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Who needs good roads?

In the 21st century, it does not seem unusual that there is an independent state transportation board that is responsible for establishing, scheduling and maintaining a complete system of highways throughout the state of Arizona. However, in 1920, there was no statewide coordination for road building. County government and the strength of political networks determined what roads were being built.
By 1920, there was a statewide tax to generate funds for the construction and maintenance of roadways. The state highway engineer decided how 25 percent of the tax was spent.
The remaining 75 percent of the collected funds were given to the counties. They then determined which roads to maintain or build. It was not unusual for a road to lead only to a farm, ranch or well-connected business and then stop for lack of additional funding.
The military Transcontinental Motor Convoy traveled across the United States in 1919 along what would become Interstate 80. A young lieutenant colonel on the trip named Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would later became president and sign into law the creation of the Federal Interstate System.
In 1920, the second Transcontinental Motor Convoy of some 50 vehicles, set off from the White House, went south to Georgia, and across the United States to San Diego and finally on to Los Angeles. The trip took 111 days traversing the National Bankhead Highway. The convoy was reported to be longer than three miles and was a “…comparative service and operation test of various types of motorized vehicles…and collecting road data relative to the character of surface, pavement, drainage…”
The drive in Arizona was recounted as “…just across the Pima County line in Maricopa and before reaching Yuma County, the convoy met the worst stretch of road, having difficulty in extracting itself from the clinging sands. From Sentinel to Wellton heavy sandy road was encountered in spots which caused the convoy’s speed to be materially reduced.”
The excitement of this event and the desperate need for highway construction led several civic groups to start an initiative to create a state highway commission. The commission would make road building and maintenance decisions on a statewide basis with diminished political influence, at least in theory. Some 5,500 signatures of registered voters were needed to qualify for the ballot. Groups such as the Kiwanis, Rotary, Automotive Dealers’ Association and the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association gathered the necessary signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.
Several groups immediately started to complain about the initiative. Mining companies opposed the idea since it might increase taxes and decrease their influence on road building.
Tucson felt that their opposition was a way to keep Phoenix from gaining a roadway to California. They felt that the defeat of the initiative would result in tourist traffic continuing to travel to Tucson and Yuma on their way to or from California.
Herbert Patrick, a Maricopa County resident and civil engineer, indicated he was going to leave Phoenix unless the highway commission was approved and roads were fixed.
Patrick was born in 1854 and came to Phoenix in the late 1870s. By 1920, Patrick complained to reporters “…that there is the same mud hole out on the road on which he lives that he has been wading through for the last 25 years…he hates the sight of that mud hole…”
Patrick indicated that he was being forced to leave Arizona in order to find good roads. He said he paid heavy taxes, but he expected to pay for good roads. Patrick explained he had been looking toward the state for road improvements ever since he arrived in Arizona in the 1870’s. Unfortunately, nothing ever happened.
Indicating since life is limited, he wanted to spend his final days where roads were good. Patrick said he figured he would eventually get tired of good roads in the next 40 years or so. At that point “…he will return for a short time to feast upon the Maricopa County roads.”
It is not known if Herbert Patrick ever returned. The initiative for a state highway commission in Arizona was defeated by a vote of 16,961 for, and 25,721 against.
— Mike Miller. Photo courtesy of the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, Archives Division, Phoenix, #97-7736.

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