Indiana State Highway Commission, and Its Delay

By the middle of the 1910’s, the Federal Government at Washington, DC, had around $85 million to help construction of roads throughout the United States. The vast majority of that, $75 million, for the construction of rural post roads, and $10 million for developing roads and trails partly or totally in national forests. The Indiana share of that money would be $2,109,00. Only if there was a state highway department to give that money to.

The Angola Herald of 19 January 1917 quoted George E. Martin, Assistant Professor of Highway Engineering at Purdue University, from the Purdue Bulletin: “Federal aid for road building is now a fact. The federal government will not treat with anything but a state. Some form of state organization is necessary to obtain that aid.” Basically, a state highway commission, or something like it, had to be created to take advantage of that federal money. That’s why there was a law working its way through the General Assembly at the time.

Unfortunately, it was going to be a hard sell in Indiana. After the disaster of the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836, and the new (Indiana) Constitution (of 1851) that came as a direct result of that Act, the state had been a model in local government responsibility. “Extreme local control” were the words used by Professor Martin. Indiana’s “laws have been drawn to give the people of the smallest subdivision of her territory the greatest latitude in the selection of the roads to be improved and the methods to be used for their improvement.” This created a very good system of local roads. “The results have been good in the past.”

One of the things hurting the road system in the state at that time was the way that roads were maintained at the time. While the roads belonged to the township and/or county (after they were purchased back from the toll road companies), maintenance was helped along by the fact that residents along the road had to help keep the road in shape at least two days a year (there were some exceptions due to health, age, etc.). The problem is that “road building is speedily advancing from rule of thumb methods to its proper place as one of the engineering sciences. It is no longer for every man to be a good road builder. To build roads, to meet present conditions r extensive training and experience. It is not possible for the small subdivisions to obtain men qualified to design and construct these modern highways.”

The problem was that the situation was changing rapidly with the coming of the automobile. The road system in the state was slowly becoming overcrowded. “Roads which were entirely satisfactory ten years ago are now inadequate to carry the traffic which comes upon them.” This, with the prospect of millions of federal dollars to help with the project, encouraged the state to finally decide to put together a state highway commission. Unfortunately, the whole bill was caught up in a Constitutionality fight like no other before in the state. (Covered here: Indiana Highway Laws, 1917 & 1919)

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