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Rhode Island. Department of Transportation. | State Archives Catalog

Name: Rhode Island. Department of Transportation.

Historical Note:

The Department of Transportation has numerous responsibilities relating to the transportation infrastructure and traffic management of the state of Rhode Island. Today, its mission is “to maintain and provide a safe, efficient, environmentally, aesthetically and culturally sensitive intermodal transportation network that offers a variety of convenient, cost-effective mobility opportunities for people and the movement of goods supporting economic development and improved quality of life” (http://www.dot.ri.gov/divisions/mission.asp). Although the DOT was only created as its current iteration in 1970, its history can be traced back to the turn of the twentieth century. The investigation of this complicated history reveals the constantly changing and evolving functions and responsibilities of the Department of Transportation.

The Department of Transportation was created in 1970 by statutory authority in PL 1970, chapter 111 (RIGL §42-13-1). This department was created in order to bring together in one department all responsibilities relating to transportation. Thus, the newly formed Department of Transportation took over the functions of the Department of Public Works, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, and the Council on Highway Safety. Because of this, it is necessary to follow the trajectories of these separate departments in order to fully understand the history of the Department of Transportation.

One of the first government organizations created to maintain the transportation infrastructure of Rhode Island was the State Board of Public Roads. Prior to this organization, the monitoring and maintenance of public roads was scattered and localized. The State Board of Public Roads was created in 1902 to monitor and oversee the construction, improvement, and maintenance of state-owned roads in a uniform manner. In 1909 an Automobile division was created, to be appointed by the State Board of Public Roads. This division had the responsibilities of registering vehicles, issuing plates, and handling other aspects of vehicle administration. This small division is the ancestor of the current Division of Motor Vehicles. The State Board of Public Roads, with its Automobile Division, continued to oversee transportation and vehicular regulations and duties of the state until 1935. In 1935, as part of the larger government restructuring into a departmental system, the Department of Public Works was created under PL 1935, chapter 2188. This department took over the responsibilities of the State Board of Public Roads, and included a division of roads and bridges, a division of public buildings, a division of state airports, and a division of harbors and rivers. The functions of the Automobile Division went to the Division of Motor Vehicles and Registration within the Department of Taxation and Regulation. It was not until 1939 that a Registry of Motor Vehicles came to be within the Executive Department, with an Advisory Council on Highway Safety.

Throughout the next few decades, the Department of Public Works and the Registry of Motor Vehicles went through nearly annual changes, which included both adding and removing divisions, agencies, councils, and commissions. For a detailed look into the individual changes, see the extended timeline below. The next major change in the Department of Public Works was in 1970, with the creation of the Department of Transportation. This department was created because the government responsibilities relating to transportation were split among too many non-related agencies. Therefore, the Department of Transportation was a large agency aimed at consolidating all of these varied and fragmented functions. The creation of the Department of Transportation closed the Department of Public Works and the Registry of Motor Vehicles in the Executive Department. The Registry of Motor Vehicles remained within the Department of Transportation until 1994, when it moved into the Department of Administration, and in 2006 it moved to the new Department of Revenue as the Division of Motor Vehicles.

Today, the Department of Transportation has many responsibilities relating to all forms of transportation in Rhode Island, including highway and bridge construction and maintenance, bike path monitoring, traffic notifications, commuter rail expansion, and highway safety.

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