HELENA – The Montana Department of Transportation this week begins celebrating its 100th anniversary as the state agency that oversees construction and maintenance of the highways and bridges that connect communities here.
The festivities begin in Helena Tuesday, but celebrations are planned at other department offices around the state later in the year.
“We have a whole year to celebrate,” said director Mike Tooley.
He said the department especially wants to invite retired department employees to the events.
“The people who’ve worked here have taken a great deal of pride in what they’ve done,” said the department’s historian, Jon Axline.
On Tuesday afternoon, the department kicks off the festivities with Good Roads Day at the Capitol, with antique cars, a history display, a barbecue and speeches.
The centennial celebration actually is a tad late, but no one is complaining. On March 13, 1913, Gov. Samuel Stewart signed the legislation that created the Montana State Highway Commission. The three-member commission met for the first time a month later.
One commissioner, George Metlen, served as the agency’s first chief engineer and was the only salaried member of the commission, drawing $3,500 a year. His staff consisted of one stenographer. The agency’s annual budget then totaled $5,000 a year.
One hundred years later, the Transportation Department has an annual budget of $700 million, with 60 percent of the funds coming from the federal government. It has 2,129 full-time, seasonal and temporary employees.
Before creation of the Highway Commission in 1913, counties were responsible for building and maintaining their own roads. Toll roads and bridges were commonplace in territorial days.
“Since that time, the department literally brought Montana out of the mud, building and paving thousands of miles of primary, secondary and Interstate highways,” Tooley said.
The department is responsible for more than nearly 75,000 miles of highways and roads in Montana.
Over time, the federal government began providing more highway money to the state, and Montana eventually approved a gasoline tax to provide matching funds.
“It’s just a progression of getting more and more federal investment in road building in Montana,” Axline said. “More and more people owned automobiles.”
Congress passed the first Federal Aid Road Act in 1916. Two years later, the state Highway Commission approved the state highway system. In 1919, it oversaw the first contract-letting for four projects.
Montana enacted a 1 cent per gallon gas tax in 1919 and the Legislature doubled it in 1923. Counties received 75 percent of the money from the 1923 tax, with the Highway Commission getting the rest.
A pivotal development occurred in 1926 when Montana voters approved a good-roads initiative setting the gasoline tax at 3 cents per gallon, with the entire proceeds going to the state Highway Commission to match federal funds.
Today, the state gas tax is 27 cents per gallon.
The department kept contracting for construction of roads and bridges through the years.
Perhaps the most significant development occurred in 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act into law that established the interstate highway system and provided significantly greater amounts of money to the state to complete the system.
“From what I understand, it was the largest public works program in history, even surpassing the pyramids,” Axline said.
The department oversaw the construction of 1,188 miles of interstate highways in Montana, costing a total of $1.22 billion. The federal government provided 91 percent of the money in states like Montana with vast amounts of federal land.
In 1991, the state Highway Department was reorganized as the Montana Department of Transportation. It works to provide a comprehensive transportation network that includes roadways, airways, airports, railways, traffic safety and public transit, along with bicycle and pedestrian accommodations.