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MaineDOT History: The State Highway Commission

Formation of the State Highway Commission

The State Highway Commission was created by the 76th Legislature and charged with building a system of “connected main highways throughout the state.” Governor William T. Haines appointed the three original members, and the appointments were approved by the Council on July 19, 1913.

That there was a need for a highway system in 1913 becomes obvious when we look at early road maps of Maine. Since road construction prior to 1913 had been in the hands of each community, with the emphasis on local use, the sections of highway served local interests and were not built to connect with those of neighboring communities. They had a tendency instead to fade into dirt trails at town lines.

The new Commission began planning and surveying a state highway system immediately. The highways of the state were divided into three general classes:

  • state highways
  • state-aid highways
  • third-class highways, known today as town ways

The second Commission report stated that, “The Commission has endeavored in the determining of the location of state highways to constantly bear in mind that that these routes shall serve the largest number of people possible, and at the same time develop the farming, manufacturing and summer resort resources of the state. The Commission further realizes that there are two distinct classes of interests to serve, namely: The local inhabitant and the interstate traveler…”

In the early years of the Highway Commission many of the elements that go to make up our present State Highway Department were either planned or put into effect. Hearings were held prior to construction so that special knowledge about the community, which might affect the location or design of the road, could be taken into account. Projects costing over a certain amount were advertised for competitive bidding to accomplish the work as economically as possible. The delicate problem of acquiring right of way was studied and written into law. A research and testing laboratory was established.

The commissioners felt that one of the greatest steps for road improvement that had ever been undertaken happened in 1916 – the provision for patrol maintenance throughout the state.

Original SHC Employees

The first Highway Commission employed 12 persons – a chief engineer, five assistant engineers, four stenographers, an accountant and a bookkeeper. The entire Department was housed on a lower floor in the wing of the Capitol. By the early 1920s, office space was so cramped that hearing rooms and cloak rooms were being used as drafting rooms when Legislature was not in session.

Road Miles and Vehicles

Another interesting item: In the earliest days of the SHC there were about 25,000 miles of public roads and streets in Maine – all but a few thousand miles plain dirt. Today there are about 21,000 miles of public roads in the state, most of them paved. The effort over the years has been not to build additional miles of highway but to improve and make a network out of the roads already in existence.

During the first year in the life of the Commission there were 10,676 passenger cars in Maine and 391 trucks registered. Ten years later there were 10 times that number of passenger cars and 60 times that number of trucks.

Early Ice and Snow Control

One of the major changes in Maine’s highway transportation picture has been the gradual evolution of an efficient snow and ice control program. The formal snow removal program began with the use of demonstration equipment on the highway between Gardiner and Augusta, and the road on the east bank of the Kennebec River from Augusta to the Winslow Bridge.

That first attempt cost the SHC $2,700.00. Gradually, the Commission assumed more and more responsibility and acquired better equipment and evolved more efficient procedures. Today, the Maine Motorist drives on a cleared highway all winter long, and in most instances with a little cooperation from the weather – a bare pavement.

Funding

Highlights of the 1930s included federal funds to fight the depression, passage of an outdoors advertising law by Legislature requiring that billboards along the highway be licensed, [and] a law making snow removal a direct activity of the State Highway Department with the state contributing to the cost of winter maintenance on “accepted ways.”

Post World War II

The period following World War II marked almost a new era in Highway Commission activities. The ravages of weather and wear during the war years was repaired and modern engineering tools began to appear, the result of inventions during the war – photogrammetry, seismic surveying, the nuclear density moisture gauge. Long-range studies were undertaken on the durability of concrete and the use of aerial photography to locate suitable materials for roadbuilding.

Maintenance Divisions

With the beginning of year-round maintenance program in the late 1920s, the Commission divided the state into districts with supervisors in charge of each area.

To further extend the services of the Highway Commission it was decided to establish division offices throughout the state. The first office was opened on a trial basis in Presque Isle in 1948. In 1951 offices were established at six other locations – Ellsworth, Bangor, Rumford, Waterville, Rockland, and Portland.

Each division office is a State Highway Department in miniature with engineers and personnel who design and supervise construction and maintenance and supervisors who patrol the area and directly oversee road construction and maintenance forces. Shortly after the division offices opened their doors, a radio network was installed linking all division offices [with] headquarters in Augusta and all mobile equipment. In the winter of 1953-54 a night patrol took to the road relying heavily on radio to keep plow crews posted on the condition of the highways.

SHC Commissioner

In 1953 the Maine Legislature passed a law which made the chairmanship of the Highway Commission a full-time chief administrative position with a seven-year term. The first appointee was David H. Stevens, a civil engineering graduate of the University of Maine who had been town manager of three Maine communities, state tax assessor and commissioner of the State Department of Health and Welfare. He has been re-appointed three times. Present members of the SCH besides chairman Stevens are Bertrand A. Lacharite who has served since 1964; and Steven D. Shaw who has served since 1967.

Technology

Since 1961 the Commission has been using digital computers and data processing systems to aid the engineer in his work, and to help handle the tremendous volume of accounting work. Computations that once took days to work out by hand can now be handled in a matter of hours.

The Commission has been a pioneer in at least two aspects of highway design and construction in the past decade: the use of foam plastic to insulate highway roadbeds and prevent frost heaves; and the Commission was the first such agency in the East to have a major bridge of welded design (using continuous, composite construction) approved by the Federal Highway Administration.

The National Defense Highway Program

In 1956 the most ambitious federal-state program of highway building ever conceived was allocated sufficient funds to allow the SHC to begin building Maine’s portion of the National Interstate and Defense Highway System. The system is planned to accommodate the volume of traffic forecast twenty years hence and is located so as to connect the principal metropolitan areas, cities and industrial centers.

The Change to DOT

" The chief responsibility of the Maine State Highway Commission, its engineers and skilled employees since the first Commission was appointed in 1913 has been to convert the primitive, isolated sections of road in the state into a modern system of highways, and to give that system high standards of utility and safety.

Every effort has been made by the twenty-nine men who have served as members of the Commission to insure that Maine citizens get the best-engineered highways and bridges in locations where they will last the longest, do the most good for the greatest number of people, and still cost as little as possible.

The three-man State Highway Commission, which has been in existence since 1913, will be dissolved July 1, 1972 when the new State Department of Transportation comes into existence. Taking over as commissioner and head of the new Department will be the present chairman of the Highway Commission, David H. Stevens.

In the Commission’s place will be the new State Department of Transportation, which will absorb those formerly separate state agencies linked by common transportation concerns: The State Highway Commission, The Maine Port Authority, The Economic Advisory Board, The Advisory Committee of Ferry Services, The Department of Aeronautics, The Scenic Highway Board, The Highway Safety Committee, and certain functions of the Public Utilities Commission which will be transferred to the new Department.

Every effort has been made by the twenty-nine men who have served as members of the Commission to insure that Maine citizens get the best-engineered highways and bridges in locations where they will last the longest, do the most good for the greatest number of people, and still cost as little as possible.

Searching for and finding the right design, the right materials and the right location in building better highways to serve the transportation needs of the State of Maine will go on being the continuing challenge to the highwaymen of the new State Department of Transportation. "

Excerpt from the 59th Annual Report of the Maine State Highway Commission, 1972 (pp. 9-12)