Back in the 1850s, when township government was formed in Indiana, early Hoosiers traveled rough dirt roads by horseback, stagecoach or foot. It could take several hours to get from one end of a county to the other.

In years that followed, Indiana desperately needed township government to provide schools and libraries, maintain roads and help the poor. Townships were small, generally covering areas of about 36 square miles, and could offer such services relatively close to the people who needed them.

Fast forward more than a century and a half to modern Indiana, where the automobile and the internet enable Hoosiers to access government information and services in person within minutes and in cyberspace with the click of a mouse.

This was the backdrop in 2007 for the work of a governor's commission that had been tasked with studying local government in Indiana and offering recommendations for change.

The commission ultimately proposed that, among other measures, township government be dissolved and its current-day responsibilities -- poor relief, fire protection and maintenance of abandoned cemeteries -- be handed over to counties.

The authors of the commission's report, former Gov. Joe Kernan and former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, determined that township government had become an inefficient anachronism in modern Indiana.

But 11 years after the report, township government in Indiana remains largely intact.

And it costs Hoosiers nearly $400 million a year.

Beginning in late 2017, CNHI News Indiana -- a combined effort of 13 community newspapers, including The Herald Bulletin -- launched an extensive investigation to determine how townships use tax funds, how well they provide services and how effectively they engage with local residents.

The resulting five-part report -- Townships: Antiquity or Necessity? -- is being published this month.

- Part I: Research by CNHI News Indiana shows a low level of citizen engagement with and awareness of township government, as well as inaccessibility and poor responsiveness on the part of townships.

- Part II: A survey of 561 Hoosiers found that most do not know the name of their township trustee, could not find the township office without a GPS and could not enumerate the services provided by townships. Most tellingly, more than 70 percent agreed that township services should be taken over by counties.

- Part III: CNHI News Indiana journalists examined 94 townships scattered across the state to determine whether they had Facebook pages and websites, posted hours of operation, signage marking trustees' offices, and poor relief and anti-nepotism forms on hand, as required by state law. Many of the townships fell woefully short.

- Part IV: Since 2010, auditors have flagged 78 issues related to handling of township funds, including questionable spending of about $1.9 million.

- Part V: Legislation to dissolve, consolidate or limit township government since 2007 has been forestalled by township advocates -- often the salaried, elected officials who run townships.

Township defenders say the form of government remains necessary because it is closest to the people.

Critics of township government note that counties, given their larger service area and greater resources, are much better positioned to provide services such as assistance for the poor and fire protection.

The CNHI News Indiana investigative report frames the question so that Hoosiers can decide for themselves: Are Indiana townships a necessity? Or a $400 million antiquity?

Scott Underwood is editor of The (Anderson) Herald Bulletin and regional editor of CNHI newspapers in Indiana and Illinois.