Many rough steps were taken along the way to meet the needs of the growing American-motorist nation. Consistently new inventions and improvements were made in attempts to find the balance of road and highway regulations that were needed.
The Railroad was America’s greatest 19th Century technological invention. It sparked the growth of Western expansion and American Industries. In 1828, the first completed transportation tracks for people and products running from Baltimore, MD to Ohio were completed. Americans rapidly became accustomed to the faster and cheaper travel unrestrained by water, weather, and mountains. The speed of economic growth increased swiftly from the development of the lines, connecting rural areas with large cities. Even with the many positive attributes, the Railroad did not complete the needs for societal growth. There were no standards across the nation from rail line to rail line, making it difficult to travel across Railroad company lines. Derailments were a frequent worry of passengers, along with the bad travel conditions of the rail cars. The path of travel was on a fixed line, if a passenger needed to get a town with no direct Railroad access, it required another means of travel.
National Roads were the first federally funded highways. In 1802 Congress first passed a National Road connecting Baltimore, MD to Vandalia, OH. The roads were federally funded and maintained by the state, but the states were unable to keep up with the large costs of the maintenance for the highways and failed.
Turnpikes were the next step on the way the Interstate Highway System. New England was the most developed area in the US and ready for funded highways. In 1890, New England created corporations that built and maintained its inter-urban highways, covering the cost by 10 mile intervals of toll stations. “Construction costs outstripped original estimates and maintenance costs exceeded expectations ….”1 The toll roads not only were incapable to sustain the construction costs, but motorists began to avoid the roads all together in search of free roadways. The turnpikes succumbed to an inevitable bankruptcy. Privately operated toll roads shortly developed around the nation, but carried the same inevitable fate as the Turnpikes.
President Woodrow Wilson presented the first Federal Road Aid to construct proper highways for military access during and after World War I. Wilson needed military supplies to get to the sites easily and efficiently. The Secretary of Defense, Bainbridge Colby, decided which roads to improve based on; the number of road divided by the population in the area surrounding the road.
The first in the line of many Federal-Aid Highway Acts started with the 1921 Act. The Act’s purpose was to generate a national road system to be shared and used daily by the nation’s motorists. This Act gave its priority to primary (interstate) highways with a $75 million dollar per year budget. At the time it was a large amount in general terms, but for a national road system, it was inadequate. The 1921 Act was shortly revised into the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938.
The 1938 Act attempted to correct the issue of funding and the location of the highways. The Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) studied the feasibility of a toll-financed system with three east to west and 3 north to south running highways. The BPR’s studies resulted in the formulation of Toll Roads and and Free Roads, maintaining the roads through toll networks. The design’s focus was on the ease to city entrancing and existing, with little focus on the inner-city roads. The 1938 Act followed in line with the previous 1921 Act and failed due to the tolls not self-supporting the roads.
Followed, was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, “a forty-thousand-mile highways network that promised to connect all of the nation’s major cities and metropolitan areas, the details of the funding and implementation provisions indicated that the urban emphasis had been all but eradicated.”2 This Act increased the road length to 33,900 miles of rural highways and 5,000 miles of auxiliary urban routes. The constant issue remained: funding. It was unclear who should pay, the Federal government or the state government and for building or maintenance. It also introduced the idea of a gas-tax to help support the highways. The funding dramatically impacted the support for the Act; the AAA dropped support and BPR slowly questioned it. Local governments were hit hardest by the difficultly in funding for the highways, and resorted to borrowing, drifting them deeper into debt. Once again revised into the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952, it expanded the highway funded to $25 million more per year and then in 1954 to $175 million per year.
1 Holley, (4).
2 Owen D. Gutfreud, Twentieth-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape (New York: Oxford Press, 2004) 46.
The Library of Congress, “Bad Road,” March 17, 2009, <http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/>.
Shropshire Routes to Roots, “Turnpikes,” 2004. March 2009, <http://www3.shropshire-cc.gov.uk/roots/>.