The week of April 1, 2002 marked 85 years since the Delaware General Assembly officially created the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) by passing the Highway Act of 1917.
The passing of the legislation formed a centralized highway department with the authority to build and maintain a “permanent” highway system extending throughout the state. It further encouraged the building and preservation of new highways, rather than the maintenance of existing dirt roads.
As part of the effort to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the creation of the DelDOT a special historical perspective has been created on the department Web site. All Delaware residents are invited to visit the Web site and click the special anniversary logo to explore the collection of historical pictures and information on the development of Delaware’s transportation system.
Since its inception in 1917, the Department of Transportation has gone through many stages of development as an organization, providing a variety of services from roadway construction and maintenance to public transportation and travel information services.
The Web pages include four areas of interest. They are: “Historical Pictorial,” a history in pictures where one can see Delaware as it once was; “Then and Now,” a collection of photos showing Delaware’s roadways then and now; “Where Am I?” visitors have the opportunity to see if they can recognize the roadways; and “The DelDOT Story,” the history of the Department of Transportation is provided through quick facts, DelDOT pioneers and innovators.
The Early Years
The face of transportation has changed dramatically since the General Assembly first passed laws governing the use of automobiles in 1903. These laws, which required that all automobiles be equipped with a horn, bell or similar device, and that drivers slow down their automobiles when approaching a horse or mule-drawn carriage.
In that same year, the General Assembly also passed a State Aid Law, providing for joint state-county funding of new road construction, thereby providing the basis through which a modern-day highway department could have been developed.
The repeal of the State Aid Law due to public disfavor in 1905, however, represented a failure in the first attempt to centralize highway construction and postponed the development of a highway department in Delaware until 1917.
However, the use of automobiles slowly started to increase. The first registration laws, which required vehicle owners to supply their own tags, file a declaration of competence to operate the vehicle, and pay a $2 fee, were passed in 1905, and were soon followed by the issuing of operators’ licenses for the first time in 1907. Only 313 cars were registered in 1907; by 1917, this number had grown to 10,702.
It was in 1917, that the Delaware Highway Department was formed. In response to the 1916 Federal Highway Act, which provided financial assistance for highway construction only to those states with an organized highway department in place, Delaware’s General Assembly passed the Highway Act of 1917. This act formed a centralized highway department with the authority to build and maintain a “permanent” highway system, extending throughout the state. The act encouraged the building and preservation of new highways, rather than the maintenance of existing dirt roads.
One of the major accomplishments of the new highway department was the completion of a boulevard that stretched from a point near Wilmington to the Maryland state line. This boulevard, initiated by T. Coleman duPont in 1911, now commonly known at Route 13, was completed entirely with private funding under the agreement that it would later be turned over to the state. Although the $3.9-million project was financed privately, and the initial construction was completed by duPont’s privately-run corporation, the Highway Department took charge of the boulevard’s construction in 1917 and completed it in 1924.
Although the Highway Department was freed from the expense of its first major project, it had difficulty in financing some other early roads. With the onset of the first fuel tax in 1923 — 1 cent per gallon — the state began to gain the revenue necessary to efficiently initiate further highway construction.
Using this revenue the department focused on consolidating, widening, and otherwise improving the state’s primary roads from 1926 until 1935, while developing a secondary road system. With its foundation in place, the Delaware Highway Department, now known as the Delaware Department of Transportation, began its 85-year-old mission of designing, constructing, and maintaining safe transportation options for all of Delaware’s residents and visitors.
For more information, visit www.deldot.com.
Highlights of Delaware’s Department of
1903 — The General Assembly passed “An Act Regulating the Use of Automobiles on the Public Highway of This State.”
It required that all automobiles be equipped with a horn or bell and that drivers slow down upon approaching a vehicle drawn by a horse, mule or other animal.
1905 — The General Assembly passed the first registration law.
The maximum speed limit at this time was “1 mi. in three minutes,” and brakes had to be installed on all automobiles.
1907 — Operator’s licenses were issued for the first time.
A total of 313 cars were registered.
1911 — Ground was broken on a highway privately funded by T. Coleman duPont, that was to stretch from the Maryland line to a point near Wilmington.
The road was begun with the agreement that duPont would later turn the road over to the state. By the time construction was completed in July 1924, duPont and his organization has spent $3.9 million.
1916 — Congress passed The Federal Highway Act, providing financial assistance for highway construction only to states with an organized highway department.
1917 — The General Assembly passed the Highway Act of 1917, providing a centralized highway department with the authority to build and maintain a “permanent” highway system extending throughout the state.
The act encouraged the building and preservation of new highways, rather than the maintenance of existing dirt roads.
1919 — The General Assembly passed the State Aid Road Law, authorizing counties to issue bonds to raise funds for the construction of highways.
Funds raised by the counties were then matched by the state.
1923 — The General Assembly passed the first gasoline tax — 1 cent per gallon.
1926 — A total of 588 mi. of road were completed and a hard-surfaced road connected every town and village in the state by this year.
The Highway Department initiated a program to improve primary roads and begin developing a secondary road system.
1931 — In the midst of the Great Depression, the Highway Department limited hours to 30 per week, established a minimum wage, required contracts to be carried out in the most labor-efficient way possible, and required that its contractors hire workers from lists provided by the State Emergency Relief Commission or the Federal Reemployment Service.
1934 — By this year, almost half of the state’s construction costs were federally funded.
1935 — The General Assembly transferred all county roads to the state.
The Delaware State Highway Department now controlled 2,600 more miles of mostly dirt roads and was responsible for every road in the state.
1941 to 1945 — Material and labor shortages during the war years prevented the Highway Department from completing any major construction improvement projects and made maintenance difficult.
The traffic count dropped to half that of pre-war levels, due to the rationing of gasoline and rubber.
Speed limits were reduced to 35 mph.
1951 — The Delaware Memorial Bridge, at the time the sixth largest suspension bridge in existence, opened to traffic and was dedicated to all those who died in World War II.
1956 — The General Assembly authorized a 10-year program to surface all of the dirt roads in the state.
1963 — President Kennedy cut the ribbon at the opening of the Delaware Turnpike on Nov. 15, just one week before his assassination.
1968 — The second span of the Delaware Memorial Bridge was completed and opened, making it the largest twin suspension bridge in the world.
1969 — The privately-owned Wilmington City Railroad Company, which first began operating motorbus service in 1925, was made public by an act of General Assembly and changed its name to DART, the Delaware Authority for Regional Transit.
1970 — Delaware adopted a cabinet form of government and the State Highway Department became known as the Department of Highways and Transportation.
By this year, I-95 reached across the state.
1978 — Construction was completed on I-495, providing a six-lane bypass around Wilmington.
1984 — Funding was appropriated for the Route 13 Relief Route Study, the first stage in a sequence of steps that will eventually lead to the construction of State Route 1.
1987 — Gov. Mike Castle passed the Transportation Trust Fund as part of his Quality of Life Initiatives.
The Transportation Trust Fund ensured DelDOT funding for its U.S. 13 Relief Route and other projects encompassing DelDOT’s six-year Capital Improvement Plan.
1993 — The first section of State Route 1, a 46-mi., controlled-access highway that will eventually stretch from Wilmington to Route 13 south of Dover, is completed. The completion of the Smyrna-Dover section marks the first milestone in the construction of the largest public works project in the department’s history.
1994 — The General Assembly created the Delaware Transit Corporation (DTC) to manage and operate DART, the Delaware Administration for Specialized Transport, the Delaware Railroad Administration, and the Commuter Services Administration.
DART changed its name once more, now becoming known as DART First State.
2001 — Ground was broken for the new Transportation Management Center (TMC). The $4.9-million state-of-the-art building will serve as the focal point in the department’s objective to focus not only on the construction of new highways in the 21st century, but also on maximizing the efficiency of its existing roadway.
2002 — Now charged with maintaining 11,111 lane miles of roadways and 1,350 bridges, DelDOT celebrates its 85th anniversary.
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