Highway Heritage: The Pennsylvania Turnpike Celebrates 75

2015 marks the diamond anniversary of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which set the tone for highways nationwide.

photos courtesy of Pennsylvania turnpike commission


On Sept. 30, 1940, cars began lining up at two points in Pennsylvania, 160 miles apart. As night settled over the towns of Carlisle and Irwin, floodlights bathed the assembled motorists, who chattered and laughed with anticipation.

When the clock reached midnight, keys turned and engines revved. Some drivers had waited hours for the opportunity; others had diverted trips by hundreds of miles. To them, the small sacrifices — and a toll of about $.01 per mile — were worth it.

These eager drivers were taking a ride on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Today, the toll road that crosses southern Pennsylvania may elicit more grumbles than boasts. When it opened as the nation’s first long-distance, limited-access highway, however, the turnpike was a celebrated source of state pride.

“The goal was to make it a safe, reliable, quick route from A to B, from one end of the state to the other,” says Renee Colborn, manager of media and public relations for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. “The tunnels were a big draw for travelers … And people would actually picnic in the median of the turnpike!”

Prior to the turnpike’s opening, traversing the state was time-consuming and dangerous; a journey from the state capital to western Pennsylvania involved thousands of feet of elevation changes as the most likely route, the Lincoln Highway, crawled through small towns. The allure of a relatively flat, relatively straight highway devoid of pedestrians, red lights and winding hills was akin to a first-class plane ticket.

The success of the turnpike — which far outpaced estimates, with annual traffic reaching 7.7 million cars in 1951, the first full year after the opening of the road’s Philadelphia extension — served as a model for the nationwide interstate highway system. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the influential route, a new exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg will examine the highway’s history.

“Our museum tells the story of Pennsylvania, and what we try to do is focus on stories that have statewide significance — and help people to understand the state’s role in the nation,” says Curt Miner, a senior curator at the State Museum.

“It’s one of those stories that happened first here in Pennsylvania, and then had a nationwide ripple effect.” Among other artifacts, the display will boast a fully restored, circa-1940 turnpike tollbooth.

Today’s turnpike doesn’t save nearly as much time as the road did in 1940; select the “no tolls” option when planning a trip from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia on Google Maps, and you’ll find the turnpike saves less than 90 minutes. Nevertheless, Colborn says, “It’s a quicker way to travel. And believe it or not with all the traffic out there, it is a safer way to travel.”

Drivers must agree; even as fares have increased in recent years and technology has made alternate routes easier to follow, traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike has remained consistent, Colborn says. There’s still a bit of luxury about the highway 75 years later; no red lights, no sudden exit lanes and no engine-taxing hikes up the Alleghenys. We may not be lining up for the chance to cruise the turnpike, but it remains a fine way to travel.  

––Sean Collier


#GoingCashless? Turnpike experiment

The next 75 years of the turnpike may witness the end of toll collectors. The Turnpike commission next year will launch a pilot program to convert the Beaver Valley Expressway Interchange in the western part of the state and the Delaware River Bridge interchange in the eastern part of the state to a cashless system, reports the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Drivers will pay either through an E-ZPass account, or have their license plate scanned by interchange cameras and then pay a monthly bill sent to them in the mail.

The commission is trying to figure out if it can save money by eliminating more than 600 unionized toll collectors and their $60 million in salary and benefits.

Commission chairman Sean Logan isn't convinced eliminating the toll collectors will save a big chunk of money because an all-electronic system will require camera and technology upgrades and safeguards to protect drivers' from identity thieves.

“The Beaver Valley Expressway will really give us a good read on whether this will work,” Logan told the Trib. “I can't say, ‘Hey, let's go spend all this money buying cameras, taking down toll booths, laying off employees' … if I'm not convinced we can do it.”

––Richard Cook


photo by richard cook

#ExceedingExpectations: Pittsburgh's bike share program

It appears Pittsburghers like to borrow a bike, and don't mind paying for the privilege. David White, who runs Pittsburgh Bike Share, says Healthy Ride Pittsburgh is averaging 12,000 rides a month.

“Users are overwhelmingly supportive,” he tells the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We've had a lot of people use the bikes to get to after-school activities. We have university students using the bikes. We have people who use the bikes during lunch Downtown.”

There are 500 bikes operating out of 50 stations in 11 city neighborhoods. Since July, when the system became fully operational, only one bicycle has been lost. 

Bike rentals cost $2 per half-hour or through membership plans that cost $12 a month for unlimited 30-minute rides and $20 for unlimited 60-minute rides. Users can signup for free on the program's website or at the rental kiosks at stations.

Pittsburgh Bike Share plans to keep the service going through the winter, as a test, to see if enough people will use the bikes in the cold and snowy months.

Click here for more information on the program.



Categories: The 412