The History of Roads in Michigan
This article was written by Dorothy G. Pohl, Managing Director for the Ionia County Road Commission, and Norman E. Brown, retired MDOT Act 51 Administrator. It was presented to the Association of Southern Michigan Road Commissions on December 2, 1997 and is reproduced here by permission of its authors.
The war years of the 1940s accentuated national interest in highway transportation. A study conducted at the time led to the establishment of a National System of Interstate Highways, not to exceed 40,000 miles, to aid in the defense and development of the nation. The Interstate System, including 978 miles of highways in Michigan, was approved by the federal government in 1947. This system has subsequently been expanded.
Road developments in Michigan during the war period was largely financed through federal funds made available under the Defense Highway Act of 1941. With a decrease in highway revenues during the ward period and rising costs of construction and maintenance, highway agencies, under the Good Roads Federation, early in 1946, undertook a detailed engineering analysis of road conditions and highway needs in Michigan with the cooperation of the Bureau of Public Roads. The state legislature in 1947 created a joint committee to cooperate with the Highway Study Committee of the Good Roads Federation.
The study was completed in 1948 and presented to the governor and legislature and stated the following:
For 15 years the depression and the war have prevented normal highway development to meet expanding needs; Since 1932, despite spectacular increases in motor vehicle traffic, construction on all classes of roadways has been far below the rate in pre-depression years. About one-fifth less money is being spent on roads and streets in 1948 than in the late-1920s. The result has been a slow but steady deterioration of a great and basic public service. The effects of this deterioration now hamper and, if allowed to continue, soon will severely handicap the business, social and recreational activities of nearly every person in the state. There are many signs of this deterioration: the low standard of improvement on thousands of miles of rural roads; worn and inadequate pavements; mounting congestion and frustrating delays on important thoroughfares in city and country; and the rising accident toll on roadways of all kinds.
Since there has not been enough roadbuilding money to go around, it is not surprising that keen competition for funds has been developed among highway agencies. At different times, one or another of them has succeeded in persuading the legislature to adopt measures for its individual relief. Meanwhile the proposals put forward to step up highway funds to a level more commensurate with the need have been opposed because all of the facts were not available. In recent years (again 1947) it has become more and more apparent that piecemeal remedies and rivalries between highway agencies and organizations will solve none of the basic problems. These conditions actually are impeding sound development of highway transportation. The basic highway problem is clear enough: how to accomplish the double-barreled job of catching up with the accumulated backlog of deficiencies and of meeting current needs as they arise.
The solution can be determined only on the basis of all the facts, i.e.…a Needs Study!
The report found that $1.5 billion were needed over a 15-year period to bring the entire highway system of Michigan—state, county and city—up to safe and tolerable standards. Recommendations for weight and gas tax increases wee made to produce about $30 million of additional revenue annually. The total Motor Vehicle Highway (MVH) Fund was to be distributed 44 percent to the State Highway Department, 37 percent to the counties and 19 percent to the cities—as agreed to by these agencies—with local contributions for former township or local roads and residential streets. The 1948 legislature did not pass the legislation to effect these recommendations and the 1949 special session also failed to do so. 1950 was an election year for the governor and legislators—so nothing was done until 1951.
Act 51 of 1951
The great need for new roads, revealed by a 1951 Michigan Good Roads Federation study, resulted in passage of Act 51 of the Michigan Public Acts of 1951. As amended, it clarified the tri-level responsibility for highway administration, which essentially had existed since 1931. It provides for continuous classification of all roads and streets into three systems—state, county and municipal—and to sub-classifications within each system. This act also established the Motor Vehicle Highway Fund (precursor to the Michigan Transportation Fund), comprised of highway user tax dollars, to finance operation of this tri-jurisdiction plan of highway administration. The exclusive “earmarking” of highway user taxes for highway purposes and the distribution formula of the MVH Fund have insured the implementation of essential highway development programs at all levels. Act 51 increased the state gas tax from 3 to 4.5 cents per gallon and increased weight taxes on commercial vehicles in addition. The Act also repealed previous highway fund distribution statutes and set up a Motor Vehicle Fund into which all the gas tax and weight tax was to be deposited.
The new statute provided that 44 percent of the money would go to the State Highway Department, 19 percent to incorporated cities and villages and 37 percent to counties. The increase in funds made available under the 1951 act, however, failed to make a huge dent in the backlog of road needs that had piled up during the war years. Recognizing this situation, the state legislature sponsored a needs study in 1955 under the direction of the Automotive Safety Foundation. The study showed the needs picture of 1951 had been greatly antiquated in the short span of four years.
Following the 1955 study, the state legislature that year passed Act 87, which increased the gas tax from 4.5 cents to 6 cents per gallon, increased some commercial vehicle weight taxes and prescribed that increased revenues should be spent on an arterial system of the more heavily traveled roads in the state. The State Highway Department received 75 percent of this money and the counties received 25 percent. The 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act set up the Highway Trust Fund, a realistic financial mechanism which expedited construction of the renamed National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
In the first half of 1957, the Michigan legislature amended previous highway legislation, repealing provisions of Act 87 and putting all highway revenues previously collected under the statute and Act 51 of 1951 into one fund, instead of two separate funds, and revising the basis on which it was to be divided. Under the new Act, the State Highway Department received 47 percent of the MVH Fund, the counties 35 percent and the cities and villages, 18 percent. [Very little change has been made to the road financing formula in Act 51 since 1957.]
Many of us in the road business have heard and used the phrase that the roads just “grew” there. Now we really know what happened!
- “A Brief History of Michigan Road Development,” Richard W. Walker, 51st Michigan Highway Conference Report.
- “Highway Needs in Michigan,” Michigan Good Roads Federation, 1948.
- “A Summary of the Development of Michigan’s Rural Road System,” Gary P. McCarthy, speech.
- “Making Michigan Move, A History of Michigan Highways and the Michigan Department of Transportation,” MDOT report, 1980.
- “The Evolution and Development of the County Road System,” A.O. Cuthbert, CRAM director, speech.
- “History of the State Highway Department,” Frank F. Rogers, CE.
- “Historical Development of Highways,” Philip P. Mason, Professor of History, Wayne State University, April 28, 1977.
- “Early Days of Struggle Remembered as MDOT Reaches 75th Birthday,” Michigan Roads and Construction, August 2, 1980.
- “Early Indian Trails Traced Highways of the Future from Footpaths to Expressways,” Philip P. Mason, Wayne State University.
- “These Highways Are For You, A Report to the Highway Users of Michigan,” Michigan State Highway Department, 1958.