1934 to 1936-Kansas Highway Commission: Millions for Roads, Bridges and Safety
Written by Donna Casement, State Library of Kansas
KGI Online Library Blog-October 22, 2020
(All copies of newspaper articles cited here can be viewed at KGI ONLINE LIBRARY
1934 to 1936-Kansas Highway Commission: Millions for Roads, Bridges and Safety
“The history of highway building in Kansas is a story of success through years of struggle. It is also a story of progress fully abreast with today’s need for safe and rapid highway transportation. Step by step, the present state of development has been attained through difficult and somewhat irregular periods, but always looking toward a better type of road and increased efficiency in construction.” (Page 5, 1934-36, Tenth Biennial Report of the State Highway Commission)
In 1913, the Kansas legislature provided an annual automobile tax of $5 per car and specified that this tax be utilized for road improvement purposes. In 1917, the legislature established the highway commission and the next year the commission was formed with the priority of improving the state highway system. In 1925, Kansas increased the annual automobile license tax, provided for a tax on gasoline and mandated that these funds be used exclusively for highway extensions and improvement. In 1929, the entire control of the state highway system was placed in the hands of the highway commission, with complete authority and responsibility.
During the 1920s, Congress recognized the need for federal funding for state highway improvement and construction. In July 1932, Kansas received $3,265,084 as part of an emergency relief highway construction fund. The next year Kansas received $10,089,604 in appropriations through the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. The money was to be used as follows: not more than 50% on the federal aid system outside municipalities, not more than 25% within the cities on extensions of and feeders to the federal highway system, and not more than 25% on secondary or feeder roads outside metropolitan areas. During the last biennium, Kansas received in federal funds, a total of $24,280,961.
The national recovery program supplied further funding for Kansas in the amount of $5,117,675, made available for state use in June 1934. The highway department improved approximately 557 miles of road, 23 miles of roadside improvement and the construction of 70 bridges. The funding also included the improvement of highway grade crossings with rail lines, the employment of the unemployed classes, and the “elimination of hazards to life”.
The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of April 1935 provided Kansas with $4,994,975. All projects under this act were initiated by the state and submitted for approval by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Bureau of Public Roads. Under this program, approximately 487.5 miles of roads were constructed or improved and 34 bridges were built. Projects were approved by meeting two major objectives. First, were the improvement projects desired or needed, and second, did the projects provide the greatest amount of work in areas where large unemployment existed. As a result of this plan, 2,605 men worked on the various highway projects.
“The state highway commission was in session all day preparing for quick action on the “priority projects” which have been approved by the bureau of public roads as eligible for contracts. The PWA has directed that the contracts be let immediately and that between 1,500 and 2,000 men be put to work at the earliest possible moment. Of the $2,249,000 worth of projects now approved, $405,000 will be spent for elimination of grade crossings, and the remainder for light-type surfacing, of which about half will be bituminous mat treatment.” (#1-The Emporia Gazette, July 24, 1935
“A crowd assembles to watch a big railroad crane toy with a 31-ton steel girder as it lifts and swings it into position at the north approach over the Union Pacific railroad tracks, a part of the North Topeka overpass. The beam already in place, is an interior beam weighing 28 tons. It required three flat cars coupled together to transport these girders. They are 118 feet long and eight feet deep.” (Page 26, 1934-36, Tenth Biennial Report of the State Highway Commission
By November 1935, priority projects had been chosen and the state highway commission began awarding contracts. “The state highway commission awarded contracts recently for road construction work to cost $2,069,000. The work includes 22 bridges, 72 miles of bituminous mat surfacing, 45 ½ miles of earthwork and culverts, 7.7 miles of concrete slab, 218 miles of sand gravel surfacing, 134 miles of sand gravel construction (new), and 25 ½ miles of sand maintenance.” (#2-Edmond New Leaf, Edmond, Kansas, November 28, 1935
Under provisions of the emergency relief program, the Kansas Highway Commission was given federal funding of $604,999 for the purpose of rebuilding and replacing bridge structures that were damaged due to extensive flooding that occurred in June, 1935. These federal funds were matched by state funds, bringing the total to $1,209,998. Funding built five of eight bridges on the Republican River, where the greatest damage occurred, two bridge projects were on the Kaw River, and one bridge project was on Rattlesnake Creek in Stafford County.
“Operations of the Kansas highway department are based on funds received from two sources: federal funds made available by congress and allocated to the state as directed by congress though the Secretary of Agriculture under regular federal aid, national recovery and emergency relief programs, and state funds derived from the tax on gasoline, and various other motor vehicle operation taxes and fees. Money is the first essential to road improvement.” (page 47, 1934-36, Tenth Biennial Report of the State Highway Commission
Highway design was mostly standardized between states in the 1930s. Radical changes in motor vehicle performance demanded compensating changes in highway design. “During the 1934-1936 biennium, the department of design made surveys and prepared plans for roads and bridges totaling approximately $28,000,000. Kansas again led all states in completion of highway plans and was the first to place all work under contract for labor relief.” (Page 61, 1934-36, Tenth Biennial Report of the State Highway Commission)
The highway commission established the Highway Commission's Division of Safety on March 15, 1936 and as a result, the commission accepted the provisions of the workmen’s compensation law as self-insurers. The safety division had a two-fold mission, the safety of highway employees and the safety of the traveling public that used state and federal highways. George Harkins, safety engineer, was head of the new highway commission safety division. He had previously served as the commission’s assistant engineer of design.
“All highway employees now have the protection the Kansas workmen’s compensation law affords; that is, protection from loss of time and pay due to accidental injury while in the performance of their regular duties for the department. In this connection, it became the duty of the division of safety to eliminate all hazards from tools, machinery and equipment used by department employees, and to instruct in safety practices, emphasis being placed upon proper methods of handling and operating equipment and the use of safety devices whenever engaged in hazardous tasks.”
The safety of the traveling public was a prime concern. The division determined that highway safety was dependent on the driver, the vehicle, and the road. The safety division believed that the solution to this problem was through engineering, education and the enforcement of law. The focus of the division’s engineering program was to eliminate all possible road hazards. The department designed multiple-lane highways when possible. The first ever built multiple-lane highway was built on K-30, extending west from Kansas City in Wyandotte County, and continued westward to a junction with K-7. The second multiple-lane project was on U.S. 81 between Wichita and Newton, and included eight miles in Sedgwick County and eight miles in Harvey County. (Page 35, 1934-36, Tenth Biennial Report of the State Highway Commission
The commission’s engineering department examined the use of signage and white guide-lines for maximum speed and safety on highways. They determined that painted, center white lines could be used to guide the driver through highway curves and as a site line for maintaining right of ways. Additionally, engineers widened highway shoulders and adjacent drainage ditches were constructed wider and shallower to accommodate cars that might leave the roadway. Every aspect of highway construction was designed to safely accommodate more travelers and faster automobiles.
The safety division targeted the general public on safety laws and the unfortunate cost in human life when safety precautions were not followed. By 1936, 52 daily newspapers and 18 radio stations regularly carried safety briefs prepared by the safety division. There were also programs for schools and 4-H clubs. The safety division used two trucks that traveled throughout Kansas, making community visits, educating drivers on safe car operation and promoting highway safety laws and guidelines.
The division of safety’s enforcement program promoted new traffic rules and regulations. These included a driver’s license law requiring annual registration, examinations for physical fitness to operate motor vehicles, and testing to determine general knowledge of motor-car operation. Added to these would be standard requirements and regulations for lights and brakes on cars and trucks, and general motor-car maintenance.
Dozens of multi-year road and bridge projects were started at the end of the 1934-1936 biennium and finished in the following years. The Manhattan, Kaw River bridge and viaduct project was started in 1936. “Approximately 90 men are working on the bridge-viaduct this week. This number is an increase from about 80 men who first were employed on the project. During the time the work has been in progress since last August, there have been only two accidents. One man was hurt while working on a pier but now is back on the job. The other accident consisted of a smashed finger.” (#3-Manhattan Republic, December 17, 1936
Permits for a new Topeka Avenue Bridge began in early 1936, with projected costs at $615,000. “The state highway department recently applied for a permit to build the Topeka avenue bridge over the Kaw river. It will be 3,170 feet long, 58 feet wide and will cost $615,000 according to the permit.” (#4-Carbondale Record, March 12, 1936)
The Topeka Avenue Bridge was completed and opened to the public on September 1, 1938. “The Kansas river bridge in Topeka is the largest structure constructed by the State Highway Commission. It has a total length of 4,396 feet, 6 inches, a roadway width of 44 feet, providing for four lanes of traffic, and in addition, has pedestrian sidewalks on each side of the roadway. The six piers supporting the main river spans rest on bedrock approximately 63 feet below mean low water. These piers were constructed by the pneumatic caisson method. The roadway is approximately 70 feet above mean low water. This height is necessary as, in addition to crossing the Kansas river, the structure also spans tracks of the A. T. & S. F. Railway Co., the C. R. I. & P. Railway Co., the U. P. Railway Co., and three city of Topeka streets. (Page 61, 1936-1938, Eleventh Biennial Report of the Kansas Highway Commission
“The new Topeka bridge across the Kaw river was opened formally for traffic today after Governor Huxman cut the ribbons which had barred motor cars from using the new roadway. The bridge is the longest in Kansas. It cost 1 ½ million dollars and was built jointly by the government, the state highway commission and Topeka” (#5-The Kansas City Star, Kansas City, Missouri, September 1, 193