- Historic Sites
The Road To The Future
Fifty years ago the builders of the Pennsylvania Turnpike completed America’s first superhighway—and helped determine the shape of travel to come
May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
More extensions followed —a 33-mile $65 million stretch eastward to the Delaware River in November 1954 and then over the river to connect with the New Jersey Turnpike in May 1956. This completed a continuous expressway link from New York through Indiana, which soon extended to Chicago.
The few engineering changes that had been made since the design of the original 1940 highway mainly involved providing improved drainage beneath the nineinch-thick concrete roadway slab. The entire east-west turnpike stretched for 360 miles, and a 110-mile branch from the Philadelphia area to Allentown and Scranton opened in November 1957.
The financial success of Pennsylvania’s turnpike inspired the creation of toll-road authorities in Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. But by 1954 toll roads were in political trouble, and the coming of the free interstate system in 1956 headed off the formation of any national toll-road network. Throughout Pennsylvania other extensions were planned and even in advanced stages of design. In whole or in part, sections of Interstates 79, 80, 81, 90, and 95 within the state all were originally envisioned as Pennsylvania Turnpike projects. In the end the $118 billion national interstate system, with its nontoll operation and its 90 percent federal funding guarantee, won out. The interstate system was what the author Phil Patton, in his 1986 book Open Road , termed the “last program of the New Deal and the first space program.”
As the turnpike’s routemileage growth ended, its internal improvements became more important. A rising fatality rate in the early 1950s resulted in the installation of a steel guardrail in the median strip. Crossover accidents had become notorious, the number of highway deaths rising from 5 in 1940 to 91 in 1953. The worst year, by rate, was 1950, with 12.4 fatalities per hundred million vehiclemiles. (In the 1920s, with minimal safety engineering, the national average was 18 per hundred million vehiclemiles; today it is just 2.6.) The speed limit was adjusted several times, according to the geography and the accident rate along particular sections, and then in 1956 a uniform 65-mile-an-hour limit was imposed. More state troopers were added, and by 1957 the rate had fallen to 3.3 deaths per hundred million vehicle-miles.
By 1960 traffic volume had ballooned to more than 31 million vehicles, and the seven two-lane tunnels were choked. A $100 million investment program lasting through most of the 1960s was considered necessary to meet the competition of more recent superhighways, specifically Interstate 80 and the combination of the New York Thruway and Interstate 90, all of which were built to more contemporary design Standards, with much wider median strips. The program allowed the commission to close three tunnels and reroute traffic over new bypasses, which were built to interstate specifications. New two-lane tunnels were bored parallel to the remaining four existing tunnels, providing uninterrupted fourlane travel across the state.
Roosevelt and Congress so liked the superhighway concept that in 1944 the precursor to the Interstate Act was passed.
By 1970 the volume of traffic had risen to 51.1 million vehicles, and the Turnpike Commission considered a billion-dollar proposal to modernize the original 160 miles. The plan would have created an eight- to ten-lane expressway with eighty-milean-hour capability and cars separated from truck traffic. It was dropped as too expensive. The oil embargoes of 1973-74 and 1979 cut into traffic ,volume and revenue, putting the financing of major new projects on shaky ground anyway, and like all highways, the turnpike soon found itself with a federally imposed 55-mile-an-hour speed limit.
By 1980 traffic volume was 63.9 million vehicles and rising, and legislation was enacted in 1985 to allow the commission to embark on several major improvements. Last year the turnpike carried more than 97 million vehicles—270,000 a day—and officials greeted a ceremonial two billionth traveler.
Of course, to finance improvements to keep up with the rising traffic volume and to maintain the roadway in good condition, the tolls have had to rise. The initial penny-a-mile price remained unchanged for twenty-nine years; it was first raised in 1969 and now stands at 3.1 cents a mile.