A 95-year old observation whose time might have come

We are four years away from the centennial of Missouri’s centennial.  Missouri’s bicentennial of statehood also will be the centennial of the Missouri Centennial Road Law.   Not everybody thought it was a good idea then. One editor C. G. Sagaser of the  Huntsville Herald might have been something of a seer when he wrote in his June 10, 1921 edition about an upcoming special session of the legislature that would decide how Missouri’s road system would materialize.

Momentum had been building for a decade to develop a system of hard-surface roads.  Voters in 1920 approved a $60 million dollar bond issue to finance those roads.  The legislature and the governor decided to wait until the summer of 1921 to make that decision.

Four days before the session began, Sagaser said, “Something is about to take place in Jefferson City which means more to Missouri than anything which has happened in the past half century…It is up to this special session to say whether this hard surface road building shall be postponed until road material prices have had an opportunity to decline, or whether we shall blindly proceed to hand out this $60,000,000 at once…”

Then there’s another proposition:  Do we want hard surface roads at all?  I certainly have my doubts about their desirability.  If the legislature will postpone any action on the road building program for two years, we shall then have an opportunity to more thoroughly study and acquaint ourselves with the history of hard surface roads in other states, which would assist us in arriving at a conclusion as to what kind of hard surface roads we want, if any at all. (We have added that emphasis for this entry.)

“…The professional politician does not desire a delay in the road building program, because it would give the people too much time to think things over…It has been a long time since Missouri had a state-wide system of hard surface roads, and we have all lived and been a very happy and cheerful race of people, therefore, we should easily be able to live two years longer without even thinking about hard surface roads.

“And when the machine politician talks about ‘hard surface roads,’ he means concrete roads. The hand of the cement trust is plainly visible. I expect the whole thing to terminate in a gigantic steal if it is put through.

“…I say frankly to the people of Missouri that a system of concrete roads will work havoc with us as a state.  In a few years they would become impassable, owing to our financial inability to maintain them.

  There may be states sufficiently wealthy to maintain a general system of concrete roads, but one thing is certain—Missouri is not included among such states.” 

The legislature met for several weeks in the hot and stuffy Capitol before finally compromising on a system of 1,500 miles of roads of a “higher type than claybound gravel” connecting the population centers.  But one-third of the bond money plus $6,000 a mile from the other two-thirds of the bond issue would be used for secondary roads important to farmers.

It was the kind of legislative compromise that used to be possible—an agreement nobody really liked but something that was acceptable.  The Centennial Road Law of 1921 was the beginning of our 32,000 mile state highway system.

But sure enough, as C. G. Sagaser noted ninety-five years ago, the specter of impassibility looms today owing to our financial inability to maintain them.

Our former press corps colleague, David Lieb of the Associated Press, wrote an excellent analysis earlier this week pointing out that our transportation department not only doesn’t have enough money to build roads and bridges, and make comprehensive repairs on our roads and bridges, it’s having to dip into its capital improvements budget to pay off the latest big bond issue approved several years ago to re-surface our deteriorating highways and replace hundreds of dangerous bridges.

A special committee has been looking for solutions in the interim between legislative sessions and a possible fix is expected to be put on the list of bills to consider next year.

The question then will be whether Sagaser is still right with another observation: “There may be states sufficiently wealthy to maintain a general system of concrete roads, but one thing is certain—Missouri is not included among such states.” 

Really?   Still?    Is Sagaser right after all, these ninety-five years later?

 

 

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