History of the Road Commission

The road network in Washtenaw County began centuries ago as a series of Indian trails, usually following rivers and streams and connecting Indian villages while providing access to hunting grounds. Such roads as Huron River Drive and US-12 generally follow Indian trails. Later, when settlers moved into the County, these trails were widened to connect major settlements, and thus roads like Dexter-Chelsea Road, Ann Arbor-Plymouth Road, Saline-Milan Road, etc. were established. After the county was surveyed in, a mile grid system of roads was superimposed over the existing road network.


Old Road


The network of roadways that now serves Michigan began centuries ago as a network of Indian trails. These paths, worn deep by centuries of foot travel by the Indians, were located on high, dry ground along waterbeds and streams. They connected main Indian villages and led to the rich hunting and fishing grounds of the state. They linked the numerous rivers that covered the state, thus providing a continuous transportation system.


Michigan became a territory in 1805 and in 1827 townships were given responsibility for road building within their jurisdictions. When Michigan became a State in 1837 the constitution provided for a continuation of the township road system. Under Michigan Law townships which controlled the construction and maintenance of the roads were divided into numerous road districts, each under the charge of a highway commissioner or overseer. Individual road property owners road taxes were assessed at 62.5¢ per day, however, township residents could work off the tax by working a certain number of days per year on road construction or maintenance, or providing a yoke of oxen, a team of horses or other equipment. The system of road districts did not result in a coordinated road system and, consequently, the Legislature in 1893 passed the County Road Law which encouraged counties, by vote of the people, to establish a County Road Commission. Washtenaw County voters approved the creation of a County Road Commission on April 11, 1919 with an initial County Road system of 22 miles.

In 1915, the Legislature approved the Covert Road Law which encouraged road construction on secondary roads and increased the county share in the cost of building trunkline roads. This was followed by the enactment of a Weight Tax Law, leveling a tax on motor vehicles and returning half of the revenues to counties. A 2¢/gallon gas tax was approved in 1925. Prior to 1931, major roads in the county were under the jurisdiction of the County Road Commission, while local roads were under the jurisdiction of townships. This changed in 1931 with the passage of the McNitt Act, which phased out township roads over a five-year period and gave County Road Commissions jurisdiction over all of the township roads. Since that time, a number of bills were approved pertaining to roads, the most significant being Act 51 of Public Acts of 1951, which clarified responsibility for roads between the three responsible jurisdictions; State, County and Municipal. It also included a formula for distributing funds raised by the State in the form of gas and weight taxes.

Another impetus to improve roads in the late 1800's and 1900's was led by the demand for bicycling, and the Michigan State Highway Department was formed in 1905 in response to bicyclists' demands for an improved road system. Around the same time, the State also passed a State Reward Law, which provided state aid to townships and counties for roads constructed according to standards established by the Michigan State Highway Department. These state-funded "rewards" varied from $250 to $1,000 per mile, depending on the type of road constructed: clay base with gravel surface, all gravel, stone base with gravel surface, gravel base with stone surface and macadam. $90,000 was appropriated to carry out the road improvement work from 1905 to 1907.


Additional information on Michigan's roads available at micountyroads.org