Origins of the Referendum
When the issue of improved highways had emerged as a necessity, the General Assembly of Virginia in 1918 authorized a highway system of more than 3,800 miles by matching federal funds with its own revenues. Voters approved a state constitutional amendment in 1920 to permit the use of bonds to build the system, but citizens in areas that had good roads were already objecting to the possibility of increasing taxes to pay off the bonds. Their views were best represented by Winchester's state senator, Harry Byrd, who endorsed a "pay-as-you-go" policy of funding road-building with gasoline taxes.
With the reorganization issue settled, the 1922 general assembly turned to the question of funding future road building. Senators C. O'Conor Goolrick and C. C. Vaughn, with the support of Governor E. Lee Trinkle and the Virginia Good Roads Association, introduced a $12 million highway bond bill that Byrd condemned. Bills supporting a bond issue passed both houses, but the differences in the two bills were never reconciled and they died, in part because of Byrd's opposition. He also pressured Trinkle to appoint two of his own close friends to the highway commission, which gave him greater influence on future highway policy and road selection.
Byrd's Gas Tax Proposal
When Governor Trinkle summoned the legislature to convene in special session on February 28, 1923, Byrd arranged for anti-bond men to be placed on the road and finance committees. Not surprisingly, Byrd was appointed chairman of the Roads Committee. In the governor's opening address to the special session, Trinkle shockingly reversed his position and voiced a preference for pay-as-you-go, suggesting that revenues from the gas tax alone would be enough to complete the highway system within seven years. The debate between the competing plans—the three-cent gas tax versus a $50 million bond issue—raged on for the duration of the month-long session, each side challenging the estimated costs of the other, each side looking for the votes to sustain its position.
Byrd Behind the Scenes
Having staked so much of his reputation on the superiority of a pay-as-you-go road-building plan, Byrd knew that his political future depended upon defeating the bond issue. He urged the governor to expedite road construction, hoping to influence a voter's decision about whether to spend more money on new construction. He also reminded Democratic Party leaders of the importance of paying poll taxes before May 5, urging them to establish a network of county and precinct chairmen to recruit enthusiastic workers for the fall campaign. Bond spokesmen, led by the Virginia Bankers Association and George Coleman, who now headed the Virginia Good Roads Association, argued that highway building would be faster and more predictable and state development more rapid under their plan.
1918 - The General Assembly of Virginia approves the establishment of the first state highway system, a network of more than 3,800 miles of roadways, by matching federal funds with its own revenues.
1920 - Voters approve a referendum to permit the General Assembly to issue bonds to build and repair roads. Statewide political debate in opposition to bonds ensues.
1922 - Senators C. O'Conor Goolrick and C. C. Vaughn, with the support of Governor E. Lee Trinkle, introduce a bill to the General Assembly that advocates the use of a $12 million bond for highway construction. In part because of the opposition of Senator Harry F. Byrd, the bill fails to pass.
February 1923 - Governor E. Lee Trinkle summons the General Assembly to convene in special session. In his opening address to the session, he reverses his position supporting highway bonds for road construction and instead endorses the gas tax advocated by Harry F. Byrd.
November 1923 - The Highway Bond Referendum asks Virginians to vote on whether to pay for the new state highway system by issuing bonds. By a margin of 46,000, voters reject the bond issue.
November 3, 1925 - Harry F. Byrd Sr. is elected governor of Virginia. His ascent in part can be attributed to his success with the 1923 highway bond referendum.
- U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. Weingroff, Richard F. "Senator Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia: The Pay-As-You-Go Man."
- Virginia Department of Transportation
- Virginia Historical Society, Leon M. (Leon Maurice) Bazile Papers, 1826–1967; MSS1 B3483 a FA2, Series VII: Materials concerning the highway bond referendum of 1923 including clippings, bulletins, and announcements.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Heinemann, R. L. The 1923 Highway Bond Referendum. (2017, May 8). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Highway_Bond_Referendum_1923.
- MLA Citation:
Heinemann, Ronald L. "The 1923 Highway Bond Referendum." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 8 May. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: May 8, 2017
Contributed by Ronald L. Heinemann, a professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College.