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The County Road System in Michigan
In the late nineteenth century, the popularity of bicycles led to demand for better roads. In 1893, the Michigan legislature passed Public Act 149, which provided for the establishment of county road systems. In counties opting, by popular election, to adopt such a system, a county road commission would be established. The commission would have power to assess taxes and to construct and maintain county roads.
The Wayne County Road Commission: Birth and Growing Pains
Wayne County voters adopted a county road system in September 1906. By October 1st of that year, three men were appointed as road commissioners: Edward N. Hines, Cassius R. Benton and renowned automobile manufacturer Henry Ford. Citizen opposition to the county road system – and particularly the road commission’s right to assess taxes – remained strong, however, and a legal battle ensued. In April 1907, the Michigan Supreme Court declared the Wayne County Road Commission unconstitutional.
Benton and Ford withdrew from the public debate, but Hines persisted. Thanks to his efforts, the Commission was reorganized and reauthorized in 1908. Benton and Ford did not rejoin, but Hines remained until his death in 1938. He served as Chairman for most of his tenure.
Upon reforming in 1908, the Commission established priorities. It gave first priority to building or upgrading ten main routes to and from Detroit. Next, it improved roads originating from smaller communities. Then, the Commission made plans to “ring” Detroit with inner, middle and outer beltways. This approach became a model for other communities.
In 1909, the Commission paved the first mile of concrete road in the United States. This was on Woodward Avenue, from the northerly line of the village of Highland Park to Seven Mile Road. At the time, most roads were paved with macadam, or some other type of stone or gravel material. Concrete had been previously tried (It was first used as road pavement in Bellefontaine, Ohio in 1893-1894), but the Wayne County Road Commission popularized it.
The Road Commission can be credited with a number of other “firsts.” It was Hines, for example, who thought of separating traffic by painting a centerline on the road (He cited a leaky milk wagon as his inspiration.). In 1915, the Commission used the first finishing machine to replace hand labor in smoothing and leveling concrete roads. That same year, it became the first governing body to use scrapers towed by trucks to remove snow. Three years later, it became the first to beautify country roadways by planting trees.
Roads, Bridges and More
The Wayne County Road Commission oversaw the building of bridges and culverts, as well as roads. Between 1918 and 1925, it built forty-seven bridges at a cost of nearly $5 million. In the process, it quickly recognized the advantages of standardization, adopting twenty-four feet as the standard width for culverts and bridges.
The Commission’s work went beyond roads and bridges. In the late 1910s, it assumed a dual role as Board of County Park Trustees, and under these auspices, it planted trees among many streets and improved landscaping around bridges. The Commission also oversaw construction of Wayne County Airport (now known as Detroit Wayne County Metropolitan Airport or Detroit Metro Airport), which was dedicated on September 4, 1930.
“Beginnings of a Modern Freeway System”
As the number of motor vehicles increased, the Wayne County Road Commission had to consider more ways of handling traffic congestion. In 1925, it adopted the Detroit Rapid Transit Commission’s master plan for the Detroit metropolitan area’s road system. “Super highways” would form the main arteries of a road network running through Detroit and neighboring communities, reaching into Oakland and Macomb Counties, as well as Wayne.
By the late 1930s, even this system seemed inadequate, and the Commission began calling for a network of “express” super highways with limited access. The Commission constructed the first such highway, the Davison Expressway, in 1941-1942. The Ford Expressway – constructed by the State of Michigan, rather than the Road Commission – followed it, and the Road Commission then constructed the John C. Lodge Expressway. The three expressways – connected by interchanges, with the Lodge Expressway flowing into the pre-existing James Couzens superhighway – represent the beginnings of a modern freeway system. During World War II, the Commission also built about seven miles of the Willow Run Expressway, which provided access to the Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsilanti.
Wayne County Roads Today
In the last half of the twentieth century, the Wayne County Road Commission’s duties were assumed by the Wayne County Department of Public Services. As of 2014, that Department’s Roads Division is “responsible for the maintenance of approximately 1,440 county primary and local roadways and 462 miles of state trunk lines and freeways.”