After 50 years, I-95 still East Coast's common thread and economic backbone

Highway's opening in Maryland in 1963 reshaped travel, race relations and local communities

November 09, 2013|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

On a brisk afternoon 50 years ago, Timothy Hyman snapped pictures as officials cut a ribbon to open the newest stretch of Interstate 95, connecting Baltimore to Delaware and onward north to Maine.

Amid the large crowd gathered at the Maryland-Delaware border, Hyman still remembers the civil rights advocates picketing just outside his frame, calling for the interstate to be interracial and to further advance their cause.

In that moment, Hyman said he saw a dual promise — of travel without congestion, but also without oppression.

As a black photographer from Baltimore working for the Maryland Traffic Safety Commission, Hyman, now 76 and still a state employee, had a working knowledge of how congested roads in the Baltimore region were. He also had been turned away many times at segregated lunch counters and motels along those roads.

"I remember it quite a bit," he said of that day, Nov. 14, 1963. "It was things we had to overcome."

Today, Interstate 95 remains a culturally significant force for change, an artery of personal significance for many and an economic backbone for the Eastern Seaboard, said Dan McNichol, writer of "The Roads that Built America."

"It facilitated and accelerated growth already in progress," McNichol said. "It generates energy through all those states."

According to the I-95 Corridor Coalition, an alliance of transportation and public safety agencies from Florida to Maine, about 110 million people live in jurisdictions directly served by the highway, up from 40 million in 1960, when the project's coastal connectivity was just an idea.

Those jurisdictions today represent 10 percent of the nation's land area and 37 percent of its population.

The highway system is the backbone of an East Coast economy measured in trillions of dollars that represents more than one-third of U.S. jobs and gross domestic product, according to the coalition. Considered alone, the region would be the world's second-largest economy, the coalition says.

"Besides breaking through the Mason-Dixon Line and literally opening up the South and paving over Tobacco Road, it freed up commerce," McNichol said. "I think its fame is yet to be understood. It's so depended upon. It's so necessary in people's lives. It's become part of them."

Along with much of the Baltimore Beltway, Interstate 95 opened to the region's drivers in 1963 after nine years of "planning, mind-making-up and mind-changing, legislative brawling and administrative postponing," as a Baltimore Sun article put it at the time.

But I-95's construction was rapid, with its more than 40-mile Maryland stretch built in less than two years.

Tolls, which had been a major source of delay and dispute among state planners, were instituted — originally $1 for cars — but drivers, including local commuters in small towns close to the highway, were undeterred, flocking to the road.

By that time, traffic on U.S. 40, the major artery through Baltimore and Harford counties, was horribly congested. The road had 21 traffic signals, 87 intersections and more than 1,000 commercial and private entrances in the stretch spanned by the new interstate. There were also many accidents on the road, also known as Pulaski Highway, with about 20 fatalities a year.

"There was a really bad one between Baltimore and Aberdeen at least once a week, and you would have God knows how many smaller ones," said Charles Anderson, a lifelong Harford resident who owned a farm equipment, feed and lumber business along Pulaski Highway then.

Interstate 95 offered an easy alternative.

"People took to it by choice," McNichol said. "They could have stayed on the old romantic roads but they flocked to it because it got them places so much faster."

Interstate 95 zoomed parallel to the gritty stoplight corridors of Americana motels and mom-and-pop lunch counters. In some parts of the country, the highway tore through poor neighborhoods — where land was cheapest — displacing urban homes and disenfranchising the poor, said Thomas Zeller, an associate professor who teaches transportation history at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Some took to protesting with signs that read "No White Man's Roads through Black Man's Homes," Zeller said.

Equity in transportation already had been a hot-button issue in Baltimore for years, including along Pulaski Highway.

In 1961, as President John F. Kennedy's administration struggled with how best to open the nation's transportation system to blacks, Maryland's roadways became a symbol of the obstacles.

Both Life and Time magazines ran stories about diplomats from newly independent African countries taking U.S. 40 from Washington to the United Nations in New York and complaining to the State Department after being turned away by local diner and motel owners.

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