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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - March/April 2001

for The Common Good: The 85th Anniversary of A Historic Partnership

by Richard F. Weingroff

On Dec. 12, 1914, state highway officials met in Washington, D.C., at the Raleigh Hotel at 10 a.m. to establish a national organization that would allow for the discussion of legislative, economic, and technical subjects and would draft a legislative proposal for federal cooperation in road construction. They were joined by Logan Waller Page, director of the Agriculture Department's U.S. Office of Public Roads (OPR), and key members of his staff. On that day, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) was organized, with Henry G. Shirley, chief engineer of the Maryland State Roads Commission, as the first president. The new organization appointed an executive committee that included:

  • George P. Coleman, chairman, Virginia.
  • Lamar Cobb, Arizona.
  • Henry G. Shirley, Maryland.
  • W.D. Sohier, Massachusetts.
  • E.A. Stevens, New Jersey.
  • Joseph Hyde Pratt, North Carolina.
  • James R. Marker, Ohio.



State highway officials formed the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) on Dec. 12, 1914, at the Raleigh Hotel (center of photo taken in 1920s) on Pennsylvania Avenue at 12th Street NW in Washington, D.C. Built in 1893 and torn down in 1964, the hotle was also where AASHO officials met on Aug. 15, 1916, to discuss draft regulations implementing the Federal Road Act of 1916.

Page joined AASHO's founders in a visit to the White House where they met President Woodrow Wilson, an avid motorist and strong advocate of good roads. As governor of New Jersey, Wilson had appointed his friend Stevens to his post. The delegation returned to the Raleigh Hotel and instructed the executive committee to prepare an AASHO plan for federal cooperation to be submitted to Congress. Because Gov. James M. Cox of Ohio lost his reelection bid, Marker resigned from state office and AASHO in January 1915. To replace Marker on the executive committee, AASHO chose Thomas H. MacDonald, Iowa's chief engineer.

The founders of AASHO were photographed at the organizational meeting in the Raleigh Hotel on Dec. 12, 1914. Standing from left: Logan Waller Page, director of the Office of Public Roads(OPR); A.D. Williams, W.Va.; Sidney Suggs, Okla.; George A. Ricker, N.Y.; Charles M. Kerr, La.; T. Warren Allen, OPR; James H. MacDonald, Conn.; Sen. John Craft, Ala.; W.D. Sohier, Mass.; S. Percy Hooker, N.H.; J.E. Pennypacker, OPR; S.E. Bradt, III. Second row, seated from left: R.C. Terrell, Ky.; W.E. Keller, Ala.; George P. Coleman, Va.; E.A. Stevens, N.J.; Paul D. Sargent, Maine; James R. Marker, Ohio. First row, seated from left: Lamar Cobb, Ariz.; Henry G. Shirley, Md.; Joseph Hyde Pratt, N.C.; and P.St.J Wilson, assistant director of OPR.

With the founding of AASHO and the addition of MacDonald to the executive committee, all the pieces were in place to create the historic partnership that would be known as the federal-aid highway program. It would transform America.

"Of no less importance for agriculture and for national development is the Federal Aid Road Act. This measure will conduce to the establishment of more effective highway machinery in each State, strongly influence the development of good road building along right lines, stimulate larger production and better marketing, promote a fuller and more attractive rural life, add greatly to the convenience and economic welfare of all the people, and strengthen the national foundations. The act embodies sound principles of road legislation and will [not only] safeguard the expenditure of the funds arising under the act ... but will also result in the more efficient use of the large additional sums made available by States and localities."

President Woodrow Wilson

Letter to Representative A.F. Lever

Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture

Aug. 11, 1916

Earlier Attempts Failed

One of the earliest proposals for federal aid was submitted to Congress in December 1902. A month earlier, Maurice O. Eldridge, deputy director of the Office of Public Road Inquiries (OPRI), was returning to Washington by train from his native Tennessee when he struck up a conversation with a fellow Tennessean, Rep. Walter P. Brownlow. When the subject turned to the deplorable condition of the nation's roads, Brownlow asked what could be done. Eldridge suggested developing a federal program based on New Jersey's plan of state aid to the counties for road improvement. State legislation had initiated the aid plan in 1891 at the instigation of the League of American Wheelmen.

At Brownlow's request, Eldridge drafted a

In 1912, Rep. Dorsey W. Shackleford of Missouri introduced a bill to improve "farm to market" roads "to get the farmers out of the mud." This photograph was the cover photo of Better Roads and Streets magazine in March 1916.

bill to that effect after securing OPRI Director Martin Dodge's approval. The bill would have created a "Bureau of Public Roads" to administer $20 million a year. Federal-aid grants would be made to any state or county to improve post roads outside cities and incorporated villages, with each state limited to a share of the funding equal to its percentage of the nation's population. The state or county would have to agree to pay 50 percent of the cost. The federal government would prepare the plans and specifications for the roads, but the state or county would administer and supervise the contracts.

The McKinley administration, including Secretary of Agriculture James W. Wilson, and congressional leaders opposed the plan. Nevertheless, after Brownlow introduced the bill, Dodge and Eldridge aggressively promoted it - to their later regret. Brownlow's bill went nowhere. Eldridge was fired for his lobbying efforts. He was soon reinstated at a reduced salary and loss of his rank as second in command.

As for Dodge, his punishment was delayed. When Congress made the agency permanent as OPR in 1905, the law specified that it must be headed by an engineer. Dodge, a lawyer, was out, replaced by Page.

Dozens of road bills were introduced over the next 10 to 12 years. Many proposed construction of a national "interstate" highway system with the routes specified in the bills and, in some cases, given names. Some bills involved funding for a specific road. However, most bills proposed variations of Brownlow's federal-aid program, and all met the same fate.


One of the chief objections was constitutional - an issue that had been debated in the early years of the republic without clear resolution until the spread of railroads beginning in the 1830s rendered the issue moot. As the call for better roads grew in the 20th century, many members of Congress still believed the Constitution prohibited a federal role. To get around this objection, sponsors of the "good roads" bills typically linked aid to the delivery of the U.S. mail. This stratagem resulted from Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which granted to Congress the power to "establish Post Offices and post Roads." The reference to this authority, it was hoped, would answer any constitutional objections to federal road funding.

Although the "post roads" provision was a convenient reference, the U.S. Supreme Court had previously supported federal involvement in road improvements by citing a different provision of Article I, Section 8: "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States and with the Indian Tribes." In an 1893 decision, Justice David Brewer noted that "the power to regulate commerce carries with it power over all the means and instrumentalities by which commerce is carried on" (Monongahela Navigation Company v. United States). This ruling and a similar Supreme Court ruling in 1907 effectively ended the debate over constitutionality for all but the most diehard members of Congress.

None of the good roads bills made it out of committee until 1912, when Rep. Dorsey W. Shackleford of Missouri introduced his ABC bill to improve farm access to markets - a concept usually summarized as "Get the farmers out of the mud." All roads over which the mail was carried would be classified as A, B, or C roads. The federal government would "rent" the use of these roads from the states for transporting mail by paying $25 per mile for Class A roads (macadam), $20 for Class B roads (gravel), and $15 for Class C roads (dirt). While leaving the roads under state control, the proposal would provide a stimulus for road improvement and would benefit farmers throughout the country. The bill passed the House of Representatives: 240 to 86.

Under the experimental federal-aid program first created by the Post Office Department Appropriations Bill for 1913, the first project completed was the Waterloo Post Road from Florence to Waterloo, Ala., at a cost of $25,781.09 for grading and $2,166.05 for gravel surfacing.

The automobile industry opposed Shackleford's rental plan. The industry, the American Automobile Association (AAA), and other segments of the Good Roads Movement were not interested in improving farm roads that "began nowhere and ended nowhere." The industry saw its future in hard-surfaced interstate and transcontinental highways.

Here, in short, was the basic split that would have to be resolved before federal aid could become a reality: The automobile industry and touring motorists embraced federal aid for hard-surfaced interstate or transcontinental roads. Farmers embraced federal aid for farm-to-market roads and considered national roads to be "joy rider" roads for the wealthy. At this early stage, any likely level of funding would be too low to pursue both goals simultaneously.

The Shackleford bill died in the Senate.

"The main question that I am immediately concerned with, that the people of the union are immediately concerned with, is whether we shall get a dollar's result for every dollar we expend for roads. I am quite sure that if we do so and we can convince the people that we have done so, they will be willing to put much more money into good roads where they are needed."

Secretary of Agriculture David F. Houston

To State Highway Officials

Sept. 1, 1916

An Experiment in Federal Aid

Unable to resolve the conflicting viewpoints, Congress decided in 1912 to approve two provisions designed to aid the decision-making process. First, the Post Office Department Appropriations Bill for 1913 (enacted Aug. 24, 1912) appropriated $500,000 for the secretary of agriculture and the postmaster general to conduct an experimental program to improve post roads on which the delivery of mail "is or may hereafter be established." The funds were divided equally among the 48 states but were available to state or local governments only if they were willing to pay two-thirds of the cost. Second, the bill authorized a joint congressional committee to study and prepare a report on federal aid to highways.

Initially, only three states (Alabama, Iowa, and Oregon) agreed to designate experimental post roads and accept the federal funds for their improvement. More than half the states replied that they lacked legal authority to participate. Others objected to "strings" attached to the program, such as a 1905 executive order barring convict labor on government work. Five states didn't bother to reply. After additional prompting by the Post Office and Agriculture departments, agreements were reached for 17 post road projects in 13 states and 28 counties.

Under Page's direction, an OPR engineer was assigned to each project to lay out the road, supervise construction, and approve expenditures. The first completed project was the Waterloo Post Road from Florence to Waterloo, Ala., which was finished in 1914 at a cost of $25,781.09 for grading and $2,166.05 for gravel surfacing. The last experimental post road project, which was in Dubuque County, Iowa, was not completed until 1918 by which time 454 miles (730 kilometers) of road had been improved under the 1913 Post Office bill.

The experimental program was plagued with problems. A joint report to Congress on the progress of the post road program noted: "From correspondence and from the attitude of the local officials in many places, it appears that there is a disposition frequently to avoid the obvious requirements of the present act with respect to Government control over the expenditure of joint funds. The allotments have been looked upon, not infrequently, in the light of a gratuity, the idea of the post road has been lost sight of, and the question has been frequently raised in the field as to why the Government would not give the money to the counties and let them spend it."

The experience affected OPR's perspective as attention turned to a permanent federal-aid program. In particular, Page was convinced that federal aid should be made available only to the states to avoid the complexities of dealing with 3,000 counties.

In January 1915, the Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads issued its report endorsing federal participation in road improvement. The report dismissed constitutional objections, noting that federal aid would accomplish "several of the objects indicated by the framers of the Constitution - establish post roads, regulate commerce, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare. Above all, it will promote the general welfare." However, with a membership spanning the spectrum of views on federal aid, the joint committee was unable to agree on how such a program should operate. Some members feared central control, while others worried about the "pork barrel" effect of letting states control the money. Similarly, they were divided on whether to use the funds for local roads or interstate highways.

"Within less than 25 years, road construction, maintenance, and management have been revolutionized."

Logan Waller Page

Feb. 6, 1917

Shackleford Tries Again

Rep. Shackleford, now chairman of the new House Committee on Roads, introduced a federal-aid bill that passed the House on Jan. 25, 1916. It was designed to "aid the States in the construction, improvement, and maintenance of roads which may be used in the transportation of interstate commerce, military supplies, or postal matters." It provided up to $25 million a year for a federal-aid program to improve "rural post roads." Each state would receive at least $65,000, and the remainder would be apportioned among the states based on population and the mileage of rural free delivery and star mail delivery routes. (In remote areas, star routes are served by a private carrier under contract with the postal service.)

All work would be under the supervision and control of the state highway departments or, if a state did not have one, in a manner agreed to by the governor and the U.S. secretary of agriculture. Any state receiving the aid after Jan. 1, 1920, must have a state highway agency. Although states would select federal-aid projects, the Agriculture Department would examine all surveys, plans, and estimates and would make payments as the project progressed - but only after an inspection of the work. The federal share would be no less than 30 percent nor more than 50 percent.

Backers of good roads were divided generally along familiar lines. Advocates for national roads were opposed because the money would be used for "pork barrel" projects selected by state and local officials. Good Roads magazine claimed the bill gave the least amount of funds to the states that needed the most road improvements. The magazine also wondered whether the Office of Public Roads and Rural Engineering (OPRRE), formerly OPR, was equipped for the new responsibilities and why the country should spend so much for roads when the war that had begun in Europe in August 1914 might require American involvement.

Southern Good Roads magazine, on the other hand, endorsed the Shackleford bill. Commenting on the payment provisions of the bill, the magazine stated, "So far as the Federal Treasury is concerned, the Act 'is horse-high, bull-strong, and pig-tight.' It is pure business and without the least touch of sentiment."

After passing the House, the Shackleford bill was referred to the Senate's Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, headed by Sen. John H. Bankhead of Alabama. Bankhead was the last senator to have served in the Civil War. The Good Roads Movement had long been one of his favorite causes. In 1912, he told a good roads convention, "God being my helper and preserving my life, I intend, sir, to devote that time in urging upon Congress and the country the adoption of a system of national and State aid in cooperation."

Sen. Bankhead offered an alternative to Shackleford's bill. The alternative had been brought to him by his friend Logan Page. In view of their friendship and common interest, it was not surprising that the two would cooperate on the "Bankhead bill." But the Bankhead bill would be an outgrowth of efforts by AASHO to craft a federal-aid bill.

"The degree of a country's civilization may, in a measure, be gauged by its highways."

U.S. Rep. Dorsey W. Shackleford

Sept. 29, 1913

AASHO Goes to Work

AASHO's initial effort to draft a highway bill had been a failure. The executive committee, which was dominated by heavily populated states with well-developed highway networks, collaborated with AAA's president, A.G. Batchelder, on the draft of a federal-aid bill that called for a national system of highways. The draft was sent to Congress, but AASHO members from Midwestern states, many of which had less developed networks, objected to the plan and to the fact that they had not been consulted before it was submitted to Congress.

To settle the dispute, a meeting of AASHO's executive committee was arranged to coincide with the Pan-American Road Congress at the Municipal Auditorium in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 13-17, 1915. The congress was sponsored by the American Road Builders Association (now the American Road and Transportation Builders Association) and the American Highway Association (an umbrella highway support group founded by Page in 1910 and disbanded in 1917).


The road congress holds the distinction of being one of the least successful road conventions held during the years of the Good Roads Movement. Attendance was small. Even many of the scheduled speakers failed to attend. Convention chairman James H. MacDonald, Connecticut's state highway commissioner and a frequent host of good roads conventions, admitted it was one of the most trying periods of his life when, at the first session, only one of the eight speakers was present. Even Logan Page was a no-show. Major W.W. Crosby of Maryland read Page's paper on "The History and Future of Highway Improvement." The problem was that the construction season was underway in many parts of the country, preventing officials and contractors from leaving their duties.

Although the Pan-American Road Congress was a failure, the members of AASHO's executive committee accomplished their mission on Sept. 11. The records are unclear on whether Page participated, but MacDonald took the lead in transforming AASHO's original bill into a federal-aid plan that matched Page's ideas. The new AASHO bill called for $25 million a year to "promote the improvement of Rural Post Roads, Military Roads, and Roads used for interstate commerce." The funds were primarily for rural roads, but in cities, towns, or boroughs having more than 2,000 people, funds could be used on streets and roads where the houses were, on average, more than 200 feet (about 60 meters) apart. A "Rural Post Road" was defined as any public road "over which the United States' mails are or may be transported."

Three factors would be used to apportion the funds among the states: total area of each state compared with the total area of all states (one-third); the population of each state compared with the population of all states (one-third); and the mileage of rural post roads in each state compared with the total mileage nationally (one-third). The secretary of agriculture could use up to 5 percent of the funds to administer the program. In addition, "the Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to employ such assistants, clerks, and other persons, in the city of Washington and elsewhere; to rent such buildings in the city of Washington and elsewhere; to purchase such supplies, material, equipment, office fixtures and apparatus; and to incur such travel and other expenses as he may deem necessary."

The state highway departments would initiate projects by petitioning the secretary of agriculture for aid in the "improvement or maintenance" of eligible roads. If the secretary approved, the state would conduct surveys and develop plans, specifications, and estimates, subject to federal approval. The plans "may be for roads of soil or sand-clay construction, as well as for other approved types of roads," provided the cost did not exceed $10,000 per mile, not counting bridges of more than 20 feet (6 meters) clear span. All road work would be done under the direct supervision of the state highway department, which would advertise for bids according to state laws or do the work itself. The federal share of the project cost would not exceed 50 percent. The cost of engineering, inspection, and unforeseen contingencies could be included in the estimated cost of the project, provided that this cost does not exceed 10 percent of the total. However, no payments would be made until the work was done to the satisfaction of the secretary.

The secretary would be authorized to withhold funds and reapportion them to other states if, in his judgment, a state highway department had not "properly maintained" the federal-aid projects. First, the secretary would notify the state in writing. Then, he would take action if the state authorities failed to maintain or repair the road within six months.

During AASHO's annual meeting in December 1915, the state highway agencies approved the new version.

Southern Good Roads reported that Commissioner Stevens of New Jersey had been unwilling to approve the bill until he had secured President Wilson's views on it. Otherwise, it does not appear that the president played a significant role in the highway legislation. Perhaps 1916 was not a good year for him to play such a role. With war devastating Europe, domestic programs were in the background. Moreover, it was a presidential election year, during which President Wilson faced a tough campaign against his Republican opponent, New York Gov. Charles Evans Hughes. (On election night, Wilson would go to sleep thinking he had lost, only to discover that late returns from the mountain states had carried him to victory.)

The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916

Upon receipt of the Shackleford bill, Sen. Bankhead's committee amended it by striking out everything after the enacting clause ("Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled") and substituting the AASHO bill. After revision by the committee and a conference with the Department of Agriculture, the committee unanimously approved the Bankhead bill and submitted it to the Senate for consideration.

It retained most of the AASHO provisions, but had been strengthened, in part on the advice of Page. No money could be expended in any state until its legislature assented to the provisions of the act. The reference to "Military Roads and Roads used for interstate commerce" was dropped. The secretary and the state highway department "shall agree upon the roads to be constructed therein and the character and method of construction." All improved roads must be free from tolls. The bill appropriated $75 million "out of any money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated," with $5 million for fiscal year (FY) 1917, and the amount increasing in $5 million increments to $25 million in FY 1921. (By contrast, the Shackleford bill called for an annual appropriation of $25 million, but it did not appropriate the funds, which would have required a separate appropriations act.)

"Construction" included "reconstruction and improvement," but not maintenance. No funds would be expended until a state makes an agreement with the secretary to properly maintain the road (with "properly maintain" now defined as maintain "in practically as good a condition as when it was first built"). The states would be responsible for carrying out the construction in accordance with its construction work and labor laws, but the secretary retained the right of inspection and approval of the work.

On May 8, 1916, the Senate approved the Bankhead bill with some amendments, notably, approval of a new Section 8, introduced by Rep. Joseph Walsh of Massachusetts. Section 8 appropriated $10 million ($1 million per year for 10 years) for roads and trails within or only partly within the national forests. During the debate, Page was on the Senate floor as an advisor to Sen. Bankhead, furnishing information and answering questions.

The conference committee of the two houses completed work on June 27. The version that emerged from conference closely followed the Bankhead bill. The new bill indicated that federal-aid projects must be "substantial in character" and "properly maintained," a term that was redefined as "the making of needed repairs and the preservation of a reasonably smooth surface considering the type of the road; but shall not be held to include extraordinary repairs, nor reconstruction."

If projects were not properly maintained, the states, or their civil subdivisions, would be given only four months to put the road in proper condition. If not, the secretary "shall thereafter refuse to approve any project for road construction in said state, or the civil subdivision thereof." Although the states were required to have state highway departments, the act recognized that some states might be prohibited by their constitution from engaging in internal improvements. In those cases, the funds would be made available to the state highway department or the governor to be expended when counties within the state appropriated matching funds for projects developed under the legislation. States that did not have a state highway agency capable of carrying out the terms of the program had two years to take the necessary legislative or administrative action to establish one.

On June 29, the House approved the bill by a substantial majority, and the Senate approved it unanimously. The final bill was five pages long and contained only 11 sections. Debate in the Congress had been extensive - some 300 pages in the Congressional Record. Many issues that had once been controversial, such as the constitutionality of the program, were not controversial in 1916. Most of the debate focused on the formula for apportioning funds and the exclusion of cities from the federal-aid program. Wealthier states, which contributed most of the revenues in the general treasury, felt they would not receive their fair share of the funds, while their large cities, which also contributed heavily, would receive nothing.

On July 11, President Wilson signed the bill in a White House ceremony attended by members of Congress and representatives of AAA, AASHO, and farmers organizations.

"I take a great deal of pleasure in signing this bill, " said the president, "particularly because it tends to thread the various parts of the country together and assists the farmer in his intercourse with others." After signing the bill, he handed the pen to the representative of AAA, which has displayed the pen in its headquarters (now in Heathrow, Fla.) ever since - much to the dismay of AASHO, which played the key role in drafting the legislation.

The first project completed under the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 was a 2.55-mile (4.1-kilometer) section of the road from Albany to Richmond, Calif. The total cost — federal and state — of the project was $53,938.85.

Some elements of the good roads movement, particularly those who favored national highways, were unhappy with the bill. And the heavily populated states remained unhappy over the apportionment factors.

The Boston Post summed up this view in an editorial: "There is the Wilson administration's $75,000,000 good roads measure, which is expected to build many miles of fine road in the South and West, where the states have neglected the work and where votes frequently grow by the roadside." Still, many highway interests, even those that favored national roads, found positive features in the act. George Diehl, chairman of AAA's Good Roads Board, said the act "is fundamentally as sound as any measure that could be enacted." Its most refreshing feature, he thought, was that because the states would have to match the federal funds, the program would be free from the taint of the pork barrel.

Southern Good Roads, meanwhile, made its enthusiastic support clear. "The Bill is as big as the great country it represents and as broad as the humanity it would serve. Its enactment will take the public highways out of politics and make them thoroughfares for commerce and industry instead of paths to public office."

"The approval of the good roads bill by the President yesterday marks the beginning of a new era of domestic development in the United States, the beneficial effects of which will be felt by every citizen of the country. [It] is impossible to estimate the indirect benefits conferred through facility of intercourse, increase of trade, development of now inaccessible lands, transfer of urban population to country, growth of local centers, etc . The sum of profit, comfort and happiness created by road improvement, while already incalculable, is small compared with the results that will be achieved during the next five years."

Editorial, The New York Times

July 12, 1916

Getting Started

Secretary of Agriculture David F. Houston issued the first apportionment of federal-aid funds on July 21. Of the $5 million authorized for fiscal year 1917, the largest amount went to Texas ($291,927.81) and the smallest to Delaware ($8,184.37).

As Page acknowledged, implementing a new program of this magnitude involved "many vexing details," but he wanted to have road work underway in at least a few states "before winter sets in." One of the first steps toward that end was to issue regulations that would put the funds to work as quickly as possible.

After Page and the Agriculture Department's solicitor, Francis G. Caffery, prepared a draft, Page invited the heads of the state highway agencies to review and comment on the regulations during a conference at the new National Museum (today's Smithsonian Museum of Natural History) in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 16.

The night before, AASHO President Henry Shirley convened a meeting of state highway officials at the Raleigh Hotel with OPRRE officials in attendance. State officials went over the draft rules and regulations and agreed on recommendations to be proposed the following day to Page. In addition, AASHO unanimously agreed to appoint a special committee to work with the OPRRE on standard plans, specifications, and forms for the construction and maintenance of federal-aid roads.

The following day at 10 a.m., Page convened the conference at the National Museum. Page assured the AASHO representatives from 35 states that his intent was to cooperate with the states in every way possible and so far as it was practical to do so. Inevitably, he said, because this was the first time the federal government and the states had cooperated in highway construction, a great many points would come up that would have to be straightened out. For that reason, he had invited the states to participate in the conference on the rules for the new program.

As OPRRE's J.E. Pennybacker read each section of the draft rules, Shirley explained any changes proposed by AASHO. Page adopted most of AASHO's recommendations in the final rules and regulations, issued as Department of Agriculture Circular 65 on Sept. 1, just six weeks after President Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act. The final regulation contained 11 provisions for the federal-aid program and seven for forest road projects.


As might be expected of any new program, many new questions remained even after the initial regulations were issued. For example, among the state highway agencies' questions within the first year were:

  • What types of construction might be defined as "substantial construction"? In such a diverse nation, Page told them, hard and fast determinations were not possible. He intended "to let each state submit its case and convince us."
  • Is the state a channel for sending funds directly to counties and townships? The state highway department must be the responsible, technically qualified agent to submit suitable plans, specifications, and estimates of cost to OPRRE.
  • Was it the policy of the department to confine the expenditure of funds to transcontinental highways and other main routes? No, the states choose the projects.
  • Does the state share have to be paid by state funds? It would simplify operations but is not necessary.
  • Does the direct state supervision provision of the act require that contracts be awarded by the state rather than a county? The act does not require that the state award the contract, "but it is hardly conceivable that the state highway department can do all of the things required" if the counties also may award contracts.
  • What constitutes a "rural post road?" This question required a ruling by the attorney general, who found that to prove the post road requirement would "require the submission of evidence to show that the mails are actually carried over the road proposed to be improved or that there is a reasonable prospect that this will be done."
  • Because funds were available for expenditure for more than one year (generally, the year authorized plus one year in states haaving a state highway agency), at what point does the federal government incur an expenditure? A federal expenditure occurs when the secretary of agriculture executes the project agreement; at which point, the funds would not lapse, even if the work is not completed within the period of availablity.
  • Can federal aid funds be used on Indian reservations? The statutory language does not indicate an intent by Congress to exclude Indian or other reservations; therefore, the issue is up to the state highway departments.

At the time, six states had no semblance of a state highway agency, and nine others required additional legislation before they would be able to perform the functions required by the new law. OPRRE worked with many of these states to draft state highway bills based on the OPRRE model state highway bill. Within a year, every state except Indiana had a highway agency in place and the necessary legislative consent. In Indiana, a constitutional challenge to a highway commission was not resolved until 1919.

Page recognized that OPRRE, which had been organized mainly for research and dissemination of information, would have to adapt to its major new responsibilities. Therefore, on Nov. 1, he reorganized OPRRE.

He explained the changes in OPRRE's annual report for FY 1917: "To meet the new conditions, the work of the office was grouped in two branches, known, respectively, as the engineering branch and the management and economics branch. At the head of these two branches were placed a chief engineer and a chief of management, respectively, who reported to the director. Two general inspectors were appointed, reporting immediately to the director and operating independently of the two branches." Page also established a new field structure. The country was divided into 10 districts with a district engineer in charge of each.

On Sept. 1, 1916, construction began on California Federal Aid Road Project No. 3, and on Jan. 30, 1918, it became the first project completed under the Federal Aid Road Act. The road extended 2.55 miles (4.1 kilometers) from Albany at the Alameda County line to Richmond in Contra Costa County. Historian Albert C. Rose described the project: "The work consisted of grading the roadbed, draining and installing culverts flanked with concrete headwalls, and laying a Portland cement concrete base, in the proportions of 1:3:6, with a width of 20 feet [6 meters] and a thickness of 5 inches [13 centimeters], surfaced with a bituminous concrete top (Topeka mix) 1½ inches [3.8 centimeters] in thickness. ... The total cost of the project, including the money allotted by the State, was $53,938.85."

Sidetracked by the Great War

Almost before the program got underway, it faltered, mainly because of America's entry into World War I in April 1917. From construction workers to engineers, the people needed to build the federal-aid highway projects went to war in Europe. At OPRRE, now called the Bureau of Public Roads as proposed in 1902 by Brownlow and Eldridge, 79 of 189 men and one woman entered the military by war's end. Across the country, personnel shortages were compounded by shortages of road-building material. When material was available, a shortage of railroad cars often made shipment difficult. By war's end in November 1918, the federal-aid highway program had little to show for the effort that went into its creation. Although 572 projects totaling 6,249 miles (10,057 kilometers) had been approved at an estimated cost of $42.28 million, only five projects had been completed, and they totaled 17.6 miles (28.3 kilometers).

The shape of the postwar program was the main theme of the Joint Highway Congress in Chicago, Dec. 11 to 12, 1918. It was sponsored by AASHO, which favored federal aid, and the Highway Industries Association, a trade group representing automobile and truck manufacturers who supported national highways. Page was scheduled to address the joint congress on "Highway Control by the Federal Government Under War Conditions"; however, on Dec. 9, 1918, while meeting with AASHO's executive committee in Chicago's Hotel La Salle in advance of the congress, he became ill and died.

At AASHO's suggestion, Secretary Houston asked Thomas H. MacDonald to head the Bureau of Public Roads. After the salary was increased from $4,500 to $6,000 a year, MacDonald accepted the position of "chief of bureau" and took office on July 1, 1919. Under a variety of titles, he would hold the position until 1953, but he was always known as "The Chief." His vision of a federal-aid program founded on a federal-state partnership would enrich the cause to which Logan Waller Page had dedicated his life.

85 Years Old and Still Going Strong

Under MacDonald, the program would be set on its modern course by the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which established the "system" concept that is still an essential element of the federal-aid highway program in the form of the National Highway System created under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

The program, created in 1916 and modified in 1921, would transform the nation. It built a network of paved roads in the 1920s and 1930s. It helped the nation through the Depression of the 1930s by providing needed jobs for the unemployed. It supported the defense effort in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and many other military actions. It gave birth to the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, which has often been called the greatest public works project in history and which reshaped our identity as individuals and as a nation. And today, with a funding level over $30 billion a year, the program is helping the country enhance an intermodal transportation network to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

But through all those changes, the federal-aid highway program still relies on partnerships, particularly the partnership formed with the states on July 11, 1916. It is appropriate, however, to say that the federal-state partnership actually began earlier when the partners collaborated to create the Federal Aid Road Act.

As Southern Good Roads magazine said at the time: "It will strengthen the relations between the states and the nation, making them active partners in a great work for the common good." At the start of a new century, 85 years after President Wilson signed the Federal Road Act of 1916, the Federal Highway Administration, its partners in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and many other organizations continue to advance that great work for the common good.

Richard F. Weingroff is an information liaison specialist with FHWA's Office of Infrastructure.

Elsewhere on July 11, 1916

Compiled by Richard F. Weingroff and Delores Colbert

What else was happening on July 16, 1916:

Former New York Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, the presidential nominee of the Republican Party, is in New York City planning a campaign tour and arranging for his formal notification ceremony by party officials, headed by Sen. Warren Harding of Ohio. Reports emerge today that President Woodrow Wilson will disregard presidential precedent and make a brief stumping tour to counter Hughes' planned tour.

The Democratic Steering Committee takes steps to conclude U.S. Senate business by Sept. 1 so that senators up for reelection can go home to campaign. The Senate will begin its daily sessions at 11 a.m. and continue to 8 p.m. without recess. Republicans, eager for their candidates to hit the campaign trail, have no objection.

According to a news report, July 11 "was another good day for the Allies, who are making a steady advance on all fronts ... with only occasional setbacks." On the Western Front, the British finally captured the fiercely contested town of Contalmaison after desperate day and night fighting and are holding the town against a German counterattack. On the Eastern Front, a Russian drive against the German line on both sides of the Kovel-Sarny Railroad stopped the German offensive against Lutsk. The Russians are launching sledgehammer blows in the vicinity of Kiselin and Zubilno.

Feverish liquidation of war stocks and affiliated issues continued on a broad scale today. As one report noted, "Only a few special stocks were spared, in the sense that their losses were comparatively nominal."

Flooding continued in central Alabama in the wake of a tropical hurricane in the Southeast. Many roads and bridges are out. Relief workers were doing their best to rescue marooned families.

In New York City, the Board of Estimates was considering a Public Service Commission report that an additional $22 million would be needed for two contracts for the dual subway system. Concern was expressed about a growing outbreak of infantile paralysis.

Even as government forces repulsed attacks on two Mexican garrisons, rebel leader Pancho Villa established headquarters to begin accumulating supplies and equipment for an extensive campaign. With President Wilson insisting on America's absolute right to protect its borders, the 69th Regiment (the "Fighting Irishmen") left Camp Whitman in New York today for the Texas border. Meanwhile, 6th Division Army headquarters in McAllen, Texas, appointed a committee to investigate reports that employers were informing guardsmen from New York that all promised pay allowances would be canceled and that successors had been appointed to their jobs.

In London, 70 passengers were injured when a double-decked street car jumped the tracks and crashed into a building. The crash occurred in front of an army hospital, and the whole staff of doctors and nurses rendered first aid.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce began plans to raise $1 million to enforce the "open shop" doctrine and clear the docks of freight tied up by striking Pacific Coast longshoremen. Meanwhile, in a hearing before the Federal Board of Arbitrators in New York on union wage demands, the president of the Order of Railway Telegraphers said the railroads could pay his men higher wages if the directors were not so occupied with paying dividends on watered stock. The men now earn $12 to $15 a week.

In Baltimore, three U.S. Navy experts conclude that the giant German submarine Deutschland, the first transatlantic freight-carrying sub, could be converted to military purposes only by radical structural changes. Unloading of dyestuffs began. The news was greeted with joy in Berlin because U-boats would allow Germany to continue trading with America in defiance of England's blockage declarations.

The Boston Red Sox swept a doubleheader with the White Sox in Chicago. Boston's Babe Ruth, who pitched an uneventful one-third of an inning in the first game, pitched all nine innings of the second game, a 3-to-1 victory. He struck out five, walked one, and hit one batter while going one for three at bat.

Richard Weingroff and Delores Colbert work in FHWA's Office of Infrastructure