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. 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.
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. 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.
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.