states, and not between the federal authorities and the districts. There were 48 states at the time of 1912, and about 3,000 districts, and such a number of subjects of interaction greatly complicated communication. In the future, this experience will lead to an increase in the influence of state road departments.

At the Third Road Congress of America in September-October 1913, Dorsey Shackleford, Chairman of the Committee on Highways of the House of Representatives, suggested that "whatever doubts existed earlier, it is now generally recognized that the federal government has the right to build and maintain roads that are used for federal purposes. It follows from this that it also has the right to assist the states in the construction and maintenance of roads that are partially intended for federal use" [8, p. 56]. The society was already ready to admit that federal financing of road construction is an acceptable measure, and the government, "... led by the (public — our italics, I.U., A.M.) movement, instead of leading it," according to Frederick Paxson, carefully took the first steps in this direction [4, p. 238].

Full—scale federal funding began with the adoption of the Federal Road Assistance Act of 1916. It was not about creating a unified road system - this would be too radical a decision, because there was still a very strong opinion in Congress that the road network should primarily complement the railway (roads from the farm to the station), and transcontinental roads or even interstate roads are toys for rich tourists [8, p. 59-60]. Shackleford was an active supporter of this view of transcontinental roads. In his speech at the Third American Road Congress, he proposed dividing supporters of road construction into two categories. To the first he referred supporters of "roads for tourists", whose slogan, according to Shackleford, were the words: "first you need to see America." He denounced them, calling them a "class of tourist roads", consisting mainly of wealthy car owners who want to spend part of their leisure time traveling around the country. They are supported by manufacturers of road equipment and road building materials, who consider Uncle Sam to be a "serviceable payer", a liberal buyer and someone who would be a valuable buyer if only he took up the construction of "national roads" [8, p. 57]. Shackleford contrasted these people with supporters of "business roads" who remember that highways are only part of a complex and extensive US transportation network, and they should be integrated into this network. Shackleford was, as it was said at the time, a proponent of "farm to market" or "farm to station" roads. An important feature of the bearers of this point of view was that highways were meant as an addition to the railway network, and not as a duplicate network. And Shackleford became one of the main exponents of this point of view in Congress.

Supporters of the autonomous highway network talked about its importance for the development of the industry. But, as can be seen from the above quote, this led to accusations that supporters of the autonomous road network allegedly sought to develop business at the federal expense.

Thus, by the beginning of the First World War, there were two main opinions in the United States about which roads to build. The first opinion was that it was necessary to build short roads in rural areas, in the interests of farming and small business, such roads should be integrated into the existing transport system of the country. The second opinion was that in the interests of big business and motorists, long highways are needed, perhaps even transcontinental ones, representing a full-fledged autonomous network of highways.

In the future, the problems with rail transportation during the First World War will show that not only heavy industry needs a unified road network, but also any branch of production, any category of consumers of transport services that were previously satisfied by railways. The struggle of these two points of view continued throughout the second decade of the XX century .

The Federal Road Assistance Act of 1916 dealt primarily with financing the construction of rural roads from federal funds, that is, it satisfied the supporters of roads "from farm to station". The author of the act, Senator John Bankhead, firmly stood on these positions, and the second author of the act was the above-mentioned Shackleford.

How was the Act created? The bill was discussed in the Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads (Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the construction of Post Roads), created in 1912. After the adoption of the Postal Appropriations Bill of 1912, the Committee discussed data collected by the Public Roads Administration (OPR). These data allowed us to conclude how the condition of roads affected the quality of school education and, in general, the quality of life in rural areas, the cost of real estate, the rate of wear of transport, the level of motorization. The conclusions were mostly disappointing and led the commission to the conclusion that federal support for road construction is necessary.

Basically, the discussion of the project was limited to plans for the construction of rural roads, and this caused opposition from the American Automobile Association (AAA), which was more interested in creating a national road network. However, with the support of the American Association of State Highway Employees, Secretary of Agriculture David Houston, Chief of the Postal Service Albert Sidney Burleson (Albert Sidney Burleson) and the Office (OPR), the bill became an effective act on July 11, 1916 [10, p. 355-359].

How was the decision on financing made and what principles of state financing were introduced by the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916? The projects were coordinated between a representative of the federal Government and representatives of the states. The Government was represented by the Minister of Agriculture, and the states were represented by their State Highway Departments. The Act as a whole contributed to the creation of road construction organizations at the level of individual states, since at the time of its adoption 17 states did not have such departments or bodies with similar functions, but such an agency was needed to receive federal assistance [11, p. 22]. As already mentioned, it was not about creating a unified road system. Departments developed and submitted to the Minister separate projects for the construction, repair, or improvement of a separate road or group of roads in accordance with the significance of these roads statewide, and the goal of combining roads into a system was not set. The budget for each project was also approved by the Minister of Finance. The assignats were distributed to the honey states, taking into account their area, population and the length of the road network in each state.

The construction work was supervised by local Departments, as well as all further maintenance of roads fell on their shoulders, which was logical in light of the fact that the right of ownership of roads remained with the states, and the creators of the act aimed at developing road construction in the spirit of self-help and strengthening state control over road policy [11, p. 22]. But if information about improper maintenance got to the Minister of Agriculture, he signaled to the local state highway department. If the maintenance situation did not change in four months, then a sanction followed in the form of the minister's refusal to approve any project of this department until the road was put in proper order. In general, it could be said that the construction was carried out under the joint control of the federal government and the states, but it is important to note that the roads remained state-owned: it was the states that initiated the project, chose routes, set standards and maintained roads in the future. These powers corresponded to their constitutional rights in this area, and the federal Government retained supervisory functions.

Separately, the construction of roads in the US national forests, which were federal property, was financed. Separate funds were allocated for them and a different procedure for approving projects was established. What was important was the ratio of the estimated cost of the road and the estimated income from access to resources that this road would give — the cost of the road should not be more than 10% of them. There were no such requirements for the projects provided by the state road departments, but there were others that were later found to be irrational and unnecessarily restrictive.

The entire process, starting from the development of the project and ending with their implementation, was supervised by the Department of Public Roads (OPR), state road departments could use the information or personnel support of the Department at any time.

The law of 1916 provided for financing only those roads that fell under the definition of "rural post road" (rural post road) — the road on which they carry (or plan to carry) mail. The remaining roads could not receive funding, although they could be equally important. A prerequisite was that all roads that received federal funding according to the law should be free of charge. In the first year, according to the act, five million dollars were allocated, then the amount of appropriations was to increase to twenty-five million dollars [10, p. 356.]. But in 1917, the United States entered World War I, and plans for the development of road construction were temporarily frozen.

This was the end of one of the first stages of the transition to federal planning of the road system. On the one hand, during the period under review, Congress has not yet taken decisions directly on federal planning or on a unified national road network: the need for the latter will be realized during the First World War.  On the other hand, it was in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth that the problems that the national road network would solve became clear. These problems are mainly related to the following factors: the development of free postal delivery, the beginning of motorization and the development of industrial production, which required more advanced transport networks. The discussion of these problems led to the fact that the issue of road construction was announced in Congress for the first time in half a century. Such a discussion would not have been possible without the work of the Public Roads Bureau. The work carried out in the Bureau for the collection of statistical data, the study of road construction methods and the dissemination of this information had a great impact on public opinion on the issue of road construction, and this, in turn, influenced the opinion of Congress.

And the most important achievement of this stage was that legislators (also for the first time in half a century) found it possible to allocate money for the construction of roads from federal funds. Previously, this was considered an unacceptable measure that violates the constitutional autonomy of the states, but the problems voiced above required a new look at this feature of the US state structure. The Federal Road Assistance Act of 1916 became an important precedent that will open up the possibility of creating a nationwide road network in the future.


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