by Joyce N. Ritter, Retired

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Highway Statistics, but the collection of highway data and its distribution began long before 1945. As early as 1892 the Good Roads Movement attempted to get a bill passed in Congress that would make an inquiry into the condition of highways throughout the United States and what means would be necessary to improve them. This bill did not succeed, but the following year a bill authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to "make inquiry regarding public roads" and to "make investigation for a better system of roads." With this bill and an appropriation of $10,000, the Secretary of Agriculture established the Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) on October 3, 1893, and appointed General Roy Stone as Special Agent and Engineer for Road Inquiry. General Stone's authority, however, was emphatically limited to investigating and disseminating information, and he was clearly "not to direct and formulate any system of organization, however efficient or desirable it may be." The ORI was the antecedent of today's Federal Highway Administration and was charged with collecting highway data.

Another stipulation of the 1893 Agricultural Appropriation Act was "to make investigations in regard to the best method of road-making... and to enable [the Secretary] to assist the agricultural college and experiment stations in disseminating information on this subject...." General Stone and his one clerk immediately set to work soliciting information from governors of States and Territories, their secretaries of state, the members of Congress, the State geologists and all the railroad presidents on highway laws, the locations of materials suitable for road building, and rail rates for hauling such materials. By the end of June 1894, the ORI had issued nine bulletins on these subjects, some of which were in their second printing.

By the turn of the century there were about 8,000 automobiles in the United States, and practically all of these were concentrated in the major cities and were owned by the wealthy for convenience and pleasure. But pleasure driving was restricted by a host of State and local laws and ordinances. States began charging motor-vehicle registration fees and there were often problems of reciprocity among States. Some cities and villages required a "wheel tax" for the privilege of driving on their streets. Also, there might be a personal property tax on the vehicle in some States. All of these obstacles and more placed a severe burden on the vehicle owner.

One of the most ambitious tasks undertaken by the Office of Public Roads Inquiry (the Federal office has had many names over its 100 plus years, the last becoming the Federal Highway Administration in 1967) was an inventory of all the roads in the United States outside of the cities in 1904. Through questionnaires mailed to the county officials, the investigation went far beyond merely tabulating road mileage. It inquired about taxation and sources of revenue, road laws and total expenditures in every county of every State. Road mileage was subdivided according to surface type. The results were so voluminous that it took over 2 years to tabulate them and issue a report. This was the first national road inventory. The report, published in 1907, showed that there were 2,151,570 miles of rural public roads in the United States in 1904 and 1,598 miles of stone-surfaced toll roads. Only 153,662 miles of public roads had any kind of surfacing. The expenditures on roads were $79.77 million, of which only $2.6 million was contributed by the States in the form of State aid.

Federal Aid

Most Congressmen had recognized by 1912 that some form of Federal aid to roads was inevitable. The real questions before Congress were how much the aid should be and the form in which it should be granted. A joint committee of members of the House and Senate was formed to consider the whole matter of Federal aid for highways. The membership of this Committee represented the whole spectrum of opinion from extreme national road advocates to local road supporters. Its investigation encompassed many aspects of the economic and social importance of roads and how they were administered. Because of this broad approach, the work took much longer than had been anticipated, so it was not until January 1915 that a report was issued. The Committee unanimously agreed on the need and desirability of Federal aid and its constitutionality, but not on any specific policy for Congress to follow in granting such aid, and it did not have an answer to the question of how much aid should be granted.

Meanwhile in 1914, the Office of Public Roads (OPR) conducted a road census, the most accurate and comprehensive inventory of American roads and road finances made up to that time. This, too, was performed by mail as had been done in 1904 and in 1909 when the OPR made another inventory canvassing only the mileage of various types of road surfaces. By now, though, over half of the States had highway departments and in those States that did not, the OPR collected the information directly from the local authorities, or from local and State road associations, chambers of commerce, auto clubs, postmasters and private citizens. Although record keeping was still unsatisfactory in many instances, it was determined that an enormous increase in the total annual expenditures on roads and bridges had occurred - from $79.62 million in 1904 to $240.26 million in 1914. During this same period, the mileage of rural roads had grown by about 294,000 miles - to 2,445,760 miles.

Numerous bills were introduced into the 64th Congress in 1916 for Federal aid to highways. A lengthy debate ensued. Finally, on July 11, the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 became law. It provided a matching basis of funding, an apportionment formula based on one-third according to area, one-third according to population, and one-third according to post road mileage, and the requirement for the establishment of State highway departments. The Act also made it possible for the States to plan ahead and build up an orderly program by appropriating funds for 5 years in advance.

When war was declared against Germany in April 1917, the United States was sorely prepared. The magnitude of the war's effect on the highway program soon became apparent. Men, materials, and equipment were diverted to the war effort. Hundreds of trucks were being manufactured for shipment overseas and used to carry supplies and equipment to ports of embarkation. Few States had load limit laws to protect their highways, and when thaws in the spring of 1918 arrived, the predicted destruction occurred on an unprecedented scale.

The war ended in November 1918. In 1919, Thomas H. MacDonald became the new Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), a position he was to hold for 34 years. He appreciated the need for a connected system of interstate highways (to date there was no system requirement, and this resulted in the construction of disconnected segments of highway with no assurance that they would ever be linked). He also believed that in time long-distance highways would come into existence as the States improved their trunk highways, provided they could be persuaded to agree on a restricted mileage of interstate roads on which to concentrate the Federal-aid funds. The immediate problem was to bring about such an agreement and strengthen the State highway departments by giving them full control over both the Federal-aid matching funds and the maintenance of Federal-aid highways.

In March 1920, the BPR, with the support of an Advisory Committee on Federal aid, announced a nationwide survey of the roads of the country and a classification of all highways in respect to their importance and character of service. The survey would enable the Bureau and the States to segregate the roads into systems according to their national, State, county, or local importance, determine their needs for improvement, and allocate the costs of improvement and maintenance among the systems.

Selection of a System

In 1914 the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) had been formed to provide cooperation and assistance to the State highway departments and the Federal Government and as a forum in which to discuss mutual concerns regarding legislation and other highway matters.

Its Executive Committee met in April 1921 to draft a bill that would retain the essential principles of the 1916 Act and would correct its weaknesses. Still the fight went on between the long-distance advocates and the local roads advocates, but the legislators were more willing to compromise, and eventually hammered out a bill that became law November 9, 1921. The Federal Highway Act provided for the selection and approval of a system made up of no more than 7 percent of the highways in each State and that must interconnect with those in neighboring States. It also greatly strengthened the State highway departments, especially in their maintenance function. It appropriated funds for only 1922, thus failing to provide the continuity needed for program planning, but this was remedied the following year with Federal-aid funding for 1923, 1924, and 1925 in the Post Office Appropriation Act.

The selection and approval of the 7-percent system was a huge undertaking. Nevertheless, by November 1, 1923, the job of designating and approving all the 48 State systems and correlating them across State lines was completed. The work was published by the Bureau of Public Roads in the form of a national map of the Federal-Aid Highway System.

At this time there was no uniform numbering system for these roads, and numerous markings and auto club names were often used to identify routes. In 1924, AASHO initiated a Joint Board of 21 State highway engineers and 3 BPR engineers to bring about such a system. A system totaling 96,626 miles was approved by State ballots on November 11, 1926, and was immediately put into effect and marked with the familiar black and white shield markers that are still guiding American motorists.

The Beginning of Planning

A decade of national prosperity ended in 1929. With the Great Depression, a new wrinkle entered the highway program -- the diversion of highway funds to nonhighway purposes. The huge highway revenue was an irresistible magnet to hard-pressed State legislatures. These diversions were self-defeating because dollars were much more effective when spent on road building than when used for direct relief or a dole. In 1934, Congress, agreeing with this philosophy, passed the Hayden-Cartwright Act which not only greatly increased authorization for roads, but also withheld Federal-aid funds from any State that continued to divert highway revenues.

The Hayden-Cartwright Act also had another provision that was very important to the future of highway planning -- it permitted the States to use 1-1/2 percent of their matched Federal-aid funds for plans, surveys and engineering investigations for future work. This authority was later broadened to include economic investigations as well.

The early work was the collection and analysis of data to be used in planning. The agreements between the States and the Bureau were for highway planning surveys of three broad types -- road inventory, traffic, and financial and road use.

The inventory phase involved driving over every mile of rural highway, recording its width, type and condition; on the more important routes the geometric features were included; all farms, residences, businesses, industrial plants, schools, hospitals, and any other cultural features that the roads must serve were noted.

The traffic surveys were built on the cooperative traffic surveys already in use, but with the advantage of improved automatic traffic counting equipment. Basically they involved intensive traffic volume counting on main routes, less intensive counting on secondary roads and spot checks on lightly traveled local roads. Commercial vehicles were weighed, their cargoes classified, their origins and destinations recorded. Origins and destinations of passenger cars were also sampled. All these data were tabulated in various ways and shown on appropriate maps. They served to show the service highways were providing, the vehicle miles of travel, and ton miles of goods and products moved. When coupled with the road inventory data, they showed the adequacy of the existing roads to provide for the movement of traffic and to serve the needs of rural land use. They permitted estimates of the cost of bringing road conditions up to a standard.

Expenditures and revenues for highways and all other purposes from all units of government were recorded to ascertain the degree to which user and other taxes were being applied to road purposes by the individual units and by the various levels of government.

The Value of Highway Statistics

Chief MacDonald had been advocating the planning surveys since 1932. He and others strongly believed that the information gleaned from such surveys would communicate the highway departments' problems to the legislatures and the public and, in turn, foster intelligent support for the highway program.

Data collection procedures were steadily improved, and the many problems that developed in tabulating, reconciling, and summarizing data were met and solved. Data were published and distributed as they became available. Early consolidation efforts appeared when the BPR issued "Instructions Regarding the Collection of Annual Statistical Data From the States," with special emphasis on the collection of data on highway-user taxation, and the "Instructions for The Compilation of County and Local Road Mileage and Financial Data." But the harder part was in moving from summaries of data to reports and from reports to administrative and policy decisions.

In 1937, when President Franklin Roosevelt called on the BPR to study the feasibility of a system of toll roads, the States' planning surveys made it possible to begin work almost immediately on traffic flow on a national basis. The resulting 1939 report, Toll Roads and Free Roads, rejected a toll superhighway network but recommended a toll-free network, providing the first formal description of what became the Interstate System.

In 1941, President Roosevelt appointed a committee to refine the concept. The Committee's 1944 report, Interregional Highways, provided additional background for Congress, which approved designation of the Interstate System, without special funding, in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944.

Preparing these two reports required many hours of work and the close cooperation of all levels of government -- Federal, State, county, and municipal. The value of the States' planning surveys information proved themselves again and again during the legislative hearings on the financing of the Interstate System. These efforts, along with a series of staff-intensive highway needs studies, resulted in passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (Title I), which got the Interstate highway program underway, while the companion Highway Revenue Act of 1956 (Title II) provided funding for this huge program.

It was undoubtedly the work involved in preparing these two reports that ultimately led to the publication of the first Highway Statistics with 1945 data. In its Preface, it said, "This pamphlet presents the 1945 series of statistical and analytical tables of general interest on the subjects of motor-fuel consumption, motor-vehicle registration, State highway-user taxes, financing of State highways, and highway mileage. For many years the Public Roads Administration has prepared these annual tables and has distributed them individually. This practice will be continued so that the information on each particular subject can be made available at the earliest possible date. However, issuance of these tables in assembled, permanent form will make the data more convenient and serviceable to users of highway statistics." This first book was 80 pages; today it numbers in excess of 300 pages.

At about the same time a companion document, Highway Statistics -- Summary to 1945 was published. The pamphlet summarized earlier annual tabulations for motor fuel back to 1925, State gasoline tax rates back to 1919, motor vehicle registrations back to 1900, some highway finance data back to 1890, and State mileage characteristics back to 1923. This historical summary has been updated every decade. The next such summary will be prepared after 1995 data become available.

Technology and the Future

In the early days, the information supplied by the State highway departments and other local agencies was analyzed and summarized using desktop calculators and then the results were typed on long sheets. In the 1960's, mainframe computers processed voluminous data files, but the tabular summaries still depended on the use of typewriters. By the late 1970's, the output from mainframe computer operations was used for publication of tabular summaries. Also, in the mid-1970's high-speed electronic computers allowed the analyst to undertake a more thorough and comprehensive look at the data. Personal computers were introduced in the 1980's, providing the analyst with a powerful tool at his desktop. These computers greatly accelerated the level, quantity and timeliness of data activity.

In 1965, Congress mandated the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to report biennially on the conditions, performance, and future highway investment needs of the Nation's street and highway systems. At that time statistical data were still fragmented, archaic, and incomplete, necessitating the assembly of large staffs to meet the study objectives and data reporting requirements. These staffs made use of regularly reported data as well as ad hoc reports specific to each biennial reporting. Out of this manpower-intensive effort, another approach was explored and created in 1978 -- a continuing, sample-based monitoring program that requires annual data reporting instead of biennial special studies -- the Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS). It is an integrated database that contains basic information on the Nation's entire public road system and is capable of estimating current and future needs for program development and legislative initiatives. It is State-specific data that serves Federal-aid apportionment formulas, data for the Highway Statistics publication, and the needs of the entire transportation community. This cooperative State-Federal program will continue to serve transportation data needs right into the next century. As has been the case since 1978, HPMS will undergo periodic modification to remain responsive to current programs and issues.

The development of the HPMS was followed in 1979 by the issuance of the Guide to Reporting Highway Statistics. The Guide consolidated for the States in one volume 16 separate reporting forms and instructions for highway-related data on motor-fuel consumption, motor-vehicle registrations, driver licensing, and the sources and funding of State and local government highway programs. The Guide serves as a consolidated reference and promotes a unified reporting concept with an understanding of interrelationships among different reporting areas.

Concurrently, the development of data collection equipment reflected significant advances. For example, the collection of traffic data shifted from a manual observation activity to the use of pneumatic rubber hoses placed on the roadway for vehicle detection. This was followed by the use of magnetic loops imbedded in the pavement. Corresponding advances took place in retrieving such data. Remote sites could now be queried on a real-time basis at a central location as compared to the former procedure of gathering data through visits to each specific site. Similarly, roadway inventory has been streamlined by the use of new technology, such as video logging, global positioning systems, geographic information systems, and electronic pavement roughness measuring devices.

Today a proposed National Highway System (NHS) is under consideration for approval by the Congress. The NHS will represent only about 4 percent of the Nation's total public road mileage but will carry over 42 percent of the Nation's highway travel. Beginning with Highway Statistics 1993, information was presented on the proposed NHS and will likely provide significant input into the System's approval and development. This closely parallels events leading up to the 1956 Acts that ensured the building of the Interstate System.

It is impossible to detail the Federal-State partnership over all these years in a short essay. This partnership concept has maintained the States' initiative in the Federal-aid road building program while the Federal reviews, approvals, and controls remain intact in FHWA's position of stewardship. In an effort to continue to assure the public that it is getting the highest possible return on its highway tax dollars, the Federal-State partnership is still exploring ways of improving the data collection and consistency and advising those who use it regarding its strengths and weaknesses. The concept of performance monitoring has been practiced for many years, and the process will continue to be refined.

Highway Statistics (or the Yellow Book as many refer to it) has made great strides during its 50-year existence. Throughout its history, the Highway Statistics publication has changed with the times, always striving to increase its information value, improve the quality of its presentation, and expand its accessibility to the public. As we enter the information superhighway age, we will still strive to make Highway Statistics the forerunner in transportation data. Already significant portions of its content are electronically available through the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' Comprehensive Transportation Information Planning System (CTIPS) and in several locations over the Internet. In the coming years, this capability will be significantly enhanced.

1. Joyce N. Ritter retired from the position of Writer/Editor in the Office of Policy, FHWA, in 1987. Along with her many contributions to the literary world is her extensive work on America's Highways 1776-1976.