This section is from the "The Subvention In The State Finances Of Pennsylvania" book, by Frederic B. Garver.
From the earliest times in Pennsylvania, two kinds of roads were recognized. The Assembly controlled all "King's Highways," while other roads were subject to local jurisdiction. Later this distinction seems to have been lost. During the early colonial times many " King's Highways" were laid out, but from 1776 to 1791 the government paid very little attention to road making, unless military operations demanded it.
No settled policy in distributing the burden of road making was adhered to during the colonial era. Sometimes the central government authorized the construction of "King's Highways" at local expenses sometimes, especially when roads were of military importance, the colony undertook their construction. No distribution of duties between the localities and the central government was, however, worked out. On the whole, we may say that down to 1790 the roads of Pennsylvania were constructed and financed by the localities.
In 1791 the state appropriated $20,000 for the construction of roads by contract; in 1792, $21,305 was added and in 1793, $38,221. *33 All these improvements were made directly by the state without assistance from the localities. There is no evidence to show that these roads were part of a contemplated system of highways, although there is every reason to suppose that they were the more important lines of communication.
In 1799 a peculiar grant was made to Bedford County. The county had long owed a debt to the state treasury. This sum the governor was authorized to collect and turn over to the county authorities to be used for the construction of certain bridges and the improvement of a state road. The occasion for this grant in aid was briefly explained in the preamble of the act, which sets forth the need for the bridges, the great burden of road improvements in that mountainous country, and the inability of the people to raise sufficient money by taxation to defray the cost of the improvements. *34 In the same year Mifflin County received a grant of $800 for the improvement of roads within its borders. This money was not to be drawn from the state treasury, but was to be collected by the county from the arrearage of direct taxes due the state. *35 Here again the law recites the difficulties of road construction and the need for improvements. Both these grants were made to the county commissioners to be expended in making improvements designated by the legislature, but the manner in which the moneys were to be expended was left entirely to the discretion of the county officers. No inspection of the work, nor audit of accounts by representatives of the state was required. These payments are, therefore, to be classed as unconditional grants in aid. The peculiarity of these two grants, and of a considerable number of others made about the same time, is that the state turned over to the counties claims for taxes and other debts due from the counties themselves.
33 Breck, S. A Sketch of the Internal Improvements Already Made in Pennsylvania (1818), p. 4. For a detailed statement of these improvements see a description of the contracts in "Contracts to improve Roads and Rivers," found with Register General's Report (1797).
34 Act 28 Mar., 1799, XVI Stat. at Large, pp. 214-215.
But not all grants in aid of this period exhibited the peculiarity just mentioned. In 1805 an act was passed granting the commissioners of Allegheny County $500 from the state treasury to build roads. Here the act was justified on the ground that roads connecting the older sections of the state with the Ohio Valley would benefit the state at large, and that the cost of their construction was too great a burden for the county to bear unassisted. *36 The only measure of control exercised by the state was the withholding of the money granted until the work was completed. Audit of the accounts by the county auditors was, of course, required. *37
After 1806 the settlement of the western portion of the state went on rapidly. The demands for state aid in building roads and bridges greatly increased, and grants became more numerous. In 1809, the Auditor General reported $7,528 paid to the commissioners of various counties for aid in road building. *38 In the same year the state expended $13,548 directly in improving roads. *39
There was, at this time, apparently no settled policy of the division of the work of road construction between the state and the counties. In 1809 an act was passed authorizing the governor to appoint commissioners to lay out a state road in Chester, Lancaster, and York counties. These commissioners acted as state officers, but the act provided that both the cost of construction of the roads and the pay of the commissioners should be drawn from the local treasuries. *40 Another law containing similar provisions applied to roads to be laid out in Cumberland, York and Adams counties. *41 Thus, at about the same time, we find the state pursuing three different policies in making and paying for road improvements. In some cases it made grants in aid to the counties; in others it required the counties to build and pay for certain highways; in still others it made the improvements and paid for them from its own treasury.
35 Act 11 April, 1799, XVI Stat. At Large, p. 323.
36 Act 29 Mar., 1805, P.L. 1804-1806, p. 174-175.
37 Ibid. For other grants of a similar nature, for which no state audit or inspection was required, see Act 28 Mar., 1806, P.L. 1804-1806, pp. 637-639, by which the commissioners of Venango, Centre, and Green counties were granted $300, $500, $200, respectively, for the construction of specified sections of designated roads.
38 Report (1809), pp. 20-21. 39 Ibid.
The grants to counties for road improvements continued to be important items in the state budget during the years 1810 to 1820. In 1811, by a single act, twenty-two counties received grants varying from $400 to $1,400, and amounting in the aggregate to $15,400. *42 But the grants became relatively fewer after 1818. The reason can only be conjectured. In part, this change of policy may be attributed to the increase in the number of private turnpike companies to whose stock the state subscribed liberally; in part, it was probably due to the fact that the more important roads had by that time been constructed; in part, to the fact that, with the growth of the counties in wealth and population, state aid was no longer necessary to enable them to construct highways; and, finally, with the advent of canals as the carriers of heavy traffic road-making became less important to the community as a whole.
We may summarize briefly the policy of the state in making grants to aid counties in road building. In the first place the causes for the grants were: (1) the very vital interest of the entire state in the construction of good highways; (2) the desire to encourage local activity in road building. The occasions for making these grants were usually: (1) the superior financial resources of the state; (2) the necessity for building roads in an unsettled, difficult country, or the construction of expensive metalled roads to connect important commercial centers; and (3) the attempt to collect from the counties taxes and debts long over-due.
In general the grants were conditional in that they were made for a specified purpose. But they were uncontrolled by the state, either through inspection of the service subsidized, or through inspection of accounts. No judgment can be passed upon the efficacy of the grants in achieving their purpose—i.e. the encouragement of the counties in road building; nor can we determine whether the funds appropriated were used efficiently.
40 Act 22 Mar., 1809, P.L. pp. 85-86.
41 Act 28 Mar., 1809, P.L. pp. 118-119.
42 Act 2 April, 1811, P.L. pp. 259-266.