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 Newspapers.com.




Indiana Roads Before the 1919 State Highway Commission

In the early 20th century, the Good Roads Movement was taking hold in the United States. This had led to a number of Auto Trails throughout the country. In January 1912, the newly formed American Automobile Association held a “Federal Aid Good Roads Convention” in Washington, DC. It was so successful that another one was planned for 6 March 1913. The goal was to encourage Congress to appropriate money to help build better roads across America. Success in this goal occurred in 1914.

Then, there is Indiana. One of the requirements in the Federal Aid program is that Washington would only deal with a State authority for distribution of funds. No more local roads authority would have access to federal funds. The law creating the Indiana State Highway Commission was passed in 1917. This created a “Market Highway System,” which consisted of five roads to be helped with state aid. In 1919, the law was updated, allowing the creation of a complete state road system connecting “every county seat and town with a population of more than 5,000.”

But what exactly did the State Highway Commission inherit when it was created? Indiana, at that time, consisted of a patch work of roads maintained by either county or local authorities. There were some remaining toll pikes, but these were being taken over by county authorities as the others had been. Maintenance depended greatly on the authority in control. This led to some very spotty road conditions…at best. This map of Marion County in 1917 shows the sporadic nature of maintenance levels. (http://cdm16066.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15078coll8/id/2892/rec/29)

Part of what made things interesting, when it came to maintenance authority, is that every road in Indiana, with the exception of the long distance roads that became toll roads, was maintained by one of the 1,016 government townships that exist in Indiana. (The distinction is made here about the “government township.” There are two types of township in Indiana. One is the government township, which can take any shape and contains a government authority. The other is a survey township, which is [usually] a six mile by six mile square separated by “township lines” on the north and south, and “range lines” on the east and west.)

This led to some interesting road conditions, to say the least. Indiana had, at the time, a “three mile law.” This law required the commissioners of a county to construct a road “when 50 freeholders of a township petition” the county “for the construction of a road not more than three miles in length.” This would then require the county to charge the cost to everyone in the township, whether they use, or even have access to, the road being asked for by petition.

Townships could decide to improve and maintain roads on their own. This leads to interesting situations like a nice gravel road coming to a screeching halt at a township boundary, only to be a dirt road on the other side of that line. An example is in the linked map above. Morris Street (a major east-west road on the south of downtown, mostly on the west side) is listed as “gravel or improved.” At least in Wayne Township. Once across the Center-Wayne Township Line, also known as Belmont Street, Morris Street becomes listed as “ordinary or mud.” (Getting back to the two kinds of townships, literally right in the middle of Center Township is a place where Morris Street is replaced by Prospect Street. This happens at a Range Line, today known as Shelby Street.)

After 1900 or so, as longer sections of road were improved, the county would take the responsibility of maintenance. Basically, the township would pay for the upgrade of the road. Then the county would come in and take over maintenance from that point. This led to a mixed bag of maintenance authorities. It was into this situation that the Indiana State Highway Commission was placed in the middle of to allow the use of federal funds for construction and maintenance. Starting with five roads in 1917 to the current ~12,000 miles of highways today.


INDOT’s 12,000 mile limit

(Or: How do you get to Indianapolis?)

This entry originally appeared in the Indiana Transportation History Facebook group on 16 July 2014.

I have been asked many times why the state of Indiana has been removing roads from the state highway system. Other than the obvious reroutes for traffic efficiency, INDOT is limited by IC 8-23-4-2 as follows: “(a) The state highway system shall be designated by the department. The total extent of the state highway system may not exceed twelve thousand (12,000) miles.”

There is a lot more to the code (for instance: “The state highway system consists of the principal arterial highways in Indiana and includes the following: (1) A highway to the seat of government in each county.”

So why are there no state roads – other than I-65 and I-70 – in Indianapolis? The 12,000 mile rule appears here in glowing fashion.

I-465, for most of its length, is NOT just I-465. Other than the obvious I-74 multiplex (the official term for a road that travels the same path as another) on the west and south sides of the city, depending where you are on I-465, you could be on as many as SEVEN different routes. Take the two mile section from I-65 to US 31 South (East Street) on the south side. At that point, you are technically on I-465, I-74, US 31, US 36, US 40, SR 37, and SR 67. For maintenance recording, that is 14 miles of road in those two miles. For Indiana Code purposes, it is still only two miles. This allows INDOT to have more roads in the system while keeping to the 12,000 mile limit. (And for another fun fact, eventually that section of I-465 will also be part of I-69! That makes EIGHT routes that are in that very small section of interstate. And US 31, SR 37 and US 40 didn’t count until July 1, 1999. Prior to that, US 52 was on that section – but that was rerouted in the mid-90’s to the north side on 465.)

The beauty of bypasses is that they only count once, even though they may be numerous multiplexed roads.

The 12,000 mile limit also creates situations that simply do not exist in other states. For instance, when SR 44 was closed between Franklin and Shelbyville, the INDOT approved detour was north on I-65, to I-465, to I-74 to SR 44 east of Shelbyville. Other states have more state routes connecting places, and they tend to be closer together, making a 42 mile detour completely ridiculous. (The other INDOT route – consisting only of state highways – would have been only 32 miles via I-65, SR 252, SR 9 and SR 44. Still completely ridiculous, honestly.)