Traveling down a road of history

At 50-year milestone, interstate system still shapes Maryland life and landscape


Fifty years ago this week, an old-time Baltimore machine politician who hated freeway driving rose on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and moved to accept a compromise with the Senate on what he called "the greatest governmental construction program in the history of the world."

"Through the provisions of this bill, the American people will ride safely upon many thousands of miles of broad, straight, trouble-free roads, four to eight lines wide, criss-crossing America from coast to coast and border to border," said Maryland Rep. George H. Fallon.

Three days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, without ceremony, a hospitalized President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill that created the Interstate Highway System and launched an initiative that would change the face of the city, the state and the nation.

With the exception of "trouble-free," the system Fallon described - a 46,876-mile network without a single stoplight or stop sign - has largely lived up to its billing.

It has been glorified for helping to unite and enrich a nation and vilified for helping to pollute air and water, homogenize culture and blight cities such as Baltimore. It has given the American public a vastly safer and more efficient means of travel - but at the cost of promoting a dependence on automobiles and the imported oil it takes to fuel them.

"It does all these great things and all these terrible things," said Dan McNichol, author of The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System.

Locally, the system nearly devastated Baltimore before wiser heads prevailed. Had one early expressway proposal come to fruition, elevated highways and bridges would have slashed through Federal Hill, cut off the Inner Harbor from tall ships, grabbed the land now occupied by Harborplace and continued their way to Fells Point and Canton.

"It would have been a disaster," said Walter Sondheim, the 97-year-old civic leader and senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee.

The highway-building frenzy of the Interstate Era did take a severe toll on parts of West Baltimore, where hundreds of homes owned by middle-class African-Americans were seized and demolished with meager compensation. But community opposition put a stop to highway plans that would have leveled other communities.

The interstates have in many ways rewritten the political and economic history of Baltimore and Maryland.

Fallon saw his congressional career end in the 1970 Democratic primary at the hands of a young critic of his road-building zeal - Paul S. Sarbanes. A successful fight against a proposed extension of Interstate 83 through Fells Point propelled the political career of a community activist named Barbara A. Mikulski. Together she and Sarbanes have represented Maryland in the U.S. Senate for a combined 50 years.

With the mobility of interstates has come urban sprawl and daily commuting that would have been unthinkable. Interstates 83 and 795 have turned small Pennsylvania towns into bedroom communities for Baltimore and Washington. The once-depressed industrial city of Hagerstown, following in the steps of Frederick, is taking on a new life as an affordable haven for commuters along Interstates 70, 270 and 81.

The leg of I-95 between Baltimore and Washington, completed in 1971, has helped fuse the two urban areas as housing developments and warehouses have replaced the farms that once lined the highway.

Regions that once existed in rural isolation are now accessible. Interstate 68, a late addition to the system that fully opened in 1991, makes it possible for Baltimoreans to get to luxury homes at Deep Creek Lake in three hours - a journey that previously took most of a day.

"The world just bypassed us before we got 68," says former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Cumberland. After decades of economic decline, he says, his hometown is beginning to see growth and rising real estate prices thanks to the highway.

Even the Eastern Shore, though nominally free of interstates, feels the system's impact because travel time to the Bay Bridge has been reduced by the construction of Interstates 97 and 595 (the latter an "unsigned" part of the system known to motorists as U.S. 50/301 from Washington to Annapolis).

In retrospect, construction of the system would seem to have been inevitable. The nation emerged from World War II with a consensus that a national road network was needed. But for a decade after the war, most of the action in building expressways was at the state level in the form of toll-financed turnpikes.

A sticking point was how to finance what was then the largest peacetime project in American history - with a 1956 cost estimate of a then-staggering $33 billion over 13 years (roughly $229 billion in 2004 dollars).

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