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Caltrans manages more than 50,000 miles of California's highway and freeway lanes, provides inter-city rail services, permits more than 400 public-use airports and special-use hospital heliports, and works with local agencies. Caltrans carries out its mission of improving mobility across California with six primary programs: Aeronautics, Highway Transportation, Mass Transportation, Transportation Planning, Administration and the Equipment Service Center.
The department has been active in moving the people and commerce of California for more than 100 years from a loosely connected web of footpaths and rutted wagon routes to the sophisticated system that today serves the transportation needs of more than 30 million residents.
By the early 1850s, the state's miners and merchants had succeeded in weaving a dusty network of supply roads that bogged down into near impassability during the winter rains. However, by the turn of the century, California became one of the first states to name a Bureau of Highways Commission: R.C. Irvine of Sacramento, Marsden Manson of San Francisco and J.L. Maude of Riverside.
Meeting for the first time on April 11, 1895, in Sacramento, the three men began the first few steps in a buckboard journey that would take them over some 16,500 miles of roadways. A year and a half later, the three men recommended a 14,000-mile network that would become the basis for today's State Highway System.
That system was scaled down in 1916 to a network of 5560 miles. However, it included two of California's best-known routes, U.S. Routes 99 and 101, for many years the major north-south axes of California.
From the beginning, the commissioners worked from a simple philosophy: "The state highways should be the great arteries of a road system from which should branch out the minor highways serving counties and districts." It should link "the great belts of timber, fruit, agricultural and mineral wealth" to the state's population centers and county seats.
As a result, the Legislature in 1895 purchased the Lake Tahoe Wagon Toll Road as the first state highway. The route is known today as Highway 50 and slices through the Sierra Nevada from Sacramento to Placerville and South Lake Tahoe before descending into Nevada.
The state's first highway improvement bond act came in 1909 when the Legislature provided $18 million to build the State Highway System. However, money soon ran out, and the state reached an agreement in which counties would provide right-of-way and build bridges while the state would construct roads. In another cost-saving measure, the state used convict laborers to build roads, a practice that continued until the 1970s.
A second bond act passed in 1919, in part due to lobbying from the automobile clubs that wanted better roads for the growing number of vehicles traversing the state. However, by 1923 the State Legislature began to realize that transportation required a more-secure revenue source. The answer was a fuel tax in which leisure and commercial travelers paid a significant portion of the cost of building the highways they used.
Following World War I, gasoline taxes began to provide stable funds for highway construction, operation and maintenance. And the growing number of state highway departments united to form the American Association of State Highway Officials, which worked to establish national design standards across the country.
During the 1920s the Yolo Causeway and Carquinez Straits Bridge opened a direct route from Sacramento through the Delta and into the Bay Area. Until then, ground transportation was through Stockton and over the Altamont Pass. Agriculture was shipped down the Sacramento River.
The seeds of the farm-to-market road system were planted in the early 1930s when the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads called on America to "get the farmer out of the mud," a slogan that led to a greatly improved and expanded system of paved rural roads. Another important milestone of the 1930s was the completion of State Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway.
The 1940s saw the birth of the "freeway era" with completion in 1940 of the Arroyo Seco Freeway, among the first in the nation. California's freeway- and expressway-building sped up in the 1947 with passage of the Collier-Burns Act, which laid the basis for the state's current freeway-expressway system. Within seven years President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the National System of Interstate And Defense Highways.
The 1950s and 1960s also were a time of technological innovation. The second Carquinez Bridge used high-strength steels and hybrid welding, and interstate freeways were cut through areas that once were believed to be virtually impassable: the Sacramento River and Truckee River canyons. And the Sacramento "boat section," a portion of Interstate 5, was built below ground water level and "anchored" by pilings and 15-foot-thick concrete.
The awarding of the 1960 Winter Olympics to Squaw Valley added impetus to building Interstate 80, the first all-weather, trans-Sierra Nevada highway. The divided highway roughly parallels the transcontinental railroad, built in 1869, and passes by the last site of the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846.
In the wake of the frenetic 1960s, the 1970s were a time of austerity. The then-current political philosophy urged alternatives to highway building, a trend that would continue into the 1980s. Such thinking led to a new name for the department, Caltrans, short for the California Department of Transportation. The name change was emblematic of new thinking, and a rise in the concept that while highways have long been vital to the state, other forms of transportation were emerging to complement roadways.
The 1990s saw fruition of ideas that had been conceived 15 to 20 years earlier. In recognition that California could not merely build its way out of traffic congestion and air pollution, Caltrans began to emphasize the more-efficient use of highways and their integration with other "modes" of transportation. Public sentiment became more receptive to rail and transit, car pooling, ramp metering, telecommuting flexible work hours, and research into intelligent vehicle and highway systems.
And in the last few years, the Northridge and Loma Prieta earthquakes have focused attention on the need to strengthen state highway bridges against the immense power of seismic forces.
In short, Caltrans' development reflects the changes of American society for more than a century. From a rural society dominated by Euro-American pioneers who exploited the state's vast natural resources to a technologically, global- and service-oriented economy, California has grown prosperous.
And Caltrans has grown with it.
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