Tuesday 11th July 1916
After being the first sitting President to visit an automobile factory, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act, the first grant-in-aid enacted by Congress to help states build roads. In 1916, roads throughout America were generally poor and most were susceptible to weather. The advent of the Ford Model T brought on new interests in higher standards for roads, and by the early 1900s, motorist clubs like the American Automobile Association (AAA) had rallied around the call for federally funded long-distance highways. Farmers balked at the idea, arguing that paying taxes so city people could go on car tours was unfair. As the car became more important to farmers, however, the ground became fertile for legislation to raise the quality or roads across the country. In 1907, the legal issue of the federal government’s role in road-building was settled in the Supreme Court case Wilson vs. Shaw. Justice David Brewer wrote that the federal government could “construct interstate highways” because of their constitutional right to regulate interstate commerce. By 1912, bills concerning federal funding of the highways were considered on the House floor, although a split in constituencies had divided the advocates. Farmers wanted sturdy, all-weather postal roads, and urban motorists wanted paved long-distance highways. Many state officials claim that any federal-funding package would only be used as a “pork barrel” to interfere with the operations of the state. In the end, a bill was passed that included the stipulation that all states have a highway agency staffed by professional engineers who would administer the federal funds as they saw fit. The bill on offer leaned in the favor of the rural populations by focusing on rural postal roads rather than interstate highways. The cause of interstate highways would not be addressed until many years later during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, but the Federal Aid Road Act was the cornerstone for today’s highway system and the precedent for all highway legislation to come. The rural road improvement that happened as a result of the act helped rural Americans participate more efficiently in the national economy.