In 1825 the General Assembly enacted the first traffic regulations but left road maintenance and construction to local road commissioners. Local residents, or their slaves, were required to labor a set number of days each year on road construction or repair.
Until the War of 1812, South Carolina’s roads were secondary to water transportation. The British blockade during the war, however, increased interest in overland travel. During the internal improvement campaign in the 1820s, the General Assembly commissioned the State Road to connect Charleston with western North Carolina.
In 1825 the General Assembly enacted the first traffic regulations but left road maintenance and construction to local road commissioners. Local residents, or their slaves, were required to labor a set number of days each year on road construction or repair. Conflicting state and local interests were, and remain, a constant in highway maintenance and construction. In 1883 U.S. Senator Matthew C. Butler urged a tax in lieu of roadwork and the use of prison labor. His ideas were later adopted. Legislation in 1894 created county supervisors with general oversight for the roads and other administrative matters. The period from 1891 to 1911 was the era of the “good roads” movement in South Carolina as citizens lobbied for better roads.
State interest coincided with federal interest in improved road construction. By 1910 federal supervision and local manpower had completed seventeen South Carolina road projects. U.S. Senator Asbury C. Latimer and Congressman James F. Byrnes pushed for a nationally funded program of coordinated road construction. In 1909 state agriculture commissioner E. J. Watson urged the creation of a South Carolina public highway department.
These efforts produced the Federal Aid Road Act in 1916. To access federal highway dollars, the General Assembly created the State Highway Commission the following year. Within seventy years this small commission became one of South Carolina’s largest state agencies. The commission levied the first license fee and created a two-division department–the Engineering Division and the Division of Automobile Licensing and Registration.
World War I limited road construction, but following the war the highway department obtained surplus property for its first motorized equipment. In 1922 federal highways and the first gasoline tax arrived. Governor Thomas G. McLeod signed the Pay-As-You-Go Highway Act in 1924.
In 1925 the commission named Samuel P. McGowan as its first chief highway commissioner. His successor, Ben Sawyer, lobbied for the General Reimbursement Act of 1926, which authorized counties to issue bonds for highway construction. In 1929 Governor John G. Richards signed the State Highway Bond Act, which enabled the highway department to fund construction of a statewide highway system by issuing bonds, allowing the agency to abandon its pay-as-you-go formula.
Under Sawyer’s leadership the commission created the State Highway Patrol in 1930 and developed a system of driver licensing. Sawyer defended the commission from Governor Olin D. Johnston’s efforts to replace him (and the other commissioners) and successfully fended off Governor Burnet Maybank’s efforts to divert high- way funds for other purposes. In 1940 the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a “permanent injunction” barring the use of highway funds for non highway-related expenses.
World War II brought national security concerns to highway design. In 1944 legislation created the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, a joint federal and state project. The post-war period brought heightened highway construction, the classification of primary and secondary roads, and in 1956 the Interstate Highway System.
In 1964 Interstate 85 became the first interstate highway completed in South Carolina. In 1965 Governor Robert McNair signed landmark legislation requiring photographs on drivers’ licenses, vision checks, and state aid for driver’s training. Speed limits came in 1966, welcome centers in 1968, and Breathalyzer tests for suspected drunken drivers in 1969.
In 1980 the department was renamed the Department of Highways and Public Transportation. The commission facilitated local planning but lacked a firm commitment to public transportation. Funding for the department, despite allocated resources, was a perennial challenge. In 1981 efforts for another gasoline tax increase triggered conflicts about the independence of highway funding, the construction of new roads in lieu of maintaining existing ones, and the need to match federal appropriations. Governor Richard Riley complained that funds were not being used as intended to resurface secondary roads and that the highway department continued “to construct new roads when it is clear that revenues are not sufficient to maintain our present system.” Also in 1981 the Legislative Audit Council released a report that criticized personnel practices and highway maintenance.
Despite the challenges, the Department of Transportation, as it became in 1993, maintained one of the largest state highway systems in the nation. Interstates 26, 20, 77, and 95 joined Interstate 85. The department continued to revisit the tensions between construction and maintenance as it sought to develop a transportation system for the twenty-first century.
Moore, John Hammond. The South Carolina Highway Department, 1917–1987. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.