Route 66: Road Worthy

Revitalizing Route 66 in Arizona.

During the middle part of the twentieth century Route 66 was the quintessential U.S. road—a 2,448-mile thoroughfare that personified freedom and American car culture. But in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s faster, wider interstate highways were built and travelers began bypassing what John Steinbeck called “The Mother Road." Mom & pop businesses that lined the route went bust by the thousands, and once thriving communities were blighted by boarded-up gas stations, motels and eateries. Today, a program called the Route 66 Initiative—launched by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) in June 2004—promises to revitalize Route 66 communities in Arizona, and may provide the blueprint for cleaning up and redeveloping sites across the country.

In its heyday Route 66 was arguably the most famous highway in history. Established in the mid-1920s, it linked Chicago and Los Angeles, passing through eight states—Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California—in the process. But in 1956 president Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, which appropriated tens of billions of dollars for the construction of a sprawling interstate highway system. Over the course of several decades, interstates like I-55, I-44, I-40 and I-10 gradually made Route 66 obsolete. And when hungry, tired tourists with gas guzzling cars disappeared from Route 66 communities, so did the jobs. 

“A lot of the old businesses went out of business and a lot of people lost their livelihood when I-40 came along,” says Jan Davis, Director of Operations for the Historic Route 66 Association in Kingman, Arizona, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote, preserve and protect Route 66. 

Making matters worse, many defunct businesses became environmental liabilities, especially old gas stations. Even after being shuttered their corrodible, bare-steel storage tanks almost always remained in the ground. Sooner or later, any remaining gasoline would leak out, contaminating the soil and groundwater.

At one point, Arizona reported the existence of 350 leaking underground storage tanks (LUST's)—mostly at gas stations—and many of them along the state's Route 66 corridor. This prompted ADEQ to launch the Route 66 Initiative, which, according to its Web site, aims to remove abandoned LUST's and identify and clean up so-called “releases.” 

“Prior to the Initiative they had 99 sites in Arizona that had to be cleaned up or closed on Route 66,” says Maggie Witt, the Environmental Protection Agency's Route 66 project manager. 

Considerable progress has already been made. “In the past two years they have cleaned up or closed 22 of them,” Witt continues, "with 90 percent of the cost covered by ADEQ and 10 percent by the property owner.” 

But numbers don't tell the whole story. Abandoned gas stations are sometimes referred to as brownfields, “where the reuse or redevelopment of the site is prevented or delayed by environmental contamination or the thought that there might be contamination,” says Laurie Amaro, an environmental protection specialist at the EPA. 

Without government intervention, brownfields are rarely redeveloped because potential owners are fearful about the legal liability that might be transferred to them if they purchase contaminated property. 

“By cleaning up sites through the Route 66 Initiative it lifts the responsibility off the shoulders of the owners [as long as they are not the responsible party]. If the site is cleaned up the likelihood that it will be redeveloped and become a new business is greatly improved,” adds Witt.

And that's exactly what appears to be happening along Route 66 in Arizona. “A lot of businesses are starting to reopen again [in Kingman] and we are starting to restore some of the landmarks,” notes Davis, who describes Kingman as “the place to live now,” thanks to its small town atmosphere and improving economy. 

Meanwhile, Lila Atkins, museum director at the Winslow Historical Society's Old Trails Museum, reports that Winslow, Arizona—immortalized in The Eagles' hit song “Take It Easy”—is also experiencing a “resurgence,” noting that “many old buildings are being restored and utilized,” including famous Earl's Motor Lodge, which recently restored its original neon lights. 

Most importantly, however, the momentum created by the Route 66 Initiative has fostered a new spirit of cooperation among government agencies, business owners and private industry, who are now working together to tackle the economic challenges faced by Route 66 communities. 

“A lot of these communities are strapped for resources and to try to overcome these [economic and environmental] challenges alone would be a large and daunting undertaking. But when working with the EPA, ADEQ and all the other agencies that came together for this partnership it seems a lot more manageable,” says Witt. 

In fact, when Winslow's famous “Standing on a Corner” site—a major tourist attraction—burned in a fire on October 18, 2004, some thought that downtown Winslow was doomed. But the city received a $96,000 grant from ADEQ to clean up the site and surrounding area, and Winslow has been infused with newfound optimism. 

Still, locals are well aware that even with the Route 66 Initiative, revitalizing Route 66 communities will require a long-term commitment from many different agencies at all levels of government. “We are literally starting from the ground up,” begins Witt, “and it takes time to go from cleaning up the soil to putting a new business on a site and then bringing in new jobs and new revenue.” 

But other states have already taken notice and may soon begin executing similar initiatives. “Route 66 passes through several states that are experiencing some of the same challenges,” begins Witt. “A lot of these states—as well as others with similar transportation corridors—are looking into taking the lessons we learned and the ideas we developed and using them elsewhere,” she continues. 

Of course, to people like Atkins and Davis, developing and redeveloping Route 66 communities is a no-brainer. “There's a lot of pride in the town of Winslow,” says Atkins, a sentiment that might just as easily apply to Kingman. 

Never mind the fact that “people still want to get their kicks on Route 66,” says Davis. “It reminds us of days gone by that people want to relive.”

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