The Texas Department of Transportation, originally known as the Texas Highway Department, was established in 1917 by the Thirty-fifth Texas Legislature. The agency bore its original name until 1975, when it was renamed State Department of Highways and Public Transportation. At that time the legislature directed the department to assume the functions of the Texas Mass Transportation Commission and thus changed the name of the road agency to reflect its expanded responsibilities. The department, headquartered in the Dewitt C. Greer State Highway Building in Austin in 1995, maintained eighteen functional divisions, twenty-five district offices, and ten special offices scattered over the state. A district engineer managed each district. The chief duties of the department are to delineate, build, and maintain all state highway and public transportation systems; issue permits for the use of heavy trucks; and register motor vehicles. Administrative control of the department is vested in a three-person commission and an engineer-director. Commission members are appointed by the governor, with the consent of the Senate. The governor designates one member to be the chairman. Commissioners serve six-year terms, with the term of one member expiring every two years. Duties of commissioners are to formulate overall policies for a comprehensive system of public transportation for the state. The commission employs, at its prerogative, an engineer-director to administer the policies, supervise all location, design, construction, and maintenance of the state's transportation system, and direct the workings of the department in general. The Texas Highway Department was originally established only to take advantage of the 1916 Federal Aid Road Act, which granted monetary assistance to all states that had centralized, state control of road building-that is, state highway departments. The legislature authorized a comprehensive system of public highways and roads in cooperation with the counties and under the direct supervision of the state highway department. In 1925 the department further relieved the counties of their maintenance responsibility and ultimately required them only to furnish rights-of-way for new construction improvements to the state road system.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the department remained a focal point of Texas politics. The 1924 gubernatorial election of Miriam Amanda Ferguson placed the state road agency in a politically precarious situation, since control of construction and maintenance contracts meant potentially lucrative patronage to Ferguson supporters. A legislative enactment passed a year before Ma Ferguson's election staggered the terms of the highway commissioners, and she appointed all three members of the reorganized highway commission. Her appointees soon took political and monetary advantage of a vulnerable road program. Rumors of fiscal wrongdoing led Attorney General Daniel J. Moody in November 1925 to file suit against the Ferguson-controlled highway commission. Moody alleged that several road-construction companies had received "sweetheart" contracts worth millions of dollars from the commission and that in return kickbacks had been paid to the commissioners and perhaps even to the Fergusons. The courts ruled with the attorney general and invalidated numerous road contracts. The commissioners resigned in disgrace, and by December 1925 rumors of Ferguson's impending impeachment circulated freely throughout the state. The legislature was not, however, in session, and impeachment talk eventually subsided. The road scandals, combined with other allegations of wrongdoing in the education agency and in the functioning of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville led to Mrs. Ferguson's defeat by Moody in the August 1926 Democratic gubernatorial run-off primary.
In November 1932 Miriam Ferguson was again elected governor. Given the economic hardships of the Great Depression, the Texas Highway Department feared another round of rough-and-tumble Texas politics in which it would be a most reluctant participant. However, Mrs. Ferguson's second gubernatorial term proved less politically volatile than her first. The depression itself was a far more dangerous enemy to the state road agency. A reduction in federal aid and in state gasoline-tax revenue caused a temporary curtailment of projects and cuts in personnel, and in 1936 led Governor James Allred to advocate diverting millions of dollars of highway money into an old-age assistance program. Officials of the state road agency lobbied successfully for the defeat of Allred's plan, but the result was a forced administrative reorganization. The conflict probably also caused the resignation of state highway engineer Gibb Gilchrist, the most accomplished leader, up to that time, in the department's history.
With World War II came a sharp decline in the highway-building program. Federal aid was designated only for highway projects serving national defense, and all other "nonmilitary" projects were suspended for the duration. Highway manpower and matériel went off to Europe and the Pacific, and only minimal maintenance was accomplished at home during the war. In the postwar years the department initiated an aggressive rebuilding and expansion effort to match the growing demand for better transportation facilities. In five years between 1945 and 1950, Texas vehicle registrations climbed from 1.7 million to 3.1 million. To satisfy this new demand, the department moved in two directions. First, it began expressway construction in major Texas cities in 1945, supervised by the Urban Project offices. Further impetus was given to this program in 1956, when the national government passed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which provided for a nationwide interstate highway system. Second, by 1949 the agency had established a farm-to-market program to provide a coherent secondary system of rural highways throughout the state.
In the 1980s the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation was one of the nation's leading state transportation agencies. Utilizing the fiscally conservative "pay-as-you-go" basis rather than bonding, Texas has been a primary constructor of new highways. The state maintained, as of August 1984, 71,915 miles of roads. In the 1980s the highway department, an agency of 15,000 employees, spent nearly $5.5 billion on engineering, right-of-way, and construction, $63.6 million on planning and research, and $45.8 million on public transportation systems. The continuing expenditure of billions of dollars of public money has been essential to the state's overall economic growth. In turn, that growth has placed additional burdens upon the road agency. In 1930 the ratio of registered vehicles to miles in the state highway system was 77.9 to 1; by 1960 the figure had climbed to 85.9 to 1; and by August 1984 that number had spiraled to 187.6 vehicles per mile within the state highway system.
In 1991 the Texas legislature merged the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation, the Texas Department of Aviation, and the Texas Motor Vehicle Commission to form the Texas Department of Transportation. The department had seven directorates: Transportation Planning and Development, Field Operations, Multimodal Transportation, Administrative Services, Human Resources Management, Motorist Services, and Staff Services. In 1994 the department had 14,763 employees and a budget of over $3 billion. See also HIGHWAY DEVELOPMENT.