1917: The Forerunner of the Oregon DOT Gets Its Start

February 19, 1917

Oregon Governor James Withycombe signed into law a measure that included provisions for reorganizing the state’s highway commission, in a major milestone for strengthening transportation infrastructure in the Beaver State and making that network more reflective of the public will. These provisions in the wide-ranging Oregon Highway Law specifically required that the commission, which had been established in 1913 to oversee planning and funding for the state’s highways and work closely with the Oregon State Highway Department in this regard, change its membership.

Until the enactment of the Oregon Highway Law in 1917, the commission had consisted of the state’s governor, secretary of state, and treasurer. The new law, however, directed that these public officials step down from serving on the commission and be replaced by three volunteer citizens appointed by the governor. These new members would each be selected from the three congressional districts existing in Oregon at the time.

The individuals appointed by Withycombe on March 1, 1917, to serve on the reformulated Oregon State Highway Commission were Portland resident Simon Benson, a prominent civic leader and longtime good-roads advocate; Pendleton banker W.L. Thompson; and Eugene-based real estate agent E.J. Adams. (Along with Withycombe, the other men no longer serving on the commission were Ben W. Olcott, secretary of state; and Thomas, B. Kay, state treasurer.)

Five days after their appointments, the new members of the commission held their first meeting. Benson was chosen as the group’s new chairman. Another passing-of-the-torch activity took place when Withycombe and the other former members of the commission provided their successors with the various files, maps, equipment, and other items that had been accumulated for oversight of the state’s highways.

A couple of days after the enactment of the Oregon Highway Law, the Morning Oregonian newspaper assessed that its overall provisions could help make possible “a real system of highways that will aid immeasurably the growth and prosperity of the state”; the new members of the commission, for better or for worse, had been given a blank slate for trying to convert those hopes into reality. As Benson and his fellow members noted in an official report that they issued towards the end of 1918, “The former commission, in view of proposed legislation providing for a new highway code, made no appropriations nor were policies outlined, so that when the new Commission entered upon its duties, it was not embarrassed by policies made by its predecessors.”

Despite the formidable task of significantly improving Oregon’s still-fledgling highway system – and also in the face of such other potential setbacks as the nationwide restriction on available resources following the U.S. entry into World War I – the commission managed to help bring about several noteworthy accomplishments while carrying out its work. In April 1917, for example, the commission appointed Herbert Nunn as the new state highway engineer (director) of the Oregon State Highway Department. He served in the position for six years.

The commission worked closely with the highway department in implementing a host of new standards now required by law for building roads across the state. The commission’s 1918 report recounted, “Specifications covering hard surface pavement have been prepared by the State Highway Engineer and adopted by the commission as well as specifications for grading bridge construction which have been acceptable to the United States Office of Public Roads and are used on all Federal Aid Projects in the State.”

One clear indication of the progress made on highway construction in Oregon during this time was that, in the course of 1917 and 1918 alone, a total of 40 bridges were built throughout the state. By 1920, there was a total of 620 miles (998 kilometers) of paved roads in Oregon for a state population of 783,389 people.

In 1969, the Oregon State Highway Department was replaced with the present-day Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). The Ohio State Highway Commission, mirroring ODOT’s multi-modal mission, became the Oregon Transportation Commission at that time. This commission, consisting of five rather than three members appointed by the governor from various regions of the state, continues to work closely with ODOT on priorities involving highways; public transportation; rail; transportation safety; rail; motor carrier transportation; and drivers and motor vehicles.

For more information on the origins of the Oregon State Highway Commission (now the Oregon Transportation Commission), please check out https://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/About/Pages/History.aspx and http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

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