This Day in History: 100th Anniversary of First Federal Road Act

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America’s roads and highways may not be in the greatest shape these days, but imagine how much worse they’d be without federal funding. That’s something we can thank President Woodrow Wilson for kick-starting 100 years ago today.

Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act on July 11th, 1916. It was the first federal highway funding in the United States. Before 1916, states and local governments built and maintained roads. (And if you didn’t think roads were in great shape now, imagine what they must have been like then.)

The move towards federal highway funding came about during the so-called Progressive Era during the dawn of the 20th century. Americans started wanting more from the federal government. Here’s a look at the timeline:

  • 1902 – First Federal Aid Bill submitted to Congress proposing creation of Bureau of Public Roads.
  • 1907 – In the case Wilson v. Shaw, the U.S. Supreme Court officially gave Congress the power “to construct interstate highways” under its constitutional right to regulate interstate commerce.
  • 1912 – Congress enacted the Post Office Department Appropriations Bill. It set aside $500,000 for an experimental program to improve postal road routes. The project ended up being too small to make any real large-scale road improvements. 
  • 1916 – Lawmakers started seriously looking into a federal road program that would make everyone happy.  Farmers wanted sturdy, all-weather post roads to transport their goods, and urban motorists wanted paved long-distance highways. Congress eventually approved a bill that leaned in favor of rural populations. It appropriated $75 million to improve post roads. It also required states to have highway agencies staffed by professional engineers who would administer funding and make sure roads were built correctly. Lawmakers passed the bill on June 27, 1916 and President Wilson signed it into law July 11. 
  • 1921 – The Federal Highway Act of 1921 provided federal funding to help states build a paved system of two-lane interstate highways.
  • 1956 – The Federal Highway Act of 1956 created the federal interstate highway system. Signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it allocated more than $30 billion for the construction of some 41,000 miles of interstate highways. 

Photo Copyright: Daniel Fung/Shutterstock
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