In 2011, WisDOT marked the 100-year anniversary of an official state transportation agency. The 1911 Wisconsin Legislature created a State Highway Commission to oversee statewide roadway planning and construction activities, but some key transportation developments in Wisconsin occurred several years earlier.
- In the early 1900s, public interest in motor vehicles and better roadways was growing in Wisconsin and across the nation.
- Many states began implementing systems where state governments provided financial assistance to local municipalities to complete roadway improvements, with the understanding the state would have a role in overseeing highway planning and construction efforts.
Amending the constitution
Before the state could provide financial assistance for its fledgling highway system, its constitution would need to be changed because it prohibited the state from “constructing, or aiding in the construction of internal improvements.” A joint resolution introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature in 1905 provided “the state may appropriate money in the treasury or to be raised thereafter by taxation for the construction and improvement of public highways.” Following approval in two consecutive legislative sessions, Wisconsin voters approved the constitutional amendment in 1908.
Forming the State Highway Commission
The constitutional change paved the way for the 1911 legislation that funded highway improvements as a cooperative effort between state and local governments. On June 14, 1911, Wisconsin Governor Francis McGovern signed what would become Chapter 337 of the 1911 Wisconsin Session Laws establishing a five-member, part-time State Highway Commission to oversee the $350,000 annual allocation for statewide highway improvement efforts.
One of the Commission’s first actions was to organize a state highway department – the precursor to today’s Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Among the commission’s duties was to review prospective state highways identified by counties and alter them as necessary to form continuous routes, and establish suitable regulations for the construction and inspection of highways and bridges.
Commission members met for the first time on July 17, 1911, and included: John Van Doren of Birnamwood; John Owen of Eau Claire; John Hazelwood of Jefferson (elected chairman); and two ex-officio members: State Geologist, William Hotchkiss of Madison; and Dean of the College of Engineering, Frederick Turneaure.
Establishing best practices
In 1912, the Commission established the “Wisconsin Road School.” Typically held in Madison in January of each year, it brought together county highway commissioners, municipal officials, road contractors, machinery manufacturers and others, with the goal of identifying highway construction and maintenance best practices.
Marking and funding roads
Between 1911 and 1917, various Wisconsin trails began to be marked as roads. The first to be marked was the Lake to River Road from Milwaukee to La Crosse. Passage of the Federal Road Aid Law in 1916, combined with the increasing popularity of motor vehicles, accelerated the growth and interest in the state highway system. In 1917, the Legislature directed the Commission to establish a State Trunk Highway System to not exceed 5,000 miles, and to erect uniform guide and warning signs.
A State Highway Fund established in 1925 included a two-cent-per-gallon motor vehicle fuel tax. For the state fiscal year ending June 30, 1926, Wisconsin transportation revenues totaled $15.2 million ($4.9 million in fuel tax, $8.4 million in vehicle registration fees, and $1.9 million in federal aid).
Creating a full-time State Highway Commission and Department of Transportation
In 1929, the Wisconsin Legislature abolished the original, part-time, five-member State Highway Commission in favor of a full-time, three-member commission. While its role remained much the same, its responsibilities continued to grow. When first created in 1911, it had just nine permanent employees. This grew to 125 in 1920, 375 in 1930, and about 500 permanent employees in 1940.
During the Depression years of the 1930s, many roads were built as part of new deal public works projects. By the mid-1940s, Wisconsin’s state highway system had grown to about 12,000 miles. The 1950s witnessed the beginning of the Interstate highway era, and in 1967, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) was created by merging the former Aeronautics Commission, Department of Motor Vehicles, and Highways.
WisDOT oversees a comprehensive transportation system that includes about 12,000 miles of numbered state, federal and Interstate highways, about 14,000 state bridges, 76 public bus and shared-ride taxi systems, 132 public use airports, 20 commercial ports, and 3,600 miles of railway track.
The past century has witnessed many changes in transportation including major improvements in how motor vehicles and pavements are designed and built. Yet several core transportation concepts remain the same. WisDOT continues to work closely with public and private partners to help plan, construct and maintain a comprehensive transportation network as part of efforts to support economic growth by moving people and commerce safely and efficiently.