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A history of roads in Virginia: Getting organized for better roads

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An early Virginia roadway crew stops work to pose for a photograph.

Two governors in this period gave strong support to the mushrooming good roads movement. They were Andrew Jackson Montague, the state’s chief executive from 1902 to 1906, and his  successor, Claude A. Swanson, who served until 1910. Their recommendations to the General Assembly in 1906 helped set the state government’s course in road development for the years ahead.

Meeting in Richmond, the legislature created the first State Highway Commission, giving final approval to the legislation on March 6, 1906. A state highway commissioner was appointed by the governor with General Assembly confirmation. Legislation required that the commissioner be a Virginia citizen, as well as a “civil engineer and a person well-versed in road-building.”

Legislation also dictated that the commission was to include three professors of civil engineering, one each from the University of Virginia (U.Va.), Virginia Military Institute (VMI), and what was then Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute at Blacksburg. These commission members were chosen by the boards of visitors at the respective institutions.

Gov. Swanson appointed Philip St. Julien Wilson, a Powhatan County native and a civil engineering graduate in the class of 1886 at VMI, as the first commissioner. Wilson was 38 and serving as assistant city engineer for Richmond at the time of his appointment.

Joining Wilson on the first commission were William M. Thornton, dean of the engineering department at U.Va.; Col. T. A. Jones, civil engineering professor at VMI; and Col. R. A. Marr, dean of engineering at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute.

The law specified that the commissioner “shall have a general supervision of the construction and repair of the main traveled roads in the state; the Commissioner may recommend to the local road authorities of any county, and to the Governor, needed improvements in the public roads; he shall supply technical information on road building to any citizen or officer in the state, and from time to time publish for public use such information as will be generally useful for road improvement.”

While the counties kept the responsibility for actually making the improvements, they now had a new state agency to which they could turn for help. For example, they could apply to the commissioner for civil engineering advice, and if he concluded that a proposed project would be permanent and on a main road and that it was practical, his office would prepare detailed plans and specifications and, at the county’s expense, assign a civil engineer to supervise construction.

The 1906 legislature also established the state convict road force as a source of labor. “All prisoners convicted of a crime and sentenced to either hard labor on the public roads or to imprisonment in jail and all persons imprisoned in jail for the non-payment of fine and costs, shall, when delivered upon order of the superintendent of the penitentiary for such purpose, constitute the state convict road force,” the statute read.

For some years before, convict labor had been available to the counties for road work, but not more than half of the counties used it. After the 1906 legislation, the convict labor was channeled to roads that would benefit the whole state.

The commissioner also encouraged county officials to look beyond their own borders to the importance of working toward a coordinated, statewide highway system because still, to the frustration of early motorists, an improved road in one county might shrink to a rutted trail or disappear entirely in another. Boat or train remained the most certain means of traveling long distances in reasonable comfort.

In the commission’s first annual report to the governor and General Assembly in October 1907, Wilson shed light on the first year’s operation:

“This department being newly established some time was necessarily required for organization and preparation for carrying out the provisions of the law to the best advantage,” he wrote. “Efforts along this line proved that men in the state who were familiar with the work of permanent road improvement were difficult to secure.  Competent engineers and foremen are obtainable, but comparatively few with any experience in modern highway construction, and without the services of such men road work cannot be carried on to the best advantage.”

Moreover, he added, “Much preliminary work had to be done by the county authorities before they were actually ready to begin work. The problem of raising the necessary funds to defray the counties’ portion of the expense was, in most instances, a difficult one, and met with many obstacles and delays. The machinery and equipment furnished by the counties has been, in several instances, very inadequate for the proper handling of the work.”

For some months, he wrote, “great difficulty was experienced in securing prisoners from jails for service in the state convict road force, and the number of convicts in the state penitentiary who, under the law, were available for road work was very limited. As a consequence, the organization of the first force was not completed until October 1906, and it was not until well on in December 1906, that we were able to put to work as many as five forces of about 50 men each.”

Wilson observed that while criticism had been voiced in several quarters “about the undesirability, even inhumanity, of using convict labor on public works, all of which may have been justified,” the fact was that “the men in the road camps seem satisfied, and many have expressed to me a preference for this work to remaining in jail.”

The commissioner, after barely more than a year on the job and engaged in what had become largely a mission of public education, also commented on the inadequacy of funds available for road maintenance. It was a problem that had plagued the turnpikes a century before, and it would continue for another decade. “This is a matter of the greatest importance, as even the best constructed roads require frequent, though not expensive, attention to keep them in good condition and to prevent the extensive and costly repairs that the lack of such attention will necessitate,” he wrote. “I would suggest than an amendment to the law be made to the effect that state aid will be extended to the construction of a road only upon condition that the county applying for such aid agree to make suitable provision for the up-keep of the improved road.”

The first improvement project completed with the help of the commission was the road between Williamsburg and Jamestown Island. Most of the road was surfaced with gravel and a mixture of sand and clay; about two miles were macadamized.

The General Assembly in 1906 had appropriated $16,000 to support the fledgling road program for the period from July 1, 1906, when the legislation became effective, to Feb. 28, 1908. It was to pay the salaries of the small staff—the commissioner, his assistant, a bridge engineer, a draftsman, a clerk, and a stenographer—and to furnish the offices and to purchase supplies.

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Have you checked your battery lately?

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Today’s cars and trucks require so little maintenance that most motorists simply fill up the tank with gas and occasionally check the air pressure in the tires. Among the many components that are no longer part of a vehicle’s regular maintenance is the battery.

Granted, a modern day automotive battery is a part that rarely lets its owner down without first giving some serious warning. However, if most motorists think that winter is the only season when a battery might disappoint them, they should think again. Summer heat combined with an extended period of disuse can take the power out of any battery.

Then again, some car owners might not even know where the battery is. In some special cases, auto manufacturers have put the battery in the trunk of the car where the build up of deposit at the poles is much less likely to happen; these same poles may nevertheless require cleaning.

Sometimes, car owners replace their battery with a model that does not fit precisely into the battery holder, and because it is impossible to use the original battery cover, they discard it. That cover, how­ever, had good reason to be there: It protected the battery from being contaminated by nearby components. When changing a battery, it is always preferable to use the correct replacement.

Even today’s batteries need some form of maintenance.

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A history of roads in Virginia: Another World War begins

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The Highway Building in Richmond was dedicated in 1939. The entablature across the Neo-Greek style building reads, “Dedicated to the comfort and safety of those who travel the highways of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Within months, the thoughts of Virginians and other citizens throughout the land were to be diverted by the entry of the United States into World War II.

“The war emergency has multiplied our responsibilities. Today as never before in history, the highways of the nation must be adequate at all times of the year to handle the modern mechanized army, and at the same time keep civilian transportation involving largely, as it does, the marketing of farm and food supplies and the carrying of defense workers to industrial plants, on the move without delay,” the State Highway Commission told Virginians.

“Under ordinary circumstances, these would not have been serious problems for us to handle. The foresightedness of previous years had modernized our major trunk highways to such a degree that they are equipped to handle their normal traffic load. The problem that has confronted us the most has been the need for rapid development and newly created feeder and access roads to the defense areas.”

As had occurred a quarter-century before, employees left to join the armed forces and, in some instances, to take jobs in defense industries. Materials and supplies were in short supply. Tire and gasoline rationing reduced travel, but also cut the accompanying revenue from road-user taxes. “All but the most urgent and important work… has been postponed until conditions improve,” the commission said.

Commission members sought to bring “our highways through the war winters without undue interruption to traffic or serious loss of capital investment” and to aid as best they could in the nation’s defense efforts. At one point, 3,000 pieces of federal equipment were repaired or overhauled at the Department of Highways’ equipment depot in Richmond.

Farm labor was hired to help with road maintenance, and students were employed and trained during the summers to assist in drafting rooms.

In 1942, the General Assembly expanded the commission from five to nine members — one from each of the eight highway districts, with the full-time commissioner serving as chairman — and the enlarged group set about planning for the future.

“Under the heavy pounding of war-time traffic and inadequate maintenance, some of the older highway surfaces and bridges are failing and cannot endure for any length of time without costly failure,” the commission said. “The reconditioning or replacement of these will furnish one of the most important salvage jobs in post-war activities.”

The winter of 1945-46 was described as “the worst experienced during the history of the department… 20,000 miles of low-type road went to pieces. The continued shortage of labor, equipment, and materials had greatly handicapped efforts to make these roads serviceable throughout the year.” The winter added to the post-war recovery woes, which were about to be tackled.

Next up: 20 year plan; upgrade all roads; replace most ferries

Produced by the
Virginia Department of Transportation
Office of Public Affairs
1401 E. Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23219
VirginiaDOT.org

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Drive safely this summer

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Did you know that the highest number of fatal car accidents occur in July and August? The golden rule, as we all know, is to slow down! But going beyond the issue of speed, here are a few tips for safe summer driving.

Before leaving, answer any text or voice messages, choose the radio station or CD’s you’d like to listen to and adjust the volume and the interior temperature of the car. All of this should be done to avoid any “primary” distractions while driving.

When the sun is in your eyes be sure to slow down and keep your distance in order to have more brake time. If you’re blinded by headlights at night, look ahead and slightly to the right. Cleaning the inside of your windshield will also help — a dirty windshield increases glare.

During periods of heavy rain, put your headlights on low beam in order to be seen from the front as well from behind or park in a safe place. If an animal suddenly appears on the road in front of you, hold the steering wheel firmly, do not swerve, sound your horn and press firmly on or pump the brakes. An insect in the car? Stay calm and open the windows if you have the controls on your armrest. Stop the car as soon as possible, open the windows, if you haven’t already done so, and with the help of an object, guide the insect slowly and gently out of the vehicle.

Finally, check the air pressure in your tires on a monthly basis; under-inflated tires wear more quickly. Don’t drive all summer with your winter tires as they have less road adherence, especially in water; braking distance is a third longer and your gas consumption will be higher. Change your windshield wipers every year; dried out rubber causes streaks of water which reduce visibility.

Be careful this summer and remember: a distracted driver is a dangerous driver.

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A history of roads in Virginia: The secondary system

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Highways and road signs were vastly improved by the 1930s.

It was against this background that the General Assembly in 1932 approved a means by which the counties could be relieved of road construction and maintenance responsibility. The “Byrd Road Act” inspired by the former Winchester senator who two years before had completed a term as governor, authorized the establishment of the state “secondary” road system. It permitted each county, if it wished, to give its road responsibility to the Highway Commission. One economist estimated that this action would reduce rural taxes by $2,895,102 annually.

Four counties – Arlington, Henrico, Nottoway and Warwick – chose to keep the responsibility; the other counties joined the new secondary system. In 1933, Nottoway reversed its earlier decision and joined the system. Years later, Warwick gave up its county status to become a city that eventually merged with Newport News. Arlington and Henrico counties continued to operate their own local roads.

When the secondary system was established, it totaled 35,900 miles. It included 2,000 miles hard-surfaced, 8,900 miles with soil or gravel surfaces, and more than 25,000 miles, or almost 70 percent, of largely unimproved dirt roads. Some counties had no hard-surfaced roads at all.

Within a decade, the amount of hard-surfaced roads had tripled, the mileage of soil or gravel roads had doubled, and the unimproved roads had been reduced by almost half. With the arrival of the secondary system, the main roads for which the state had been responsible became known as the “primary” highway system.

In August 1939, with motor vehicle registration approaching a half million, Commissioner Henry Shirley reported that “The demand for a road that can be used throughout the year is becoming greater and greater, and such a road has become a necessity. Practically all horse-drawn equipment has vanished from the highways, and motor equipment taken its place, requiring a road that can be traveled the year-round.”A year later, Shirley reported another development that was to become a major part of road operations in Virginia and elsewhere. “All the main highways are being marked with traffic lines, and the system adopted we hope will be the means of saving many lives. Under no condition should a vehicle cross a solid line when it is next to the vehicle, or two solid lines,” he said.

Despite the precautions, however, safety problems continued to trouble highway engineers as the number of autos grew. Brig. Gen. James A. Anderson, who had taught civil engineering and been dean of the faculty at VMI, was on furlough from the academic world and was serving as coordinator of the State Defense Council at the time of Shirley’s death in July 1941. Anderson was appointed highway commissioner, a position he held until his retirement in 1957.

“Accidents on the highways are increasing daily, and every care and precaution within the power of the commission is being taken to reduce this heavy toll of life,” Anderson said shortly after his appointment. “It is imperative that something be done to reduce the speed of automobiles on the highways, and to educate the drivers to the courtesy of the road.”

Next up: Another World War Begins

Produced by the
Virginia Department of Transportation
Office of Public Affairs
1401 E. Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23219
VirginiaDOT.org

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Manual or automatic: which transmission is right for you?

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Are you in the market for a new car and wondering whether to get one with a manual or automatic transmission? To help you make the best choice, here are some of their respective advantages.

Manual
Some car owners enjoy the full driving control offered by manual transmissions. For others, the lower price tag may be a stronger incentive to go manual.

Manual gearboxes are less expensive, put less strain on your brakes and are cheaper to repair. In addition, they tend to be more fuel-efficient. However, automatic transmission technology is catching up and some automatic models now offer comparable fuel economy.

Automatic
The main advantage of automatic cars is that they’re less stressful to drive than their manual counterparts, especially in dense traffic conditions.

Automatic transmissions prevent cars from stalling when you’re stuck inching along the highway or when you want to advance at a green light. In addition, they’re simply easier to use and switching gears is always precise and fluid.

In the end, the best choice for you depends on your preferences.

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A history of roads in Virginia: Financing the roads

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Wet subgrade is removed in an Amherst County project.

After the war, the road development program regained momentum and sought to keep up with the growing popularity of the auto. More than 25,000 vehicles would be added to the state’s roads in a year’s time. Inevitably, questions persisted about how to raise additional highway revenue to meet the mounting needs.

The state Constitution of 1869 had prohibited any state debt except to meet casual deficits in the revenue, to redeem previous liabilities, or to protect the state in the event of insurrection or war. The same restriction remained in a revised Constitution of 1902, but a later amendment, pushed by the Good Roads Association and approved by 61,000 votes in a 1920 referendum, had permitted the legislature to issue bonds to build or repair roads. Statewide political debate developed about using that permissive borrowing power, however.

State Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. of Winchester, chairman of the Virginia Senate Roads Committee, opposed bonds and urged the levying of a tax of three cents on a gallon of gasoline to produce the revenue. Early in 1923, Gov. E. Lee Trinkle called an extra “roads” session of the General Assembly to decide a course of action. He recommended a temporary “pay-as-you-go” policy until the question of bonds could be considered again by the voters in a referendum.

The legislature approved the Byrd gasoline proposal and ordered that a suggested $50 million bond issue be submitted to referendum in November.

By a margin of some 46,000 votes, the citizens this time rejected the bond issue idea in what was considered in many ways a victory for rural voters. Only 19 counties voted for the bond issue, while it won approval in 17 of the state’s cities. The gasoline tax was destined to become the largest single source of revenue for  road building and maintenance and was to be increased gradually over the years. At the national level, a gasoline tax approved by Congress was to become the principal revenue source for the federally aided road program as well.

During the debate about financing, Virginia’s highway organization continued to be refined. In 1922, the legislature directed that the state be divided geographically into eight highway districts and that available funds be distributed among them in equal shares. Other organizational changes in the commission led to the appointment of Henry G. Shirley, who had been Maryland’s highway administrator, as chairman. Coleman stayed as highway commissioner until his resignation in 1923, and later the positions of chairman and commissioner were combined.

In 1927, as part of a reorganization of state government, the Department of Highways was formally established as a state agency, although the commission staff had been called the “highway department” since the outset. As disconnected sections of improved roads were linked into continuous long- distance routes crossing many states, travelers found themselves steadily more bewildered by a confusing array of directional and informational signs. There was little continuity or standardization from state to state, and it was easy for motorists to get lost in unfamiliar territory.

At the request of the American Association of State Highway Officials, the U.S. secretary of agriculture appointed a committee in March 1925 “to undertake immediately the selection and designation of a comprehensive and uniform scheme for designating such routes in such manner as to give them a conspicuous place among the highways of the country as roads of inter-state and national significance.”

It was this move that led to the beginning of route numbers and to uniform signs for the convenience of motorists throughout the nation, and that produced greater continuity in marking Virginia’s roads. The basic plan provided generally for assigning even numbers to east-west routes and odd numbers to north-south roads.

By 1930, a total of 386,664 motor vehicles were registered in the state. The license tax produced $6,564,000 in revenue, and the gasoline tax produced $7,251,000. The state highway system had been increased to 7,191 miles.

The counties, however, still were plagued by problems of improving and maintaining the local roads for which they were responsible. Most of those roads remained in extremely poor condition. Few counties had engineers on their staffs, and not many had the necessary equipment.

And yet about two-thirds of the state’s workers earned their livelihoods from the land and faced the continuing need of hauling farm products to market. The Depression that swept the nation brought more serious problems, and most rural Virginians had little money to pay the property taxes that had continued as the main source of income for the county roads.

In Richmond and in the district highway offices that had been established around the state, adjustments were made in road operations to aid as many families as possible during the economic crisis of the Depression years.

During the fall of 1931, the commission found that under normal work schedules it could provide employment and wages for only a few additional workers. But a “stagger system,” providing jobs for one force of men one week and another force the next week and continuing the procedure through the construction season, made jobs and income available for 8,000 additional workers. The commission kept this system in effect throughout the Depression.

Next up: The Secondary System

Produced by the
Virginia Department of Transportation
Office of Public Affairs
1401 E. Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23219
VirginiaDOT.org

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Upcoming Events

Aug
27
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1:30 pm Botanicals in Watercolor I @ Art in the Valley
Botanicals in Watercolor I @ Art in the Valley
Aug 27 @ 1:30 pm – 4:00 pm
Botanicals in Watercolor I @ Art in the Valley
This four week course with the instructor, Elena Maza, will deal with the basic three-primary color palette, different pigments and how they interact, how to mix all colors from three primary colors, how to apply[...]
Aug
29
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1:00 pm Substance Abuse and Recovery Summit @ Mountain Home Bed and Breakfast
Substance Abuse and Recovery Summit @ Mountain Home Bed and Breakfast
Aug 29 @ 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Substance Abuse and Recovery Summit @ Mountain Home Bed and Breakfast
The McShin Foundation and RSW (Rappahannock, Shenandoah, and Warren County) Regional Jail would like to invite you to our substance abuse and recovery summit to be held on August 29, 2019, in Front Royal, Virginia.[...]
Aug
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1:00 pm DJ Skyhigh’s End of Summer Blast @ Warren County Fair
DJ Skyhigh’s End of Summer Blast @ Warren County Fair
Aug 31 @ 1:00 pm – 9:00 pm
DJ Skyhigh's End of Summer Blast @ Warren County Fair
Come join DJ Skyhigh for his end of summer blast. Lisa Bell will be hosting wine tastings (at an additional charge) of over 50 international wines. Wines may also be purchased by the bottle to[...]
Sep
3
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1:30 pm Watercolor Landscapes @ Art in the Valley
Watercolor Landscapes @ Art in the Valley
Sep 3 @ 1:30 pm – 4:30 pm
Watercolor Landscapes @ Art in the Valley
This four week course with instructor Elena Maza will focus on learning basic skills to create watercolor landscape paintings: basic composition and use of color and value to create a sense of depth and distance.[...]
Sep
4
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1:30 pm Botanical Drawing @ Art in the Valley
Botanical Drawing @ Art in the Valley
Sep 4 @ 1:30 pm – 4:30 pm
Botanical Drawing @ Art in the Valley
Learn and practice the art of botanical drawing in pencil with local artist and instructor Elena Maza. This four session course will focus on learning basic drawing skills as applied to botanicals: basic line drawings[...]
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10:00 am SHS Marching Band Mattress Fundr... @ Skyline High School
SHS Marching Band Mattress Fundr... @ Skyline High School
Sep 7 @ 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
SHS Marching Band Mattress Fundraiser @ Skyline High School
Skyline High School Marching Band is having a mattress sale fundraiser on Saturday, September 7, 2019, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Skyline High School (151 Skyline Vista Drive, Front Royal, Virginia). There will[...]
12:00 pm 2019 NFL Kick Off Party @ Sly Fox Golf Club
2019 NFL Kick Off Party @ Sly Fox Golf Club
Sep 7 @ 12:00 pm – 8:00 pm
2019 NFL Kick Off Party @ Sly Fox Golf Club
Golf – “Captains Choice Format” 12pm Shotgun “Tail Gate” Food and Drinks – 5pm to 8pm Golf + Food & Drinks $45 Tail Gate Food & Drinks Only $15
1:00 pm Strokes of Creativity: 1-year ce... @ Strokes of Creativity
Strokes of Creativity: 1-year ce... @ Strokes of Creativity
Sep 7 @ 1:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Strokes of Creativity: 1-year celebration @ Strokes of Creativity
Join us for our 1-year celebration on Sept. 7 from 1-6 pm. We will have demos, and Artist meet and greets. Unique and one of kind items, face painting, crafts and Chase from Paw Patrol will[...]
6:00 pm FRUMC Celebrates Homecoming @ Front Royal United Methodist Church
FRUMC Celebrates Homecoming @ Front Royal United Methodist Church
Sep 7 @ 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
FRUMC Celebrates Homecoming @ Front Royal United Methodist Church
In tandem with the 110th anniversary of the church building, the Front Royal United Methodist Church will host Homecoming ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday, September 7th and 8th. Five previous pastors have agreed to return[...]
Sep
10
Tue
1:30 pm Watercolor Landscapes @ Art in the Valley
Watercolor Landscapes @ Art in the Valley
Sep 10 @ 1:30 pm – 4:30 pm
Watercolor Landscapes @ Art in the Valley
This four week course with instructor Elena Maza will focus on learning basic skills to create watercolor landscape paintings: basic composition and use of color and value to create a sense of depth and distance.[...]