Monday, March 30, 2020

Gas Tax and Road Building Success Prompt new Highway Department Shops by Prison in 1919

In the spring of 1920, our nation's first gas tax had been in force for a calendar year, and the report was good.
The wildest estimates that were made by legislators at the 1919 session...have been exceeded for the first year of the law's operation by almost $100,000.
New Highway Department shops from
4th Biennial Report of the State Highway Commission,
1919 - 1920

March 26th, 1920
The Deputy Secretary of State, Sam Kozar, was responsible for reporting the revenues, which were nearly $400,000 in total for the first year. These monies were applied to service the debt on the $10 million bond authorized by the Legislature at the same time. (The State had already been issuing bonds, and while this was an increase, it was not by itself necessarily a huge one. The impact on the bond program lagged a little, until it was clear how effective was the gas tax in raising funds to service debt. We will follow this in the months and years to come!)

With the bond and the tax to service it, the Highway Department was staffing up and had let out a number of contracts for road building.

Along the Geer Line, just south of the Prison, the State had started building what is now ODOT's "East Salem Complex" at State Street and Airport Road. Some of the activity may have been on the north side of State Street on the Prison grounds proper, but soon it was consolidated on the south side of the street.

Simpson Street traces out the former Geer Line
at the ODOT complex on Airport and State.
(The Prison and Forestry is just north,
the Post Office lower left)
From the 1919 biennial report:
The first building constructed in 1918 on the Penitentiary Brick Yard site proving inadequate and also the storage space adjacent too small in area, arrangements were made with the Warden of the Penitentiary and the Board of Control whereby the penitentiary relinquished the entire brick yard site, removing it to a plot of ground directly east on the condition that the department pay for the cost of extending the spur track and the necessary materials to put the new grounds in shape.

This arrangement has given the Department storage space several acres in extent just outside of the city limits of Salem with railroad facilities. The total plant now consists of one 40x80 warehouse and shop, one 70x80 shop, two two-story 60x80 warehouses, one shed 368x24 and another shed 80x24 and two loading platforms. The State Fair Board has also generously allowed the department the use of some of the Fair Buildings for winter storage purposes. The garage formerly occupied at 660 Capital Street was discontinued in 1920.
Union Abstract Company 1892 map of Salem
State Street bisects in the middle, Prison at center.
(comment added, WHC 1986.017.0004)
The modern institutional histories of ODOT dwell on highways built, funding, and driver laws, but don't attend as much to the actual institution itself.

ODOT's official timeline, "Oregon on the Move,"
barely mentions this for 1919-1920 (2009)
Maybe from a statewide perspective that is to be expected, but as we consider here the history of Salem, the location and growth of State institutions and the land they occupied may not always get the attention it deserves.

Though the map is not strictly to scale, and is rotated 90 degrees,
it shows state institutions ringing the urbanized area in 1911.
The ODOT shops are at the "y"of "Willamette Valley"
in the legend, just left of the Prison.
February 13th, 1911
With the State Hospital, Prison, National Guard, ODOT, Lottery, Travel Oregon, and Motor Pool, there's a ton of State land between 25th and I-5. State workers of course will be familiar, and neighbors will be also, but the wider citizenry may not remember that all together it's larger than the Capitol Mall complex. It's a little invisible. But that's an interesting chunk of land, at first outside the city limits but ultimately enveloped, taken out of residential or commercial development in the first part of the 20th century.

Full page spread on the Highway Commission
and paving progress.
The photo is the same four-building group
from a different angle. March 25th, 1920
Back to 1920, as part of their series boosting home industry, the morning paper featured nearly two full pages on the Highway Department and road building activity. "Oregon's system is the best and it will endure for all time, too," read one headline.

As part of it they listed every employee, nearly 500 at the time.

All the employees, March 25th, 1920


Walker said...

Thus did the snake succeed in tempting Oregon with the golden apple of easy revenue dedicated only to building more and more roads, without any limitation on what other monies could also be spent on roads. Since Oregon was the first Adam (state) to fall to the temptation, this may have been one of the most consequential blunders in history and a huge root cause of our climate catastrophe — the divorce of paying for road construction from road usage by providing a guaranteed revenue stream (user fee based) but allowing it to be supplemented with property taxes and general revenues.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

At the moment - which is to say this is not a super strongly held opinion - I think this is overly presentist. Still, it's a good question, "Was the gas tax and the way we implemented a mistake?" At the moment I think it was not a mistake.

When road-building was totally dependent on assessments of immediately adjacent landowners, rich ones routinely refused to pay and gummed up the works. Obstruction was too easy.

A predecessor, the bike tax of 1899 and then bike license system of 1901 for the sidepaths, was a mess, people routinely evaded it also, and it was abandoned.

There were enormous problems funding roads at this time.

So at this point, circa 1920, the gas tax represented a huge improvement and enabled hard-surfaced roads to be built more widely, and the whole country enjoyed the boosts to productivity and prosperity.

As I see it, the gas tax (and it associated administrative wrapper) was a useful tool at the time, but that system has now outlived its usefulness and we need to change it drastically for a 21st century transportation system.

On this view, our present critique of that gas tax system does not apply directly to the conditions in the early 20th century.

Walker said...

I think my comment must have been unclear; it’s not the gas tax that was the problem, it was the Constitutional dedication to gas tax only for roads without a corresponding limitation of “only gas tax for roads.” Once you allow a revenue source to be devoted solely to A without limiting other sources of funding for A, you’re going to get a lot more A than you really need or can afford, because it’s always easier to overdo when there’s a base level of funding that is guaranteed to roll in for eternity.

Now we have the worst of all worlds - the system built on abundant gas tax that is too bloated for even the most abundant gas tax to afford to maintain. We would not have such an overbuilt mandatory-autoism society if there had been constant a constant feedback loop that kept paving miles more closely tied to actual driving rather than pork barrel politicking.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Ah, I see. Thanks for the clarification. (I think that dedication occurred in 1941/42 rather than at the inception of the gas tax in 1919, however.)