Paving the Way

New York Road Building and the American State, 1880-1956

Michael R. Fein

Abel Wolman Award

New York State Archives Annual Award for Excellence in Research

“An important book that makes a significant contribution to the historiography of American highway politics. It stands out . . . for its innovative and far-reaching arguments.”

Reviews in American History

“This well-written and well researched book makes an important contribution to the recent renaissance in transportation and mobility history. . . . Fein’s focus on New York State—with its deep history of internal improvements, its reliance on powerful semiautonomous agencies such as the Throughway Authority, and its delicate balance between center and periphery—was wise. . . . A significant contribution to our understanding of of mass mobility and American political development in the twentieth century.

—Journal of American History
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Most historians have credited New Deal initiatives in economic regulation and social welfare policy with bringing about the modern American state. Michael Fein now reveals the surprising story of how road building paved the way to the modern state during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and how public works policy emerged as a third critical pillar in support of state building.

Paving the Way shows that the growing transportation needs of a steadily industrializing nation reconfigured state politics, bringing about a revolution in governance as it reshaped the landscape. Examining state and local policy developments from half a century before the New Deal, Fein describes how the transition from rutted wagon trails to smooth highways shifted road-maintenance responsibility from local residents to state engineers. Focusing on New York State, a national leader in infrastructure development, Fein demonstrates that its citizens gradually became more comfortable with state bureaucracy because it resulted in better roads.

This conferral of political legitimacy on state engineers by the general populace proved instrumental in the consolidation of engineers' power, translating their professional expertise into a new kind of politics. Fein charts five distinct road-building policy regimes to explain how a basic function of governance-providing public ways-evolved from 1880 to 1956. He also explores the contested nature of these regime changes, as cycling and automobile clubs, construction and real estate interests, hard-nosed agrarians, urban bosses, and professional engineers sought to shape highway policy to their advantage.

Fein argues that these state-local power negotiations were important rehearsals for the overall centralization of bureaucratic authority in the mid-twentieth century. Although other traditionally local policy concerns such as education and social welfare would undergo similar transformations, road building was the first major policy area in which older relations between citizens and governing institutions were replaced by modern intergovernmental arrangements.

Paving the Way reminds us that what we take for granted today as a basic function of government bureaucracy was once an open and even controversial question. It offers a new perspective on federal power, arguing that the modern American state rested on the rise of a more complex federalism than has been supposed.

About the Author

Michael R. Fein is assistant professor of history at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.