Highways, Streets, and Bridges

Generally, a highway is a public road connecting two or more destinations.  Each country has its own national highway system.  Most often all major highways are named and numbered by the governments that typically develop and maintain them.  Pursuant to 23 USCS § 101 (11), ‘the term ‘highway’ includes:

  • a road, street, and parkway;
  • a right-of-way, bridge, railroad-highway crossing, tunnel, drainage structure, sign, guardrail, and protective structure, in connection with a highway; and
  • a portion of any interstate or international bridge or tunnel and the approaches thereto, the cost of which is assumed by a state transportation department, including such facilities as may be required by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services in connection with the operation of an international bridge.’


Further, the term ‘street’ generally applies to a public highway in a city or town.  It includes all urban ways which can be, and are generally used for ordinary purposes of travel.  Generally, a public street is created either by grant, condemnation, dedication, or prescription.  In Graff v. Casper, 73 Wyo. 486 (Wyo. 1955), the court observed that “a street is a species of public highway, and the term implies, among other things that the public has a right to use it for public travel thereon.”  Hence the term “highway” is the generic name for all kinds of public ways, including county and township roads, streets and alleys, turnpikes and plank roads, railroads and tramways, bridges and ferries, and canals and navigable rivers.  In short, every public thoroughfare is a highway[i].

A simple distinction between a street and a highway is that a highway is a public way open and free to any one who has occasion to pass along it on foot or with any kind of vehicle.  And a street is a highway in a city or town, used by the public for the purpose of travel, either by means of vehicles, or on foot[ii].

Likewise, a bridge connected to public highways and erected for the general use and accommodation of the public is in itself a public highway.  Usually, a bridge is treated as constituting a part of the highway with which it is connected, regardless of whether the bridge is built and maintained at public expense, or by a public, or private corporation authorized to charge and collect tolls from persons using it. As a result, the public will have the same right to the use a bridge, as they have with respect to the main highway.

In almost all states, the highway commission is conferred the exclusive authority to determine[iii]:

  • whether there is a public necessity for a designated highway;
  • whether the particularly described property is necessary therefore; and
  • whether the proposed improvement is planned and located in a manner which is most compatible with the greatest public good and the least private injury.


When the state highway commission adopts a resolution as to the necessity of a designated highway, such resolution becomes conclusive of such facts recited therein, and the same may not be disputed in the absence of fraud, bad faith, or an abuse of discretion[iv].

In Harreld v. Mississippi State Highway Com., 234 Miss. 1 (Miss. 1958), the court observed that “the use of highways and streets may be limited, controlled, and regulated by a public authority in the exercise of the police power whenever and to the extent necessary to provide for and promote the safety, peace, health, morals, and general welfare of the people, and is subject to such reasonable and impartial regulations adopted pursuant to this power as are calculated to secure to the general public the largest practical benefit from the enjoyment of the easement, and to provide for their safety while using it.  This power is an exercise of the police power of the state to protect the highways, and promote the safety, peace, health, morals, and general welfare of the public or tunnel.”

Accordingly, the regulation of highway traffic is within the police power.  And under the police power, the private rights pertaining to highways can be regulated in several ways without compensation.  However, in the interest of public convenience and necessity, several non-access, limited-access highways, or freeways have been established.  The factors that have added to the establishment of non-access, limited-access highways, or freeways are:

  • the increasing size of city populations;
  • the increasing availability of rapid automobile transportation; and
  • the delays and perils incident to the use of the conventional two-way unrestricted-access highways[v].


[i] In re Petition of Carson, 362 Mich. 409 (Mich. 1961).

[ii] Id.

[iii] United States v. Certain Parcels of Land, etc., 67 F. Supp. 780 (D. Cal. 1946).

[iv] People ex rel. Department of Public Works v. Lagiss, 223 Cal. App. 2d 23 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 1963).

[v] State by State Highway Com. v. Burk, 200 Ore. 211 (Or. 1954).

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