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Interstates turn 50, and driving has never been more bland

July 23, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

Maryland's own Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, was alive to break ground for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1828.

When the road opened to passengers, some of the first riders were almost certainly alive to see the invention of the automobile, and a few people alive today can remember the days when horses still outnumbered cars.

In these three short jumps we can establish the relative, historic youth of the nation.

In another 25 years or so, the automobile will have been in existence for half of America's history, and its heyday will have considerably outlived the heyday of passenger rail service, which spanned a century.

The greatest ground transportation innovation of the 20th century, the automobile, changed technology. But the second greatest ground transportation innovation of the 20th century, the Interstate highway system, changed life.

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To men and women in their 40s and beyond who can remember the big machines slicing through hillsides along the Potomac to the west of Hagerstown and churning through farm fields to the east on a route that was to become I-70, the interstates still seem young. But the Interstate idea, which turned 50 this month, has already been around as long as the entire era of the steam-powered riverboats.

And while it may not be true, it can at least be argued with a straight face that the interstates have brought about more societal change than the automobile itself.

Nowhere in domestic policy has the government dictated change more than the interstates. While government regulations were strangling the amount railroads could charge to carry freight, the public was footing the $114 billion red carpet for tractor trailers.

How different, and how much more viable rail travel might be today had the government paid for the mainlines of the B&O, Pennsylania, New York Central, Great Northern and Santa Fe - and allowed these roads to charge what the market would bear?

But such hypotheticals are best left to rail buffs, policy wonks and the ghost of Commodore Vanderbilt. The interstates are the reality of modern transportation, and even skyrocketing gas prices have only created a whisper of a notion that some day there may be the need for another way.

As much or more than most other towns in America, Hagerstown has felt the effects of the interstates, both positive and negative.

Positive: It's elevated our status as a perfect midway point between city culture and mountain wilderness. A drive of an hour or so either east or west, and a Washington County resident can enjoy a show at the Kennedy Center or raft a largely unspoiled whitewater river.

Negative: Interstates 70 and 81 created a bypass of the city both east and west, north and south, that effectively ended the need for anyone to ever drive through the downtown.

Positive: The interstate crossroads have made us something of a transportation hub, and are a major selling point for companies seeking quick access to all points of the compass.

Negative: This same geographic convenience makes the city a natural drop-off spot for drug dealers and other undesirable elements.

Positive: The interstates have significantly increased our tax base in the form of commuter housing.

Negative: Big highways open the door to sprawl. Strip shopping centers, the state flower of suburbia, are made viable by easy access and acres of parking.

Interstates have opened up this great nation of ours for our own personal inspection, but they have closed down our neighborhoods. It's become just about as easy to drive 20 miles to visit friends in Frederick as it is to walk across your backyard and visit with the guy next door.

A worthwhile trade off? Yes, although a slightly melancholy one, along with the fact that the grand old rail stations of yesteryear have been replaced by rest areas as faceless as interstate scenery itself. Interstates let you travel the nation; they don't let you see it, they don't let you get a taste of it.

Indeed, so effective are our interstates that people who study such things calculate that unless you are traveling in excess of 500 miles it is more efficient to drive than it is to fly. Pretty impressive, considering that in Ben Franklin's day, a 500-mile overland journey could take months, particularly if the creeks were high.

Yet the interstates have even taken the stuffing out of automobiles themselves. The American motoring public used to hold its breath waiting for the automakers to unveil their bold, raucously styled vehicles each new model year. Some marvelous creations came out of the '50s. The interstates shifted emphasis from the exterior to the interior, with soft comfort a premium on day-long drives. So devoid of style and soul are automobiles today, that when a carmaker wants to make a statement, it can only fall back on retro looks.

Part of the great sanitization of America, interstates have led the charge into the land of the efficient and the bland. Personally, I would never wish to sacrifice the convenience of the interstates. But I am sorry we have lost a degree of personality along the way.

There's got to be another name for progress, because progress isn't always progressive. We can do things better than we could in years past. But we can't do them as well.

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