Just because there wasn’t a department of transportation doesn’t mean there weren’t roads or even highways and freeways.

I was surprised to learn Caltrans (aka California Department of Transportation) only turned 50 this summer. I would have guessed it started a lot sooner than 1973.

Caltrans crews repave parts of Highway 50 in South Lake Tahoe in 2011. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Caltrans was created to bring all the transportation related entities under one umbrella.

It was in 1895 that the Bureau of Highways was created in the state. At this time, the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road Commission was also created. That road is now what we know as Highway 50 over the Sierra.

The bureau existed until 1907 when the Department of Engineering came into being.

“The bureau studied highway needs and made recommendations for a 4,500-mile state highway system,” according to Caltrans.

In 1897 the Legislature allocated the first funds for state roads.

The first state highway construction contract was awarded and signed in 1912, with work beginning the same year. This was for Highway 1, El Camino Real, Pacific Coast route.

1923 brought the first state gas tax (2 cents/gallon) in order to expand the highway system. By 1983 the gas tax had risen to 9 cents a gallon, the first increase in 20 years. Today the tax is about 58 cents/gallon.

The Bay Bridge opened in 1936, while Highway 1 was completed the following year.

Caltrans notes, “President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Under the act, the federal government supplied 90 percent of funding for interstate highways, with the state paying the remaining 10 percent.”

Of significant note for those who travel to the Sierra: “The 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley served as impetus to build Interstate 80. Interstate 80 became the first all-weather, trans-Sierra Nevada highway and was nationally recognized as a major engineering achievement,” according to Caltrans.

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