COLUMBIA — South Carolina and much of the country was in an economic downturn in the early 1920s when the federal government announced it would jumpstart employment through a highway building program.
The catch, according to a history of the South Carolina Department of Transportation, was that only state roads would receive aid.
That spurred a rush by county leaders, according to the book "Highway Department," to get some local roads into the state system.
By 1925, only 225 miles of 4,740 in the state system were paved. A bond bill in 1929 increased the paved numbers, but by 1935 the state still maintained only 6,000 miles, two thirds of which were paved, according to Walter Edgar's "South Carolina A History."
From 1946 to 1950, 5,300 miles of highways were built and 4,900 farm-to-market roads, now known as secondary routes, were paved, Edgar wrote.
But the real stimulus for expanding the state's road program came from lawmakers, former legislators said, before the age of home rule.
Legislators then oversaw local roads and helped transfer them into the state system.
"The large number of roads we've got in the state system are directly attributable to legislators trying to help their local areas back in the day when there really was no other way to respond to it," said former Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens, who served in the Legislature from 1979 until last year. "There was no other pot of money available."
Sometimes farmers or businesses called, wishing a road were paved, he said. Sometimes school officials worried about school buses traveling on certain roads.
"Whatever it was, that was what got them brought into the system," he said. "That was the way the highway system developed."
Former Sen. John Land, a Clarendon County lawyer and former highway commissioner who served in the Legislature from 1975-2012, said officials' decisions decades ago to develop one state road system with a higher set of standards was a "wise" one.
The policy, he said, greatly aided rural communities who could not have developed or paved roads on their own.
He said the federal aid program for secondary roads "was one of the best systems for modernizing rural America." He said his county now gets enough state money to pave up to 2 miles a year. Federal aid decades ago allowed his county to pave close to 30 miles.
"I am in favor still of one state paved road system, maintained by the state," he said.
Today, South Carolina has the fourth-largest state-maintained road system in the nation, with more than 41,000 miles.
Primary routes - major state and U.S. roads - make up 9,517 miles, while federal-aid secondary routes comprise 10,370 miles. The least traveled secondary roads, many of them short roads, some in front of schools or cemeteries or dead ends, are not eligible for federal aid and total almost 21,000 miles.
State law enacted in the 1950s formalized the process of transferring roads, allowing local roads to be placed into the state system by mutual consent with DOT. The law was amended in 2013 allowing the state to give back roads if they were determined to be of “low traffic importance," and the counties, government agencies or private entities or persons receiving them consented.
Today, the roads are seen as a part of the state’s infrastructure problem because DOT cannot afford so many roads and the local roads do not connect towns or traverse the state. Lawmakers want to give many of them back but counties have been reluctant, fearful that the state will not provide the funding to keep them maintained.
Initial proposals to force local governments to accept the roads have been replaced with optional plans if local governments choose.