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.

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