Historical Highlights

Funding the Expansion of Rural Post Roads

July 11, 1916
Funding the Expansion of Rural Post Roads Image courtesy of Library of Congress Serving 20 years in the House of Representatives, Dorsey Shackleford of Missouri chaired the Committee on Roads from the 63rd through the 65th Congresses (1913–1919).
On this date, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law a measure “to provide that the United States shall aid the States in the construction of rural post roads,” otherwise known as the Rural Post Roads Act of 1916. Introduced by Dorsey W. Shackleford of Missouri on January 6, 1916, the bill was referred to the Committee on Roads. When the bill returned to the floor two weeks later, the House dissolved into the Committee of the Whole and proceeded to debate it at length. Edward Everts Browne of Wisconsin defended the bill: “Our road system is wholly inadequate to meet the demands of this twentieth-century civilization.” The federal government depended on the mail service and was therefore obligated to equip its mail carriers. The effect of the bill, he argued, would extend well beyond more efficient mail delivery. Harkening back to the debates over internal improvements during Andrew Jackson’s administration—the question of whether to use federal money to pay for what would otherwise appear to be state and local concerns—improved roads would generate more trade which, ultimately, would benefit the entire country. Those in the minority, however, feared that states which already possessed sufficient infrastructure would be unfairly “called upon to contribute heavily for the construction of roads in other sections of the country,” according to Joseph Walsh of Massachusetts. In the House report, Walsh articulated the views of the minority, writing “it is the duty of the State to provide roads for the people, and it is respectfully contended that failure on the part of the State to perform its duty does not transfer that duty to the Federal Government.” After six days of debate, the bill passed the House on January 25, 283 to 81, with three voting present and 67 not voting. After the Senate amended the bill, the two houses convened in conference committee, and after prolonged discussions, the final version was signed into law on July 11, 1916. The law appropriated $85 million for the purpose of building roads in rural locales and in national forests under the direction of the Secretary of Agriculture and the individual state highway departments.

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