My Take on This Day in History

I’m tired of simply copying and pasting long passages from the History.com website – fascinating as most of the tidbits I choose may be. What’s needed here is a dose of Bulldog commentary, the kind that makes the historical tidbit in question that much more interesting to read. Henceforth, when you plotz in front of your computer with your favorite morning beverage (and I hope it isn’t bourbon) you’ll get a dose of canine sense only The Bulldog can dispense.

Blame it on Wilson and the Progressives

For better or for worse, the practice of wasting taxpayer money on highways and bridges to nowhere can be traced back to – you guessed it – Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat that historically savvy people love to hate.

On this day in 1916, in a ceremony at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson signs the Federal Aid Road Act.  The law established a national policy of federal aid for highways.

From the mid-19th century, the building and maintenance of roads had been seen as a state and local responsibility. As a result, America’s roads were generally in poor condition, especially in rural areas. As the so-called Progressive Era dawned near the turn of the 20th century, attitudes began to change, and people began to look towards government to provide better roads, among other infrastructure improvements.

A hundred years later we see that attitudes have changed even further and great numbers of people are looking to the government to provide everything from food and shelter to cell phones.

The first federal aid bill was submitted to Congress in 1902, proposing the creation of a Bureau of Public Roads. With the rise of the automobile–especially after Henry Ford introduced the affordable Model T in 1908, putting more Americans on the road than ever before–Congress was pushed to go even further.

Ordinarily, you’d think that Congress would not have to be pushed when it comes to spending money that might ensure re-election. But then, in those days, Republicans were truly republican.

In the 1907 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.

I would have argued that such power was clearly granted in Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 7 where Congress is authorized to”…establish Post Offices and post Roads.” After all, if mail from a post office in New Jersey is to be delivered to a post office in Vermont, a road (series of roads, actually) must be constructed to facilitate this and the road crossing interstate lines would necessarily have to be a major highway.

In 1912, Congress enacted the Post Office Department Appropriations Bill, which set aside $500,000 for an experimental program to improve the nation’s post roads (roads over which mail is carried). The program proved too small to make significant improvements, but it taught Congress that federal aid for roads needed to go to the states instead of local counties in order to be effective.

Serious consideration of a federal road program began in early 1916. There were two competing interest groups at stake: Farmers wanted sturdy, all-weather post roads to transport their goods, and urban motorists wanted paved long-distance highways. The bill that both houses of Congress eventually approved on June 27, 1916, and that Wilson signed into law that July 11, leaned in the favor of the rural populations by appropriating $75 million for the improvement of post roads. It included the stipulation that all states have a highway agency staffed by professional engineers who would administer the federal funds and ensure that all roads were constructed properly.

I don’t see how these groups competed with each other. Did it occur to no one that agricultural products produced in South Carolina might require transportation to markets in Virginia and that paved, long-distance highways would make the journey faster and more cost effective?

In addition to enabling rural Americans to participate more efficiently in the national economy, the Federal Aid Road Act was a precursor to the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which provided federal aid to the states for the building of an interconnected interstate highway system. The interstate highway issue would not be fully addressed until much later, when the Federal Highway Act of 1956 allocated more than $30 billion for the construction of some 41,000 miles of interstate highways.

I will say this: system of primary, secondary and tertiary highways and roads that feed into and out of the interstate highway system is the envy of the world.

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