Indiana Highway Laws, 1917 and 1919

When talking about the state highway system of Indiana, there is some confusion about exactly when it was created. There was an initial law in March 1917 that created the Indiana State Highway Commission. This law, containing 31 acts, was very explicit about what the ISHC was, how it was to be organized, and the provisions on how to do its job. And it never really got a chance to work, because, according to newspapers of the time, “under which practically nothing was accomplished because of litigation affecting its constitutionality.”

Part of the potential problems with the constitutionality of the law stems from the fact that the current (not only then, but now) Indiana Constitution was the second such document in the state. The first was written with Indiana statehood in 1816. The second, of 1851, was written, in part, due to the spectacular failure of Indiana transportation projects of the Mammoth Improvement Bill of 1836. It was the debt, and subsequent pending filing of bankruptcy, that was a big factor in the creation of the new constitution.

But the Indiana legislature was not done trying to create a state highway system (and being able to partake in federal aid road money). Two laws were passed in 1919: 1) the state highway commission law, and 2) the county unit road law. Both of these laws were written to help with the then current patchwork of roads in Indiana.

Until 1919, maintenance and control of Indiana roads were handled by three different government authorities: a town or city, one of 92 counties or one of 1,016 governmental townships. (See yesterday’s ITH blog for description of townships.) Originally, townships would improve then maintain roads in their jurisdiction. At some point, with improvement done, the county would take over the maintenance of some of these roads. There was also at the time, as mentioned yesterday, a three mile law, making the county, when properly petitioned, improve and maintain roads while passing the charges to the residents of the township which contained the project.

The County Unit Road Law was, at the time, “something new in road legislation.” The first thing it did was abolish all township control over roads. All roads, at that point, came under the responsibility of the county commissioners. It also allowed the issuing of bonds for the construction of all county roads. It also stated that any road money that the township had not used was to be turned over to the county. The bond restrictions were also listed: not less than $50, terms not less than 10 nor more than 20 years, not more than 5% interest, interest to be payable on 15 May and 15 November, bonds are tax exempt, and shall not sell for less than their face value.

The State Highway Commission law, known as House Enrolled Act #83 (HEA 83), was far more ambitious. HEA 83 provided “for cooperation with the federal government in the construction of rural post roads, repeals the state highway commission law of 1917, and all other laws in conflict.” HEA 83 was approved on 10 March 1919, and became effective that day.

Instead of using bonds to construct and maintain a state highway system, funding was to come from the following sources: inheritance tax receipts, motor vehicle license fees, proceeds of a 10 cent levy on each $100 of property value, and a 50-50 plan of federal aid. Both laws included that the approval of plans and specifications of county road and bridge projects be handled by the State Highway Commission. Materials used in these projects must also be approved by the state commission.

The most important section of HEA 83 was section 12. It states that ISHC commissioners “shall, at the earliest possible moment, proceed to lay out a system of state highways, which shall reach each and every county seat of the state and each and every town of over 5,000 inhabitants.” It also stated that “all roads designated under the old state highway commission law as ‘main market highways’ shall be ‘state highways.'” Those old roads (there were five of them) “shall be improved and maintained as state highways the same as it they had been designated by the new highway commission.”

Another provision in this section was that the commission was to have laid out a system of roads connecting all county seats in the state by 1 April 1920, and to have been approved by the governor by that date. Work on the ISHC projects “may be done by contract or in any other manner deemed by the state highway commission most efficient and economical to the state.” Bridges with a span more than 20 feet are to be contracted separately from the road project leading to and from that bridge.

Two more important sections of HEA 83 are sections 24 and 25. Section 24 gives the ISHC the right of eminent domain. Section 25 concerns the elimination of railroad at grade crossings. “If the commission and a railroad can not agree, the commission may petition the public service commission to settle the matter.” The costs of such a grade separation shall be split 50-50 between the ISHC and the railroad in question.

There are a lot more provisions of this law. I will probably cover more of them at a later date.

Major source for this post: Noblesville Ledger, 05 April 1919, pp6. Source courtesy of

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