WOODSTOCK – Those at the McHenry County Division of Transportation know better than anyone that as far as roads are concerned, we’ve come a long way.
From the county’s first humble wagon routes and dusty trails to today’s 217 center-line miles, the landscape of the county-controlled roadways has changed dramatically in the agency’s 100 years.
McDOT will mark its centennial anniversary this year with a series of newspaper columns and discussion of where the agency is headed.
But first, a look back.
Before 1913, there were many attempts to improve the state’s roadways. But it was the Tice Law, approved in Springfield that year, that designated a superintendent of engineers in each Illinois county.
Charles Tryon was the first to fill that role in McHenry County, and there have been six after him.
Tryon’s post was new – and not clearly defined.
“Nobody knew what to do. Nobody had any documents, nothing to start on,” said Ernie Varga, McDOT’s resident historian and project manager.
Added Assistant County Engineer Jeff Young: “So much was done by the the seat of your pants back then.”
At the time, the automobile largely was a luxury afforded only by the rich. But with the growing popularity of vehicles, thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line-produced Model T, by the time the Tice Law of 1913 was enacted, there was growing sentiment to improve road systems in Illinois.
Before the law, travel was primarily by rail and water. The Tice Law set in motion ways for easier intercounty trips to major urban hubs. Most often these roads led to train stations, which were especially critical for farmers in McHenry County.
It is not to say there weren’t roads before 1913: Varga notes that in 1907, the first speed limit was 8 mph in Crystal Lake on what is today’s Virginia Street.
“That’s the max, they’re not going any faster,” Varga said. “As cars got to be going 40, 50, 60 or 120 mph, everything changed. Tice probably never envisioned this.”
The 1920s, ’30s and ’40s
The next big push for roads came in the 1920s, when plans and notions about road travel changed. By 1925, the beginnings of the federal U.S. highways were beginning to take shape.
The Great Depression sparked a stimulus package that led to a boom in road construction, and that translated to jobs for out-of-work builders throughout the country.
Road construction in the 1940s was put on hold for the sake of the war effort. But soon enough, World War II inspired one future president to envision roads as a tool in a way the country never had.
In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who saw the ease of travel in European countries during the war, began the next drive to develop highways – it is believed – so that troops could mobilize quickly throughout the county.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 marked the beginning of the interstate highway system. The baby boomer generation – with pockets full of disposable income and cars filled with children – started traveling.
Tourism defined travel in the 1960s. In Illinois, the boom in tourism brought travelers through state and local roads.
The ideas was to “burn up that rubber, burn up that gas and drive that car because: Why not? – you’ll get another one,” Varga said.
Soon enough, dusty county roads gave way to the next push for pavement.
The 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s
In the 1970s, McDOT began seeing more organization as the county began funding its own projects. Using materials from its own gravel pits, work was done in-house. Soon, the county agency realized that it was more efficient and cost-effective to the work out for bids.
The 1980s were defined by a Reagan-era push for more infrastructure upgrades, and more federal dollars were released for roads. At the same time, McDOT developed its first long-range plan for the next 20 years.
Then, in the 1990s, there was a push to end congestion brought on by McHenry County’s growth. Rapid development lasted through the mid-2000s. During the county’s growth spurt, the agency started a formal permitting process.
“Things were developing at a rapid rate, and everybody was just trying to keep up,” Young said.
Development slowed when the recession took hold. If the early part of the decade was marked by an influx of development, the latter was when “we finally got caught up,” Young said.
What’s next for the McDOT? Flying cars, perhaps?
Not so much, Young said, laughing.
Instead the agency is again working on a long-range plan, this time for 2040, “so we’re proactive, not reactive to population increases, capacity or future developments,” Young said.
“The plan becomes an effective tool so we know where we’re headed,” he said.
There also is a big push on safety and green initiatives in the coming years.
“Where we’ll go from here is the next big question,” Young said.