The Upside of Interstates

The Eisenhower Interstate System began in June 1956, and changed the American landscape and culture forever. For much of my preservation life, I have only thought of the negative side of the interstate system. Interstates bypassed small town America, fueled sprawl, encouraged poorly designed developments at exits … basically everything that ruined America. Need a small town America sob story? Watch the Pixar movie Cars. It tugs at my preservation heart strings and makes the interstate the devil.

Driving up and down I-95 never helped, either. It is not a pretty interstate, particularly between New York and Virginia. The only positive associations I had associated with the interstate were the entertaining billboards for South of the Border and Ron Jon’s in Cocoa Beach, FL. However, while they were entertaining, they certainly did not help the scenery. Driving through Virginia and the Carolinas always showed glimpses towns that seemed to be split by the interstates — houses and old town centers just sitting on the side of the road.

My opinion of the interstate began to change in 2006 when I took a road trip with my mom and sister. We drove across South Dakota on I-90 and loved every bit of it. Yes, there were many billboards (think Wall Drug!)  but we loved the drive because of the new scenery and big Midwestern sky. Still, I knew what the interstates did to towns across America. There is no denying that small towns suffered and died and the pace of American life grew faster. We all changed. My opinion of the interstate was quite complicated by now, as I had traveled on the decommissioned Route 66 and read the harrowing effects of the interstates.

I recall driving from Southern Pines, NC out to Wilmington, NC and passing through “future corridors” of an interstate. A slow country highway was going be an interstate even though we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and these little crossroad towns would be forgotten. It hurt to think about. So, in general, I did my best to avoid the interstates – especially on road trips.

But, then I moved to Vermont. Our interstates do not have billboards. I-89 is beautiful, scenic and green. There is barely any traffic and I love driving on I-89. Once I started working on project reviews with the Agency of Transportation, I began to understand the benefit of interstates. This high speed road allows people to work far away from where they live. Vermont is a small state and some drive 75 miles each way. On the interstate, that’s not much more than a one hour drive — an easy one hour drive without traffic. This enables me to visit project sites, as well.

The biggest realization and change in my interstate opinion is that while interstates funnel much of the traffic away from village centers, they are also protecting the smaller state roads. In Vermont, many of our small towns have building directly adjacent to the road — practically on the road. Increased traffic often means upgraded safety standards, which equates to widening the roadways. If every state highway or smaller road had to be widened, then these buildings would be in the footprint of the road and severely affected or demolished.  And yes, the interstate system did cause destruction to the landscape and cultural resources, it is important to keep in mind that as preservationists we are also managing present actions with respect to the future. Thus, protecting the existing resources is important, and the interstates help in their own manner. For those who are commuting, the interstate is often the best route of transit; whereas we hope that travelers take the “blue highways” and appreciate the historic and cultural assets of Vermont.

My complicated feelings about the interstate will continue.  How about you?

Good resources for history of the interstate system are FHWA – Eisenhower Interstate System and the Interstate Highway System in Tennessee.