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Highway History


Interstate Highway System - Memories


Traveling the Interstate is an overlooked daily ritual for some Americans and a distinctive rite of passage for others. For those who are intrigued by Interstate travel, often a memorable incident will further encourage this interest. Some have taken this fascination with life on the road even further by pursuing a career in the highway field.

The following stories detail either relatively brief or lifelong road encounters.

A Lesson in Safety
Wright Aldridge
Former Engineering Services Team Leader
Federal Highway Administration

In the summer of 1969, I was assigned to the Ohio Division Office of the Federal Highway Administration for the Construction Inspections Phase of the Highway Engineer Training Program.  I was a young engineer traveling around the State of Ohio performing inspections on many Interstate construction projects.  The 1967 Yellow Book had been out only about 2 years (a publication of the American Association of State Highway Officials called Highway Design and Operational Practices Related to Highway Safety that included recommendations on design and other practices to improve highway safety).  There were still passionate discussions on the wisdom of replacing recently installed roadside items, such as guardrail, light poles, and sign supports, with items having the latest safety design.  I remember that if a project was less than 95% completed, the features with the old designs had to be replaced with the new safety designs.

I was visiting an Interstate project in Cincinnati that was almost completed but all the roadside furniture had to be replaced with newer designs.  That day, the contractor was installing frangible (breakaway) light pole bases.  We were talking with the State Project Engineer about the changes prescribed in the Yellow Book.  He had a story that I remember to this day.

He said he was adamant that changing the old design features for ones having the newer designs was a waste of the taxpayers’ money.  The features were only a few months old and the probability of any one of them getting hit was very small.  One day a friend of his left the roadway and hit a light pole with a rigid design.  His friend was killed in the accident.  After learning of the tragedy, the Project Engineer had a change of heart.  He reasoned that a frangible base costing a few hundred dollars would have saved his friend's life.  Although each individual item does not cost very much, the grand total for many features on a large urban Interstate project can be a considerable sum.  He was convinced that the life of his friend and others killed in similar accidents was worth spending considerable sums.

I do not remember his name but I remember the sorrow expressed in his face and in his words.  I carried that memory throughout my career with FHWA and strived to assure that safety was always given high priority in our program.

[EDITOR’S NOTE:  Because of factors such as the Yellow Book, the use of safety features adapted from the Interstates on other roads, changes in the vehicle such as safety belts, and public-private safety campaigns introduced over the years, the fatality rate (deaths per 100 million vehicles miles traveled) decreased by about 70 percent during the span of Mr. Aldrich's career.]

The Relationship Proving Ground
Terrence Raftery of
Reston, VA

Like most middle class suburban Americans, I have my share of interstate highway tales that involve the standard ingredients: mom, dad, siblings, giant Detroit Land Shark (in our case a mid 70’s 2 door Caprice Classic), and some domestic animal (in our case, a dachshund.)  But I think another role of the interstate in our society is as a ready-made relationship proving ground.  Not to oversimplify, but if you can survive 20+ hours in a car with your significant other without acrimony, you should probably get married.

My girlfriend and I had been together for a bit over two years when we decided we were far too broke to swing airline tickets from Pittsburgh to Southwest Florida for the holidays.  We’d have to rent a car and drive, over 1,200 miles in all.  When you plan it out, it all seems so sane:  four shifts of 300 miles each, and one can sleep while the other drives!  Of course, executing the plan leads to the nosy imposition of practical realities.  Neither of us, it turns out, can sleep in a moving car.  Ultra subcompact cars are, well, quite small.  Those prudish recommendations that go along with the AAA TripTik are probably not a bad idea.

Through it all, the interstate never let us down.  AAA recommended that we bypass Atlanta traffic by taking SR 441 through Athens and then somehow miraculously thread our way through to Macon, where we’d pick up I-75.  We took the turn off of I-85 after dark, in the fog, and I got lost within 5 minutes.  I pulled over at a convenience store, and asked the guy behind the counter how to get to Athens.  He asked, “where are you really going?”  I explained that I had started in Pittsburgh and was trying to get to Florida.  Whattaya know?  He had lived for years in Pittsburgh.  He said, “I know what you’re trying to do.  Don’t do it.  Get back on the interstate and go through Atlanta.”  He was right.  At 11 PM, the notorious traffic in Atlanta was nowhere to be found.

By the time we reached the Florida border, we had been in the car for at least 18 hours.  We were exhausted, but we were in our destination state at last!  Being from the Mid Atlantic, I’m used to clicking through states on the interstate at a decent clip.  When my girlfriend, who grew up in Florida, told me it would be seven hours, maybe eight, to our destination, I was crestfallen.  It became clear that we would not make it through on a non-stop trip.  But we really couldn’t afford a motel for a few hours of sleep.  Maybe we could just discretely park in the parking lot of a motel and sleep in the car?  We tried, and even though it was about 3:00 AM, the proprietor of the motel instantly spied our car and gave us the evil eye.  Maybe we could just pull into a fast food parking lot and catch some car zzz’s?  Turns out, people start showing up for work at fast food restaurants at about 4:00 AM.

Then we turned to what the interstate highway system provides for just these situations: the Rest Area.  I had always thought of these as a place to take care of business, whether for the parents, the kids, or the dachshund.  Some Code of the Family Vacations made us think that you were only allowed to stay for 45 minutes, tops.  In the early 90’s in Florida, there was a spate of criminal activity at Rest Stops, so we felt like we were taking a major risk, way out of proportion to reality.  But, we figured, we were either going to die in a blaze from a road fatigue-induced accident, or we were going to have to pull over.  We said good night, and fell asleep nearly instantly.

When I awoke, it was a hot steamy morning in Florida.  I looked around at the dozen or so other cars in the Rest Stop, and saw lots of feet, arms, and legs arranged inside cars belonging to people in situations just like ours.  No one had been bludgeoned to death.  I felt a sense of camaraderie with these people who were trying to save a buck without taking ridiculous safety risks.

The rest of the drive was beautiful, and I don’t remember a single thing about the drive back.  But I do remember noticing that through it all, we hadn’t exchanged a single cross word.  We got married a few years later, but I never had any doubt that we were meant for each other, especially after our time on the interstate.

Donald J. West
Former FHWA Division Administrator
in Vermont and Connecticut

A 35-year career with the Federal Highway Administration provided many opportunities to assist in the original construction (early in my career) and reconstruction (late in my career).  In 1970, while working in the FHWA California Division Office, I worked with the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) in constructing many of the later Interstate System segments to be built in the southern and southeastern part of the state, including portions of I-40 that looked a lot like those depicted in the recent move "Cars."  I later worked in northwestern Pennsylvania, assisting the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to construct the final portions of I-79 in the Erie area.

Probably my most meaningful involvement in the Interstate System was working for more than eight years in an FHWA headquarters office that was then called the Interstate Management Branch.  As the name would indicate, our primary effort was to monitor Interstate System progress and facilitate the early completion of the System.  We maintained records of progress towards completion of the System.  These were visually depicted on long sheets called PR-511's.  They showed the historic record of when each segment of the System was advanced through the various stages of construction to completion.  This was based on information provided by the FHWA Division Offices.  The data was computerized so that national summaries on the status of System completion could be published.  Another major function of the branch was to periodically develop the Interstate System Cost Estimate (ICE).  This estimate was used as the basis for apportioning Federal funding to the States for Interstate System completion work.  The Branch worked with each FHWA Division Office and State DOT to develop detailed estimates of each State's remaining estimated cost for completing the System.  Each State was apportioned funds in direct proportion to their relative share to completing the entire Interstate System, with the intent of simultaneous completion of the System throughout the country.  States with more funding needs for completion received the most funding.  The Branch also worked with Congress to explore alternatives to expedite completion of the System and to explore legislative options to make that happen.

Late in my career, I worked with the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) to reconstruct a number of the earliest Interstate segments completed.  These were areas where traffic had long since surpassed all projections and safety features were in great need of modernization.  These projects were primarily on I-95 in the Bridgeport and New Haven areas, with the New Haven upgrading still currently in progress to continue to 2012 or so.  Also, much of the work while in the Division Office was associated with developing and deploying Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) so that the major highway systems could be operated more efficiently, and on a real time basis.  There was very little room to expand Interstate System segments so it was very critical to make them as safe as possible while trying to utilizes them to their full capabilities, providing information to users on incidents and options available.

My career was personally rewarding and I am proud of the role I was able to play in completing the Interstate System.

The Way East
Richard F. Weingroff
Federal Highway Administration

When I left the U.S. Air Force in October 1972, I wanted to drive from San Antonio to Baltimore.  Having not owned a car until I moved to San Antonio, I had never driven across country and wasn’t sure how to go about it.

A more experienced traveler told me it was easy—just drive to Dallas, turn east, and follow the signs indicating cities further east.  For example, she said, if you’re near Memphis, Nashville is to the east, so look for a sign taking you there. 

This seemed too easy, but it was the best advice I received so I decided to follow it.  I loaded all my possessions into my Toyota Corolla Mark II and headed for Dallas.  At Dallas, I turned east on I-30 and headed to Little Rock where I picked up I-40.  I have no memory of driving across Texas or Arkansas.  In fact, until I checked a map while writing this piece, I had forgotten I had crossed Arkansas.  I stayed on the Interstates to make time and had no interest in anything beyond the highway and a rest stop every 2 hours or so at an interchange. 

The Interstates were open all the way to eastern Tennessee.  As I crossed that State, I had a flat tire.  I pulled to the side the road and went into the trunk to get my spare and tools out.  I had to unload the trunk, of course, so I piled a suitcase, loudspeakers, and boxes of books on the roadside.  I went to jack up my car but discovered that a fully loaded car, even with an empty trunk, is too low to get the jack under.  I had to empty my car of most of my worldly possessions before I could jack it up. 

I worked quickly because I imagined the danger—not of someone crashing into my things, or me but of someone stopping to steal my goods stretched out like a flea market along the roadside.  (Looking back, I realize I needn’t have worried—my home in San Antonio had been broken into earlier that year, but the burglar didn’t take anything.  Probably too tired to lift anything after laughing at my junk.)

I finally replaced the tire, loaded my car, and headed east with the intent of stopping to buy a new spare—a task I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do on a Sunday.  I soon hit the end of I-40 and was diverted onto another road (probably a stretch of U.S. 70).  I found an auto store where the mechanic convinced me I needed all new tires, so I five. 

As I returned to the road, it seemed to me I was on that side road a long time.  Day turned to night, and I was still on that side road.  I convinced myself I had missed the sign that would have directed me back to I-40, or just back to civilization.  I wasn’t lost—I just had no idea where I was.

I had no interest in what are now called the “blue highways,” and couldn’t wait to get off of it.
I eventually found a sign that directed me to I-40 and was relieved to get back on the highway headed east.  I ended my day in Bristol, Tennessee, at the Virginia line.
Traveling I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley the next day I make one of my regular rest stops.  As I was about to return to I-81, I spotted a car at the top of the entrance ramp.  The driver signaled for me to stop.  His car was stalled and he was hoping I would give him a push.  I explained that my car was so loaded, I didn’t think that was such a great idea.  In fact, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the uphill portions of the highway.  He would have to wait for the next traveler.

I planned to cross Virginia, drive through the District of Columbia, and take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to Baltimore.  The trouble was that after I crossed northern Virginia, I couldn’t figure out how to get into DC.  Each time I followed a sign that seemed to direct me into the city, I found myself headed west back into Virginia.  To this day, I don’t know what I was doing wrong.  I also don’t know what I finally did right on the fourth try that got me into the city and through it to the parkway.

In those days, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway was something of a mess.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the agency I would go to work for a year later, the Federal Highway Administration, had built the parkway for the National Park Service in the 1950s.  In the 1970s, every joint in the pavement was sprung.  I had experienced those jolts before, but this time, with my car weighed down by the accumulated debris of 4 years in San Antonio, each joint caused my vehicle to take a hard bounce.  I could almost hear it groan as we crossed each joint. 

Nevertheless, I made it across the parkway to the Baltimore Beltway (I-695), and then to home in a Baltimore County subdivision along Liberty Road.  When my parents bought the house in the early 1960s, the subdivision had seemed so far out amid the farms that when they wanted to check on construction, they had to promise my brother, sister, and me that we would stop at a shop half way there for ice cream or we would fuss all the way.  Now, in 1972, our house in that subdivision was just a short drive from the beltway along a major artery lined with strip development most of the way. The shop that had once made the trip tolerable was no longer there.

Paul Richert
Law Librarian and Professor of Law
The University of Akron School of Law

In the late 1950s my family lived in Urbana, Illinois. Our family owned a farm near Jamestown, Indiana, about 100 miles away. My father had a job that required him to travel all over the United States. He was gone about a third of the time on 10-day to two-week trips. When he was home he liked to go work on the farm we owned in Jamestown. As a boy of ten to twelve I wanted to spend some time with my dad, so I frequently accompanied him on Saturdays as we spent the day traveling to and from Indiana.

The trip on old two lane highways took us through a number of towns and one large one, Danville, Illinois. It seemed to take forever to get to and from Jamestown. By our last summer in Urbana in 1959, I-74 had made some progress and had started to cut down our travel time. I can remember when I-74 was built through Urbana and Champaign, Illinois, my whole family got in our car and just drove on the interstate to experience the marvel of it. We were all quite impressed that this magnificent road was going to change the way we lived.

In July 1959 we moved to my father's company's headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts. We drove east until we linked up with the Ohio Turnpike and first saw the beauty of Northeast Ohio where I now live.

My First Memories of the Interstate
Evan Wisniewski
Federal Highway Administration—Kentucky Division

My first memories of the Interstate take me back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. Every summer my parents would take my sister and me to stay at Uncle Fay and Aunt Peggy’s farm. These days, the drive from Detroit to Cedar Springs, Michigan, is about 160 miles and should take no more than two-and-one-half to three hours. As I remember, back then it took all day long. Yes, I was one of those kids who bugged and repeatedly asked “Are we there yet?” But, my mom and dad were patient. They knew how much we looked forward to lunch. If we didn’t behave, they wouldn’t stop at a brand new restaurant, called “McDonalds.” I remember the “Golden Arches” sign out front stating “over 3 million served.” That stop was always in Lansing, roughly the halfway mark on the trip.

The road we traveled was Grand River Ave, now Michigan 43. I could remember some of the towns we went through: Fowlerville, Howell, Webberville and Williamson. As a young boy, I was fascinated by the trip. I can remember looking for Burma Shave signs along our way.

Then came the Interstate. I could not tell you what year it was, but all of a sudden, my father was no longer driving through the center of Fowlerville. We made a turn, drove a short distance, and were on the brand new I-96. I stopped looking for Burma Shave signs, and began looking for highway construction vehicles. I think kids of all ages enjoy watching construction; if not, why is “Bob the Builder” popular?

Late last summer, I traveled more than 3,120 miles on the Interstate system. The miles were split between a vacation in South Carolina, a wedding in New York, and a golf trip to Tennessee. My trips crossed the following routes: I-75, I-64, I-240, I-40, I-26, I-85, I-385, I-20, I-77, I-26, I-526, I-71, I-270, I-70, I-76, I-81, I-84, I-87, I-287, I-78, and I-675. Amazingly, each of the trips could be made in less than one day, although the trip to New York was a hard trip at 600 miles. Still like a little kid, I was fascinated with all the construction—OK—re-construction I saw. I am very proud that I had a direct role in one of the routes I recently traveled. I have a prize for the first person that can tell me which one.

Ronny Hartl
Federal Highway Administration—North Dakota Division

My earliest role in the Interstate was as an ironworker paving I-94 through the North Dakota Badlands.  I was fresh out of high school, just 17 years old.  But the foreman was from the same town where I'd gone to high school, and he liked hiring farm kids who had grown up with physical labor.  I spent most of the summer of 1965 distributing reinforcing bars in front of the steel tiers in a continuous concrete paving train.  It was my first job away from home; and construction life then, like now, was rough and tumble, so I grew up fast and gained an appreciation for an education beyond high school.

On my second assignment in the then Highway Engineering and Administration training program, I was sent to Louisiana.  There I spent a good share of my time doing construction inspection and learning construction techniques during the building of I-10 both northwest of New Orleans and in theAtchafalaya Basin (actually a swamp) west of Baton Rouge.  This was fascinating construction, on a scale I certainly had never even dreamed of. 

Later I was in Iowa, where right-of-way clearance—including the moving and demolition of entire blocks of homes—was underway in Cedar Rapids, especially south of the downtown area.  One of the biggest challenges was keeping up with the pace of construction.  FHWA required documented monthly inspections of most all construction projects and final inspections on literally all construction projects in that era.  While the field offices were stocked stronger back then, we were still always hard pressed to keep up with the workload.

The volume of construction also created a climate for advances in design, construction processes, and particularly in equipment capability.  These advances challenged the engineering staffs to keep up with changes that contractors wanted to introduce into construction to make building more efficient.  Their incentives were competitive edge and profit margin.  We represented the public's interest in quality and speed of completion.

Achieving the ability to consistently pave a mile of two-lane Interstate roadway per day was one of the early achievements in construction.  At first, this was a headline maker, but eventually it became an expectation.

Nearly every State had the success of completing a particular stretch of Interstate that filled a gap created by opening Interstate segments on either end.  In many cases, these final gaps had become horrific for their vehicle crash rates because the already open segments had spurred far more traffic than the predecessor road had been capable of handling.  Completion of gap segments became highly celebrated successes because of the reduction in crashes they brought about. 

An Interstate Memory
Martin Weiss, Federal Highway Administration
Washington, DC

The Interstate System has produced many changes in the nature of commerce. One of the more obvious changes has been the emergence of businesses near Interstate exits that cater to truck drivers. These businesses are well known to travelers and the public though both personal experience and the media.

One day in 1988, my family was proceeding north on I-85 near the border in South Carolina. It was dark, about 11:00 pm, and my kids were asleep. I was getting a bit tired myself and felt the need for coffee.  We exited the Interstate and parked near a truck stop. We (my wife and I) awoke the kids and we all entered. The interior of the truck stop was designed with substantial floor space for a restaurant, a space for sale of automobile related products, another area for rest rooms and vending machines, and another area, somewhat partitioned off, for personnel entertainment/use products, some of which were for persons over 18. 

We sat at one of the tables in the restaurant.  Perhaps a third of the tables were occupied. Most of the people were wearing light jackets and cotton shirts. Also, most wore hats and most of the hats were worn with the center of the brim at an angle of about 30 degrees to the right of the nose line. Almost all the other people had about two or three days of facial hair. About half of the people at tables were smoking cigarettes and nearly everyone seemed to be eating eggs and drinking coffee.

My daughter (9-years old at the time) was just awake enough to observe the room around her. She glanced left and glanced right and thought about it for a minute and then asked, "Dad, are we in some kind of movie?"

The Case of the Double Ramps
Richard F. Weingroff
Federal Highway Administration
Washington, D.C.

After leaving the U.S. Air Force, I returned to my family home in Baltimore County, Maryland.  When I took a job as Technical Correspondence Writer for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), I moved to Washington in September 1973, and have lived in the city ever since.

As a result, I have made hundreds of trips between the Baltimore and [Wasington, DC] Capital Beltways on I-95.  Early on, I was puzzled by the connection between I-95 southbound and the Capital Beltway.  As a motorist approached the beltway, signs directed Washington-bound traffic to one ramp, but Virginia-bound traffic to another ramp.  As I looped around the Washington-bound ramp, I could see that the I-95 pavement had been extended a few hundred feet toward the city, and I wondered when construction would be completed on the more direct route.

After a few such trips, I began to suspect that the ramp for Virginia-bound traffic ended up on the beltway, too.  That was sufficiently odd that I thought I must be wrong.  A few trips later, I confirmed my suspicion.  Clearly, it didn't make any difference which ramp a motorist took.  Either way, he or she ended up on the Capital Beltway, which took motorists to Washington and Virginia.

I wondered why the signs didn't just say "Both Ramps to Washington and Virginia" (in essence, "It doesn't matter which you take, so flip a coin").  But being a creature of habit, on each trip from Baltimore to Washington, I took the ramp for Washington-bound traffic.

Eventually, I felt confident enough as a rookie employee of the FHWA to ask the engineers I worked with about the interchange.  I learned that the existing interchange complex had been built with the expectation that I-95 would continue south into the city.  As for the signing, the engineers in Maryland had given a lot of thought to telling motorists that both ramps ended up the same place, but decided against it.  They feared it would confuse motorists who might reduce speed while pondering which ramp to take, creating safety and operation problems.  The engineers concluded that the best solution was to specify a different destination for each ramp, even though they both went to the same place.

I was satisfied with that answer.  Made sense to me.  But I continued to take the ramp for Washington-bound traffic.

(At the request of Maryland and the District of Columbia, I-95 between the Capital Beltway and New York Avenue in the city was withdrawn from the Interstate System.  I-95 is carried around the city on the Capital Beltway.  In later years, the Maryland State Highway Administration reconfigured the I-95/Capital Beltway interchange to eliminate the dual ramps.  The connection from I-95 southbound to the Capital Beltway has been reconfigured several times to improve operations.  Motorists now use a single two-lane sky-ramp.) 

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