Public Information Office
Florida's Transportation History
The State Road Department, predecessor of today's Department of Transportation, was authorized in 1915 by the Florida Legislature. For the first two years of its existence, the department acted as an advisory body to the 52 counties in the state, helping to assemble maps and other information on roads.
The 1916 Bankhead Act passed by Congress expanded the department's responsibilities and gave it the authority to: establish a state and state-aid system of roads; engage in road construction and maintenance; acquire and own land; exercise the right of eminent domain; and accept federal or local funds for use in improving roads. For more than 80 years, the department has been working hard to provide a quality transportation network that can move Florida into the 21st century. We invite you to take a tour of Florida's past through these transportation related photographs.
Special thanks to The Florida State Archives
The history of aviation began with the Wright Brothers in December, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The history of flight in Florida began with Lincoln Beachey, the first man to fly from Florida soil. In 1911, Beachey made the first night-flight in the history of the world over Tampa. As aviation progressed, companies pioneered the scheduled transport of passengers by air. On January 1, 1914, the Benoist Company scheduled passenger service from Tampa to St. Petersburg with a five dollar fare. The Benoist "Air Boat" made its first flight over Tampa Bay (25 miles at 60 mph) on January 12.
The Aviation division of the State Road Department was created on April 15, 1933. In April 1935, the division presented the first Florida Ten-Year Plan of Aviation Development. At the time there were approximately 134 usable airports in Florida with expenditures of $1.2 million in federal, state, county, and city dollars. As of 2012, there are 779 airports including private airfields, helistops/pads and sea bases.
With more than a thousand miles of coastline, many scenic rivers and navigable waterways, and countless lakes dotting its interior, Florida has historically challenged those who would build highways and bridges. Up until the Civil War, bridges in Florida were mainly primitive and temporary. With the advent of rail in the late 19th century, however, specifically Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Line, it was evident that stronger structures were needed to carry heavy loads across wide spans of water and uneven terrain.
Major accomplishments in bridge-building in Florida include the Overseas Highway in 1938, which re-connected Key West to the mainland after a hurricane three years prior; the Gandy Bridge across Old Tampa Bay, which, when completed in 1924, reduced the travel time from St. Petersburg to Tampa by half; and the Florida East Coast Railway bridge across the St. Johns River.
Today, Florida's bridges, like the Sunshine Skyway across lower Tampa Bay, the Roosevelt Bridge in Stuart, and the 17th Street Bridge in Fort Lauderdale are grand achievements designed to move people safely and efficiently.
In 1896, wealthy businessman and railroad pioneer, Henry Flagler, extended his East Coast Railroad to Miami. Shortly thereafter, he funded construction of the Port of Miami and began collecting dockage fees. The Port of Miami welcomed its first passenger ship on scheduled sailings to Baltimore in 1920, and in 1924 inaugurated service to New York. In the 1930s, regular cruises between Miami and Havana, Cuba became popular.
Currently the port has 750 acres dedicated to rolling stock, container yards, refrigerated warehouse space, gantry crane facilitates, 12 modern cruise terminals, and administration offices. Today, four of Florida's 14 seaports rank in the top 25 in the nation in the volume of merchandise traded.
The history of rails in Florida spans more than 160 years. The opening of peninsular Florida following the Civil War was in large part driven by railroad expansion. While the sound of the steam whistle echoing through the north Florida pine forests evoke images of the past, it was the passenger trains of Henry Plant and Henry Flagler that established the urbanized Florida of today.
Trains evolved from the rural short lines to the present major rail systems. Now, the commercial freight railroads set new ton-mile records almost yearly. Amtrak has re-established the conventional passenger train as a viable transportation option, there has been a resurgence of commuter rail services such as southeast Florida's Tri-Rail, and a revolution in rail technology stands ready to bring a new age of high speed rail service to Florida.
There has been a fundamental change in America's transportation needs. Just a hundred years ago, most people lived on farms or in thousands of small rural communities. They lived close to where their food supply was grown and most people were either directly or indirectly involved in growing their food. Now, that is all changed. With the automobile as the preferred mode of transportation since the 1920s, most people now live in cities - urban centers far from the farm, meaning their food and other needs must be transported to them.
Florida roads received a healthy boost in 1931 when the gas tax was increased to six cents per gallon, with three cents going to the department for construction and maintenance and another three cents going to the counties to repay existing debts. The 1940s was the most important decade for transportation in Florida. Not only did federal funds become available for municipal roads, but World War II placed priority on several Florida projects. The most notable of these was the construction of the Overseas Highway - a system of roads, bridges and ferries linking the Florida mainland with Key West.
The 1950s saw the construction of Florida's Turnpike. Once administered by the Old Sunshine State Parkway Authority, Florida's Turnpike is now part of the Department of Transportation.