History of the Road Department
The road system in Berrien County goes back to the mid-1800's. Most of the roads were constructed and maintained by the various townships. In 1882 legislation was passed establishing the right of counties to have a highway authority and to establish a system of county roads. The first two Commissioners of the Berrien County Road Commission held their first meeting on March 13, 1917. The funding for the county roads was the same as for township roads. Property taxes and general funds were used which meant there was little money available for maintenance of the county roads. The county road system limped along with most roads remaining in the township road system.
By the turn of the century, the popularization of the bicycle and the invention of the automobile caused major changes in the highway systems of the county. A State Highway Department was created and a "State Reward Program" was enacted to allocate state funds to county road commissions for the construction of certain roads, which would later become state highways.
In 1915, the state legislature passed the Covert Act which provided a means of financing county road construction by the sale of bonds and the establishment of assessment districts to pay off the bonds. Within ten years, the Berrien County Road Commission had over 400 miles of roads, mostly constructed by the use of Covert Bonds. Then came the "Great Depression." It became apparent that local farmers could not handle the Covert Bond debt, so the Michigan Legislature passed the McNitt Act of 1931. Under the provisions of the legislation, Covert Bonds were forgiven. Township roads were transferred to County jurisdiction over a five year period and County Road funding came from a portion of Weight and Gasoline Taxes. In a five year period the Berrien County road mileage jumped from 462 miles to over 1320 miles.
Starting in the late 1930's and continuing through the 1940's, the Berrien County Road Commission decided they had to do something with the many miles of mud roads. These roads were originally constructed by digging a drain ditch on each side of the center line and using the soil bank to build up the road. This made for narrow roads of clay and silt which meant that many roads were impassible for lengthy periods of time, especially in the spring. The proposed solution was to cover the road with crushed stone then add a layer of asphaltic material followed by a layer of finely crushed stone which is called a Macadam Surface (a process more commonly known as blacktop). The solution worked and the Road Department could now begin paving our roads.
By 1951, the Berrien County Road Commission had an ongoing paving program. The passage of Act 51 in 1951, clearly defined the activities of county road commissions and increased funding to build and maintain roads. With clearly defined objectives and funds to make these objectives a reality, the Road Commission was placing a Macadam Surface on over 60 miles a year by the end of the 1950's.
By the middle 1970's, rising liability insurance costs and the growing cost of maintaining many miles of aging blacktop forced the Berrien County Road Commission to make changes in its maintenance plan. The proliferation of legal actions and the rising cost of insurance ended the practice of just black topping existing roadways. Roads needed to be constructed to meet current standards of highway safety. The Berrien County Road Commission later began reconstructing the inadequate miles of existing blacktop and building into them the safety factors that were absent when they were first constructed. This practice carries on to today.
In 2017, the Road Commission became a department of Berrien County and is now known as the Berrien County Road Department.