Road Decay


These days, you'll have to get your kicks on Interstate 44.

US Route 66 - that road of legend and lore - exists mostly as a memory. Only in Oklahoma is the number posted intermittently along a road parallel to the interstate.

Now I'm not especially sentimental, and I'm a generation too young to have really gotten into the Route 66 shtick. As the older folks pass away, Route 66 will decay entirely.

There is something evocative about highways in this country. In the original incarnation, highways had names. Terre Haute, IN, for example, sat at the intersection of The National Road and the Dixie Bee Highway - or at least did until the federal government assigned numbers back in the 1920s. Now it's at the junction of US Routes 40 & 41.

Still, it doesn't take much tradition for numbers to be almost as meaningful as names. The words "101" and "Pacific Coast Highway" are interchangeable. Florida's wonderfully-numbered "A1A" is a fantastic drive. And what truck driver doesn't know that Interstate 80 goes from the George Washington Bridge to the San Francisco Bay Bridge?

A great road trip is to pick an appropriate highway and just follow it across the country. I did that with US 2, which runs from Michigan to Washington State along the Canadian border. I started at Duluth and headed west, through North Dakota, Glacier National Park, and into Washington State. I also once drove US 20 from Chicago all the way out to Oregon, via the Grand Tetons. These roads are healthy, being great tourist routes unaffected by interstates.

A road I would love to drive is US 52 – surely one of the oddest routes in the country. It starts in Charleston, SC, and heads due north(!) into North Carolina and Virginia, and on into West Virginia. There it parallels the Kentucky border to Huntington, where it crosses the Ohio River.

Then heading west along the river to Cincinnati, and hence to Indianapolis, it becomes the major road to Lafayette. Skirting the southern Chicago suburbs through Joliet, it crosses the Mississippi River at Savanna, IL. Onwards to Dubuque, Rochester, MN and Minneapolis.

Then it gets boring, sharing I-94 all the way through Fargo, and further west to Jamestown, ND. There it finally leaves the interstate and is the main road northwest to Minot. It continues northwest along the Des Lacs river, and finally ends at the Saskatchewan border at Portal, ND.

From South Carolina to North Dakota! Did somebody have a sense of humor? Or just a very fertile imagination? US 52 doesn't follow any logical migration path, trade route, or compass direction. It's useless for commerce – but it's a fantastic tourist road. I'll drive it myself someday (though not along the interstate: Minnesota needs to separate it from I-94).

A less happy example is US 40, previously known as The National Road that once extended from Washington, DC, to San Francisco. Today it goes from Baltimore to (almost) Salt Lake City, the interstate having displaced it west of there. But that's not the worst of it. For much of the route in Indiana and Illinois, traffic has mostly been diverted onto I-70. Many Illinois towns – Marshall, Casey, Greenup, and even the former state capital, Vandalia – were once bustling stops along US 40. Today they are nearly ghost towns. US 40 has become a little country road with very little traffic - pretty, but somehow depressing.

An exception is Effingham, at the junction of US Routes 40 & 45. Of course that's not important: it is also where I-57 and I-70 meet. For about six miles around town they share the same road. This is Truck Stop Alley, and travelers of a certain age will remember the now defunct Dixie Trucker's Home. Effingham (when I was last there in 2007) is a thriving little place.

US 40 – at least in Illinois – exists in name only, which I guess is an improvement over US 66.

The US highway system has faded in large part because of the interstates. When first built, the interstate highway system seemed very rational. Major N-S routes were 5, 15, 25, 35, 55, 65, 75, and 95. E-W roads were 10, 20, 40, 70, 80, 90, and 94. In those days I could have drawn a free-hand map of all major interstate highways.

The real I-80 went to San Francisco, but they built a spur from Salt Lake City to Portland, OR, calling it I-80N, and Portland was proud to be on I-80. Of course it made no sense, and at some point the road was renumbered as I-84.

Then they built a route around New York City, from Scranton to Boston – also I-84. And let's not forget I-86 that extends for about 50 miles in Idaho. Or I-82 in Washington State. Or I-39 from Bloomington, IL, to Wausau, WI – not to be confused with I-43 from Beloit to Green Bay, WI. And then there's I-99, a monument to pork in Pennsylvania, and I-88 in Illinois.

You get the idea: whatever logic lies behind the interstate numbering system has descended into chaos. Nobody can keep track of this anymore. I blame most of this on federal highway rules, more lenient speed limits on roads with interstate designation, and further, federal tax dollars to help build interstate highways. But this has perverse consequences.

Consider State Route 17. Mostly I mean New York State 17, but the road extended with the same number from near Erie, PA to Kearney, NJ. In New York it is known as the Southern Tier Expressway.

This is another great tourist route: the wine country along the Lake Erie shore, across Lake Chautauqua near the Chautauqua Institution, around Allegany State Park, through wild Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, past Elmira, birthplace of Mark Twain, the Corning Glass plant, the Woodstock Concert site, the Hudson Highlands, and that beautiful shopping mall: the Garden State Plaza. It's all been known as Route 17 for generations.

No more.

From Erie to Binghamton it's now designated I-86 - same as that little blip of a road in Idaho.

Were I Federal Geography Czar, I'd restore Route 17. And more: I'd push it through the Holland Tunnel and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and then replace current NYS 27 all the way out to Montauk, at the eastern tip of Long Island. Now THAT would be a road worth driving.

Daniel Jelski is Dean of Science & Engineering State University of New York at New Paltz.

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