1921: The Enactment of a Landmark Law is Highlighted at AASHO’s Annual Meeting

December 8, 1921

The eighth annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) came to an end. (More than a half-century later, AASHO officially renamed itself the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials [AASHTO] to reflect what had become a broader mission encompassing different modes of transportation rather than just highways.) The association’s 1921 annual meeting was held at Hotel Fontenelle on Douglas Street in downtown Omaha.

“At this convention all states were represented with the exception of Rhode Island, South Carolina, Montana and Delaware,” reported the Utah-based Ogden Standard-Examiner in its article on the meeting’s adjournment. “About 250 delegates and representatives were present and the meeting – extending over four days – took up a variety of subjects of interest to all of the states, particularly along the line of construction and maintenance.” This meeting also provided an opportunity for state highway officials to collectively focus on a landmark federal law that had been enacted the previous month.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921 was signed into law by President Warren G. Harding on November 9. Those on hand for this ceremony included William Colfax Markham, secretary-director of the Kansas State Highway Commission (replaced by the Kansas Department of Transportation in 1975) and also AASHO’s legislative liaison. Markham would go on to serve as AASHO’s first executive secretary from 1923 to 1942. (The title of “executive secretary” was changed to “executive director” in 1966.)  

AASHO had worked with the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (a predecessor of the present-day Federal Highway Administration) in developing and strongly promoting the far-reaching legislative measure that was ultimately enacted as the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921. This law further strengthened federal participation in the state-level construction of highways. One of the law’s key provisions entailed appropriating $75 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1922, to be distributed to the states for work on highways. These funds had to be spent on seven percent of each state’s total mileage, three-sevenths of which were required to be interstate in character.

These provisions, by focusing funds on just a small fraction of each state’s highways, would help bring about a more efficient and better connected roads system to replace the irregular, piecemeal segments that had been built before. In another one of the key provisions of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921, federal funding was made contingent on state’s compliance with enhanced engineering standards for the adequacy, width, and durability of its designated roads.

At the AASHO annual meeting in Omaha, those publicly underscoring the scope and significance of the new law included the association’s outgoing president. William S. Keller, the state highway engineer of Alabama and one of the founders of AASHO, had been elected president of AASHO in December of the previous year at the association’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.  

As he prepared to step down from the role of AASHO president, Keller spoke to attendees about the law and its long-term impact on roadbuilding efforts nationwide. “Whether the new law is satisfactory to all States or not, we are compelled to admit that it does please a large majority and that is the best we can hope for,” he noted during this address.

Over the next decade, the overall length of improved highways across the United States more than doubled to about 470,000 miles (756,392 kilometers). More of the highways built during that time were not only hard-surfaced but also stronger, straighter, and wider than before.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Aid_Highway_Act_of_1921 and https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/byday/fhbd1109.htm

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