He Only Has I-’s For You

Earl Swift on I-80, I-95, and the history of America’s interstate highway system.

What are the things we ought to like about the highway system?
It’s a remarkable piece of engineering. And it provides a cheap and effective way to move goods and drive the economy, and does it with enormous safety and with as much efficiency as one could hope for, given that the vehicles we drive are usually occupied by a single person and burn gasoline.

What are the most notable downsides?
The most telling is the interstates are almost a fifty-first state. Any point on the interstate has more in common with other points in the system than it has with any of the country by which it is surrounded. That’s great when it comes to driving safety; it throws no surprises at you. But the absence of serendipity has a somewhat deadening effect culturally. And we’ve seen the development of an interchange economy of chains that are as predictable as the traffic lanes themselves.

Did the highway system’s designers forsee that it would lead to sprawl and the destruction of small towns?
Sprawl was already happening before the interstates. So anybody who blames the interstates for suburban sprawl has not done his or her homework. But the interstates certainly accelerated way-out sprawl.

In terms of destroying small towns, there was a sense that there was a good chance that bypassed towns might wither away, and that towns on the interstate were going to boom. I don’t think that people anticipated that a driver on the interstate would be unwilling to drive a mile off the highway. That aspect of the American interstate driver’s psyche surprised everybody. The system is so efficient and speed-oriented that the notion that you’d get off the highway and drive into a town to find a motel soon evaporated. The parts of the economy that depended on passers-thru picked up and moved to the interstate or they died.

What is the greatest threat to the interstate highway system?
Lack of money and lack of maintenance. We are putting tremendous loads on it and we aren’t putting money into it. We haven’t in a long time. A lot of states started drifting off the maintenance schedule in the early 1990s. And these roads—as stout as they are—take a tremendous beating and will not last forever. They are showing significant signs of decay in an awful lot of places, like I-80 west of Chicago, which is rugged. Some states have been good about sticking with the program and others have not. And like any sort of aging piece of machinery, if you let the maintenance slip a little bit it’s going to cost you.

What are your favorite roads in the system?
I don’t think there’s any interstate that is without sin. There are ugly stretches of just about every one. But there are pieces of roads I love. I-81 from Winchester, Virginia, to the city of Abington [on the Tennessee line] is awfully pretty. There’s I-40 through eastern Arizona—the Painted Desert. I’m a big fan of I-80 through Wyoming. The country there is so melancholy and beautiful in a forbidding way that it makes for a breathtaking drive.

And your least favorite?
One of most disappointing is I-35 from Fort Worth to Austin. Texas does such a good job of designing and building highways but that thing is a trash-strewn dump. You have to admire the Long Island Expressway for the load it carries and the fact that so few people get killed or hurt on it given the numbers that travel it every day. But it’s an unpleasant driving experience no matter what. And I’m no fan of I-95 between the George Washington Bridge and Boston; that whole northeast stretch, there’s no ability to relax when you’re driving.

Have you been in any wrecks on the interstate?
I’ve been in two, but I can’t say either accident altered my opinion of the interstates because neither was typical of an interstate accident. Most interstate accidents are single vehicle—people falling asleep or drunk and going off the road.

The first one I was rear-ended in a blinding snowstorm in St. Louis at 2 a.m. when I was coming home from work at the newspaper there. I came upon a pileup at an iced-over overpass and a Camaro traveling at 50 mph slammed into me. I was going 2 mph at the time so it made for a hell of an impact.

The second one was also in a snowstorm on I-44 southwest of St. Louis, when a car spun out on an iced-over overpass right in front of me. I was in the front passenger seat and we managed to stop before hitting this spun-out car, but everyone behind us ran into us. The state troopers showed up and moved us all down into the median. As we were standing there a tractor-trailer came from the other direction and jackknifed as it went past. It could have easily come into the median and killed all of us. But it stayed on the road and slid—absolutely silently. It didn’t make the slightest sound as it skated past at 65 mph. It was one of the eeriest things I’ve ever seen.

Earl Swift’s Web site

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