Route 66 has become a symbol of the freedom of the open road and the American urge to keep moving west in the hope that a better life is out there. In “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck called it the “mother road.”
Route 66 (a.k.a., U.S. Highway 66) is not America’s oldest or longest road, but it might be the most romanticized. It was, in its time, the shortest year-round route between Chicago and Los Angeles, according to the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program of the National Park Service.
Route 66’s historical importance was proven from 1926 to 1970. The national sytsem of highways tied the country together. Route 66 in particular linked the isolated and predominantly rural West to the densely populated, urban Midwest and Northeast. Especially in the period of upheaval and restlessness after World War II, during which America become a “car culture,” the road represented free-spirited independence.
Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985, and now parts of it no longer exist, but a variety of organizations have devoted themselves to preserving the road’s features and structures. A section of pavement from Route 66 can be found at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike officially opened to traffic on Oct. 1, 1940, exhibiting new concepts of superhighway design, according to the Pennsylvania Turnpike website (www.paturnpike.com). The new turnpike was conceived as a different kind of American superhighway, similar to the German high-speed autobahn. The turnpike also demonstrated that revenue bonds could finance toll roads. Consistency of design standards made the turnpike different from previous roads; it was built to serve the needs of the motorist rather than being built according to the terrain. Almost 70% of the 160-mile turnpike was straight, carved through valleys, ravines and mountains. Plans called for a 200-ft right-of-way with 12-ft lanes, long entrance and exit ramps, banked curves and separated grade crossings. The planners chose a standard sight distance of 600 ft, straightaways designed for 100 mph, curves superelevated (banked) for 70 mph and a maximum grade of 3%, much less than the 9-12% allowed on nearby highways. The new breed of highway included many innovations, including routes laid out for southern exposure to let the sun melt ice and snow on the concrete pavement. Tollbooths at exits were located on downhill slopes so drivers could see and prepare for them. The success of the Pennsylvania Turnpike inspired other states, such as Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, New York and Ohio, to construct their own turnpikes using the same concepts.
Big Dig, Boston
The Central Artery/Tunnel Project (a.k.a., the “Big Dig”) became one of the most famous—or infamous—road construction projects in the country during its time. At a cost of about $14.6 billion, the whole project was a gigantic engineering feat to relocate an urban elevated highway underground. The tunnels alone were a huge accomplishment, a mixture of cut-and-cover sections and jacked sections. To avoid disrupting rail operations, the constructors had to jet grout and freeze the ground in place while they dug the tunnel space under the rails, cast concrete tunnel sections in an adjoining pit and dragged the huge concrete blocks into place using hydraulic jacks with the combined force of four space shuttle launchings. A signature bridge topped it off.
Historic National Road
The first road in the U.S. that could be described as an interstate road, long before there were federally designated interstate highways, was the National Road. One of the first major improved highways in the U.S. and the only one constructed entirely with federal funds, the original National Road, or Cumberland Road, started in Cumberland, Md., on the Potomac River and ended in Wheeling, W.Va., on the Ohio River. Construction was authorized in 1806 by President Thomas Jefferson. Construction started in 1811 and finished in 1818. The road facilitated transportation of settlers to the west and goods between eastern and western America. The National Road also was the first road to use the new Macadam road surfacing design, an early precursor of hot-mix asphalt.
In the age before the interstate, the king of the roads was the Lincoln Highway, conceived by Carl G. Fisher as a transcontinental road, according to an article by Richard F. Weingroff for the Federal Highway Administration. Fisher, the builder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, formed the Lincoln Highway Association with other automobile enthusiasts in 1913. The Lincoln Highway was intended to “procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges.”
The association wanted to build a road along the most direct route from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The initial route was as straight as possible, 3,389 miles long, only 1,598 miles of which was improved.
Construction began in 1914 with “seeding miles” to demonstrate the desirability of permanent concrete construction, including an “ideal section,” built to last for two decades, between Dyer and Schererville in Lake County, Ind.
One of the Lincoln Highway’s greatest contributions to the future of highway construction was a highly publicized transcontinental convoy that followed the highway in 1919 from Gettysburg to San Francisco. The U.S. Army convoy included a young Lt. Col. Dwight David Eisenhower. The highway was officially marked and dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln on September 1, 1928, when groups of Boy Scouts placed about 3,000 concrete markers along the route.
When the Lincoln Highway Association disbanded, the highway was not yet a “rock highway” from coast to coast, but by its 25th anniversary in 1938, all but 42 miles had been surfaced with something better than gravel.
First interstate section
Several states argue that they were the first to lay interstate pavement under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Missouri awarded the first new contract under the new act, according to AASHTO’s www.interstate50th.org website. The Missouri State Highway Commission signed three contracts on Aug. 2, 1956: The first was for work on U.S. Route 66—now I-44—in Laclede County; the others were for work on U.S. 40—now I-70—in St. Louis and for another section of U.S. 40 in St. Charles County. Work started on these contracts on Aug 13.
Kansas also claims a first. Construction on a two-lane section of U.S. 40—now I-70—west of Topeka started before President Eisenhower signed the bill authorizing the interstates and their funding. The Kansas State Highway Commission awarded a contract for concrete paving on U.S. 40 on Aug. 31, 1956, and paving under the new contract started on Sept. 26.
In Pennsylvania, a section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Irwin and Carlisle opened on Oct. 1, 1940, and was later incorporated into the interstate system as I-76 and I-70.
Mon/Fayette Expressway, Pennsylvania
Economic vitality depends on transportation, among other things, and the Mon/Fayette Expressway will increase access to depressed areas near the Mon River where the steel and coal industries once provided an economic engine but have now run out of steam. The Mon/Fayette system of four sections will stretch 70 miles from Pittsburgh south through the Monongahela River Valley and western Fayette County to I-68 near Morgantown, W.Va. About half of the expressway has been opened to traffic. The operational segments extend from I-70 to Pa. Rte. 51 and the northern 6.2 miles of the 12-mile Mason-Dixon Link south of Uniontown. The total expressway, to be operated by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, will cost over $3 billion.
Alameda Corridor, Southern California
Long Beach and Los Angeles have the two busiest container ports in the country, but the old freight-rail system had inadequate capacity to transfer the $200 billion in cargo from the two ports to the transcontinental rail network near downtown Los Angeles. A $2.4 billion reconstruction project that opened in April 2002 separated freight trains from street traffic and passenger trains. By consolidating four low-speed branch rail lines, it eliminated conflicts at more than 200 at-grade crossings and provided a high-speed freight expressway. The centerpiece of the 20-mile project was the 10-mile Mid-Corridor Trench, a 33-ft-deep, 50-ft-wide open trench that carries freight trains from State Rte. 91 in Carson to 25th Street in Los Angeles.
Springfield Mixing Bowl, Virginia
The most dangerous spot on the 64-mile Capital Beltway, Virginia’s Mixing Bowl, is being rebuilt to relieve congestion for the 430,000 vehicles containing commuters and long-distance travelers that pass through the area every day. The interchange is where I-95, I-395 and I-495 intersect. The reconstruction project consists of building more than 50 bridges and widening I-95 to 24 lanes between the Beltway and Franconia Road, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. The seven-phase, $585 million project began in March 1999 and is on schedule for completion in 2007. Construction work is now concentrating on Phases 6 and 7, which will complete the new interchange by tying together all of the new roadways.
Dallas High Five, Dallas
The $261 million reconstruction of the interchange of U.S. 75 North (North Central Expressway) and I-635 (LBJ Freeway) is the single largest construction project ever attempted in Dallas. The massive interchange was designed as a way to expand the capacity of the previous Central Expressway. The interchange is used by about 500,000 motorists per day, and the reconstruction team took extraordinary measures to maintain the flow of traffic as much as possible, including building temporary asphalt roads to carry traffic while the permanent interchange is worked on. The “High Five” in the name refers to the fact that the new interchange is five levels high: U.S. 75 main lanes on the bottom; frontage road box carrying east, west, north and southbound cross streets; I-635 main lanes; and direct connection bridges (two levels) on top. When the Dallas High Five opens later this year, U.S. 75 will be widened to eight lanes, and I-635 will be improved to 10 lanes of travel and four dedicated barrier-separated high-occupancy vehicle lanes.