Transportation Decisions: Part Calculation, Part Imagination

When it comes to roads, practicality and economics are important. But so is emotion.
December 2009
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

Well if you ever plan to motor west,

Just take my way, that's the highway that's the best.

Get your kicks on Route 66.

Hardly anyone knows this, but Bobby Troup's bouncy 1946 tune about the joys of U.S. Highway 66 has its roots in a legislative battle that went on for decades in Washington and in much of the country. The famous highway emerged from a series of federal transportation bills and the resulting scramble by state boosters and budding state transportation departments to get a piece of the action.

Law and policy making can be dull, but done right, they can produce dreams and songs. Leaders may justify transportation expenditures in practical, economic terms. But emotions are part of the process as well. Even if we don't find out until much later.

Troup said he was inspired to write his famous song while literally driving Route 66, which at the time, right after World War II, stretched from Lake Michigan beside Chicago to the beaches of Southern California. Driving cross-country in one's personal automobile was still a novel and amazing thing. Route 66 had been cobbled together much earlier by linking some existing roads, many of them just dirt, until the WPA Depression-relief project under President Franklin Roosevelt completed its paving in 1938. Those final bits of asphalt realized a vision that had taken two decades of policy making and spending to achieve. This was the dream of true inter-city highways, a dream that had seemed as distant in the beginning as 200-mile-per-hour trains do today.

It took a few attempts to get it right. In the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916, Congress approved $75 million for highways--at that time, a whole lot of money. But the feds were not sure what kinds of roads they wanted. And the states, which were in charge of distributing the money, generally spread it around to each of their many counties, which meant the effects of the money were felt everywhere and nowhere.

To counteract this tendency, in the successor Federal-Aid Road Act of 1921, Congress required 60 percent of its appropriated money to be used for inter-city travel and on a limited number of roads. There was by this time more of a vision about what a true national highway system might be. Even then, that system was far in the future. Route 66 was not really a new highway, just a patchwork of rough roads linked only by common signage and a commitment to improve them.

As the system gradually was created, there were bitter arguments about the location of routes for the new national highways. Just as is happening today with high-speed rail, states and regions recognized that being on a main route was a ticket to prosperity. Even the identifying numbers were considered important. Regions vied to get one of the highways with a number divisible by ten. Route 60 was thought to be particularly attractive.

Things were at loggerheads until Oklahoma promoter Cyrus Avery, who was on the road-numbering board appointed by the secretary of agriculture, decided Route 66, with its alliteration, would offer better publicity for his state than Route 60. (The Bureau of Public Roads, which would grow into today's federal transportation department, was then just an agency within the Agriculture Department. It was thought that good roads were needed to help farmers get to market.)

In 1926, Avery wrote to Public Roads chief Thomas MacDonald saying "We prefer sixty-six." And the fight ended. Cyrus had had the feeling that "Route 66" was catchier than "Route 60" or "Route 70." He was right. "Get Your Kicks on Route 60" just doesn't sound the same.

Let's flash forward to the present. Right now, state and regional boosters and backers are fighting for a piece of the roughly $14 billion that Congress has awarded for faster rail transportation, just as boosters and backers did for road money back in the 1920s. This is messy, but also to be expected. It's unwise to think that the selection of routes and allocation of money can be done on some sort of pure technocratic basis. "Who wants it more?" is a valid criterion--one of them--for awarding funds.

What the feds should not do is attempt to be "fair," and fritter away the high- speed billions by giving a pittance to everyone, as happened with Congress' first attempt to start a national road system in 1916. Spend the money in a few places, where it can demonstrably and dramatically improve train travel, making it higher-speed if not true European-style high-speed service. Only then can we jump-start a few projects, and perhaps launch some Troup-like visions as well.

If early roads represented dreams of independence and freedom, what does fast rail travel, with its "whoosh" between cities, represent? Speed, certainly. Technology. Progress. Comfort. Community. And even, occasionally, solitude. I see people wrapped in a soft cocoon of comfort, reading a book, whizzing along. Personally, I've always liked the social aspect of trains, but to each his own dream.

Whatever the dreams are, we are a long way from writing songs about high-speed train travel. Many of us are like motorists in the 1920s, staring at some dusty, dirt roads, imagining a smooth cross-country highway, and wondering whether we can get there from here.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist |