A brief organizational history of the Iowa DOT
First Highway Commissioner
On April 13, 1904, the 30th General Assembly and Governor A.B. Cummins approved House File 371, an act that created the Iowa State Highway Commission (IHC). The commission was originally established as part of the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (today the Iowa State University of Science and Technology) in Ames.
The commission’s principal duties were to provide information and act as an administrative advisory agent to the local jurisdictions. Although severely handicapped by a biennial appropriation of $7,000, the commission was to conduct public highway demonstrations, disseminate information to county supervisors, formulate standards for highway repair and construction, investigate the road problems of Iowa, and record and report progress to the governor each fiscal year.
The work was assigned to the divisions of Agriculture and Engineering, directed by C.F. Curtiss and Anson Marston, respectively. Other staff members included Thomas MacDonald, H.M. Bainer, and J.T. Hoover.
While productive, the commission remained hindered by the lack of funds and necessary specialized skills. The commission needed additional funds to carry on “extensive laboratory tests of properties of Iowa road materials, and to build sections of experimental roads, to give actual working tests of material and methods of construction suited to Iowa’s special needs.” Other initiatives included testing and designing concrete culverts and bridges, compiling and publishing road census information, and extending the effort to map county roads in Iowa.
To alleviate the problems inherent in the “disproportionate” relationship between results and expenditures, the commission invested in conducting a road school in June 1905. Split between discussion and demonstration, students received instruction on culvert construction and road machinery, and tools of highway engineers, and listened to lectures by experienced engineers.
On April 9, 1913, the IHC separated from the Iowa State College, becoming an independent state-administered organization, managed by a three-member commission, comprised of Anson Marston, H.C. Beard and J.W. Holden.
Immediately, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, the newly organized IHC attempted to resolve many detrimental business practices that undermined the needs of the state. First, the IHC noticed that the state was divided into districts by supply and bridge companies, allowing insufficient competition and limited oversight. To adequately tackle such tremendous responsibilities, the IHC increased its personnel and re-organized itself into four departments, namely the Office, Designing, Field, and Educational. The commission also was given supervisory control over all county and township road officials, although county supervisors and trustees remained directly in charge of road management and allotted funds.
The IHC continued to operate for 62 years, adapting to the changing needs of the state and making significant contributions to modern highway engineering and construction. Ultimately, it slowly became an integral part of state and federal legislative initiatives, gaining a national reputation for excellence.
By the late 1960s, it was clear that the existing transportation networks were in need of transformation. In 1969, Governor Robert Ray responded by initiating a transportation study by the Office of Planning and Programming. Over the next couple of years, the Task Force on Modernization of Iowa’s Transportation System, in conjunction with a Department of Transportation Study Committee, formed the legislative backbone of for Governor Ray’s transportation initiatives.
In 1974, the 65th Iowa General Assembly created the Iowa Department of Transportation (Iowa DOT), albeit through a long legislative process. It placed other modal agencies, including an Aeronautics Commission, under the department’s responsibility to promote more orderly and effective planning and funding of programs, and to achieve a more balanced transportation system.
In 1974, the legislature also created the Iowa Transportation Commission, consisting of seven members. Members are appointed by the governor and subject to Senate confirmation. No more than four persons can represent the same political party. Serving four-year terms, members are responsible for periodically reviewing programs of the department and making all major investment policy decisions.
For more than a century, the IHC and Iowa DOT have promoted the growth and betterment of Iowa’s transportation system. Still headquartered in Ames, the agency continues to serve the transportation needs of Iowa and its citizens.
The Iowa Department of Transportation and Iowa Transportation Commission, which remain headquartered in Ames, continue to serve the citizens of Iowa today.