When the interstates came to town – or around it

January 7, 2021

John Bendel


When the hell are they going to fix the roads?

Things used to be a lot better. It’s not just lousy maintenance, though there’s plenty of that. The entire system is overloaded. Maybe it’s not bad in Montana, but in the east?

I think they designed the interstates in the 1940s for the America of the 1980s. There were 152 million Americans in 1950. Now there are 325 million of us – and we need a lot of stuff. Procter & Gamble recently said they have about $300 million worth of toothpaste, toilet paper, detergent, razor blades, cough drops, and stuff that makes you smell good in transit at any given time. And that’s just one multibillion-dollar company out of hundreds with goods on the road.

Oh yeah, and we have to squeeze the four-wheelers in too. Never thought I could get claustrophobia on the open road, but then the road isn’t as open as it used to be.

I remember 1956, when we decided to build the interstates. Eisenhower was president. When I hitchhiked from New Jersey to California for the first time five years later, they were just getting started. I hitched along U.S. 40 to St. Louis and then on U.S. 66 to Los Angeles. It was almost all two-lane blacktop. Almost.

Every few hundred miles a chunk of new interstate highway would be open. It might be 5 miles long and take you around a small town. Or it might just be a few miles out in the countryside. Wherever they appeared, drivers were thrilled to see them.

The challenge on two-lane blacktops was passing.

Much of the time, you couldn’t. Sure, there were gaps in the traffic, and out west at least the roads were often flat and straight. But all you needed was one slow guy followed by another guy – or two – scared to pass under any circumstances. Sometimes you would find yourself in a long train of vehicles crawling well under the speed limit. It certainly felt like crawling, anyway, and it went on mile after annoying mile.

So, when a slow string of vehicles hit a newly opened stretch of interstate, it was like an explosion. Drivers went nuts trying to get past the slow guys at the front of the train. Then they tried to get ahead of each other. Sometimes, the interstate section was only a couple of miles long, often around a town. There were close calls as the racers merged back into one lane.

Most of the towns the interstates went around were on U.S. 66 in the west.

In the Midwest, where construction was slower, U.S. 40 still went through the center of small towns, where it often became Main Street. Traffic on what was then a major east-west roadway had to stop at the traffic light in the center of town. It was frequently the only light in the town, where the speed limit was 25 mph. The speed limit out of town was 50 mph. People did 60. Some did 70 or more (I once rode with a guy, a psychiatrist, who did 90. I still don’t know why I didn’t tell him to stop and let me off.)

In any case, drivers were supposed to decelerate to 25 mph. Slowing that much from, say 80, made it feel like you had come to a stop. They called the feeling being “velocitized.” The locals who did obey the posted limit often found themselves tailgated by impatient, angry out-of-staters. Pulling onto Main Street – particularly at night – was the last thing some locals ever did. In those days, seatbelts weren’t required. Few cars even had them. The crashes were truly ghastly.

Later in the 1960s, when I first drove a truck, new interstate highways in the east were lightly traveled. They wouldn’t stay that way for long, of course. They were built to handle the traffic 20 years or more in the future.

Well, that future has come and gone. Today, it breaks my heart to see some of those splendid highways overloaded with traffic, including truckers who don’t see much more than the truck ahead of them as they drive over potholes and bumpy road repairs.

We can do better than this. LL