Arkansas Highway Commission
In the early part of the twentieth century, Arkansas’s roads were not designed for the arrival of the automobile. The state’s roads were rough and dusty in dry weather, and were impassable during the rainy season. There was no statewide authority to plan or direct road construction in Arkansas, so road construction was handled at the local level, with county courts in charge of road planning and construction. Most roads were built to serve specific neighborhoods or even individuals, and a connected statewide system of roads was far from a reality. These issues came to a head in 1913 in the Thirty-ninth Arkansas General Assembly, which created the State Highway Commission by Act 302 in response to these transportation issues.
The Arkansas Highway Commission originally consisted of three members: the commissioner of State Lands, Highways and Improvements, along with two others who were appointed by the governor to serve staggered two-year terms. The main responsibilities of the new commission were general supervision of road construction and maintenance, advising and assisting counties and improvement districts, and distributing available funds for the construction of public roads. Unfortunately, the first commissions had very little power or authority, very little funding, and no organized statewide system of roads to focus on.
By 1916, the federal government had become involved in road construction by giving federal money for road construction to the states. After a few years of dispensing such money, the federal government felt that no real progress had been made, so in 1921, it required that states meet certain standards to receive these monies. By 1923, Arkansas had not met these requirements and had lost its share of the federal money.
During a special session in 1923, the Arkansas General Assembly enacted Act 5, known as the Harrelson Road Law, which increased the numbers of commissioners to five. Four were to be appointed from the state at large by the governor from the state’s four agricultural districts. The chairman was to be the commissioner of State Lands, Highways and Improvements. The terms were extended to four years and continued to be staggered. All construction and maintenance activities in the state were to be supervised by the commission. This act also created a system of state highways for the federal money to be used on. Because the commission could distribute the money for projects that adhered to their standards, its influence in road construction greatly increased.
By 1926, maintenance on the state’s roads was an ongoing problem, and most of the road improvement districts that had constructed these roads were nearing bankruptcy. So with the looming bankruptcies of these districts and maintenance problems facing the state, in 1927, the legislature enacted the Martineau Road Law (Act 11). Under this act, all improvement district bonds were taken over by the commission, and the commission was allowed to finance road construction through the sale of bonds backed by the state. This allowed the commission to begin an ambitious road construction program across the state. By 1929, the commission and the associated Department of Transportation had become so large that the legislature enacted Act 65. This act separated the commission from the Department of State Lands, Highways and Improvements, making it a separate state agency. Also, as part of the act, all the commissioners were to be appointed by the governor for ten-year staggered terms.
But controversy surrounded the commission in the early 1930s, focusing on the distribution of the new bond money and payment for the old improvement district bonds. In 1933, two factors combined to cause the sitting commission to be replaced: the loss of revenue because of the Depression and the need to pay the debt for the improvement district bonds acquired in 1927. This dire financial situation caused the legislature to pass Act 3 of 1933, which dissolved the existing commission and instructed the governor to appoint new commissioners from the state at large for four-year staggered terms. While this may have played well in the politicians’ home districts, it did nothing to solve the problem. The controversy over bond payments continued until the bonds were retired in the mid-1970s.
Also during this time, serious questions began to arise regarding whether or not the commission was equally representing all areas of the state in 1935. When the new commission was formed in 1933, Act 3 stated that the governor must choose the commissioners from the state at large. Many people felt that, since the commissioners were not from specific regions of the state, some areas might not be well represented. To settle these questions, Act 318 of 1935 was passed, instructing the governor to appoint seven commissioners from the state’s congressional districts, their terms to coincide with the governor’s. Also in 1935, Act 328 allowed the governor to appoint a director for the Highway Department with powers equal to the commission chairman.
In 1945, before the new governor, Benjamin Travis Laney Jr., could select a new commission, the legislature passed Act 42. This act enlarged the commission to ten members appointed from the state’s ten highway districts, along with the director of the Highway Department, to terms that coincided with the governor’s.
In 1949, Sid McMath was elected governor on his promise to finance a huge highway construction program with bonds. Again, as in 1945, the legislature increased the size of the commission. Act 239 of 1949 expanded the commission to twelve members. Ten members were to be selected from the state’s ten highway districts, with another two selected at large from the state to serve as the chairman and vice chairman of the commission, along with the director of the Highway Department. The terms of the twelve commissioners and the director were to coincide with the governor’s. The increase in the size of the commission during these years was mainly to ensure that the commission represented all areas of the state.
In 1949, McMath sent his bond program to the people for a vote. Although there was considerable opposition to the program, it was passed, and the commission began the largest construction and maintenance program in the state’s history. During this time, political machinations and highway issues under McMath’s first administration were constantly conflated by the citizens of the state, and allegations arose over improprieties ranging from road construction for political favors to purchasing procedures to hiring practices. McMath proposed that the commission be reorganized under a constitutional amendment. Two state senators, Young Milton Mack and Lawrence Blackwell, sponsored Amendment 42, known as the Mack/Blackwell Amendment. The amendment stated that a five-member commission was to be appointed by the governor for staggered ten-year terms with no two from the same congressional district. The lower number of commissioners resulted because they were no longer to be chosen from the highway districts and from at large but rather from the state’s congressional districts. This was to ensure that the entire state was represented on the commission. The amendment also stated that the commission would select the director of the Highway Department.
Before this amendment was voted on by the public, the legislature created the Highway Audit Commission to look into the allegations. The commission found the allegations to be generally true but that many instances involved members of the governor’s administration. In November 1952, the Mack/Blackwell Amendment was passed by the citizens of Arkansas. The enactment of this amendment has allowed road construction in Arkansas to progress unimpeded for fifty years. Commissioners of the Arkansas Highway Commission have been selected under the direction of the Mack/Blackwell Amendment ever since.
From its creation in 1913, the Arkansas Highway Commission has increased its transportation responsibilities to include full authority over the planning, construction, and maintenance of Arkansas roads. This transition from local needs-based road construction to statewide and interstate connectivity has brought with it an economic expansion that has improved the quality of life over the years for all citizens of Arkansas.
For additional information:
Historic Review: Arkansas State Highway Commission and Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, 1913–1992. Little Rock: Arkansas State Highway Transportation Department, 1992
Hume, John. The Automobile Age in Arkansas. Vols. 23–25. Little Rock: Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, 1977–1979.
Robert W. Scoggin
Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department
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