President George Washington publicly
favored the establishment of roads to promote
the westward expansion of our nation. In 1791,
the legislature of the Pennsylvanian Commonwealth
approved a state-wide transportation plan and
a year later created the Philadelphia and Lancaster
Turnpike Company. The turnpike charter called
for the construction of a 62-mile log-surfaced
road, which provided successful transport for
settlers and their goods over the muddy territories.
The Lancaster Turnpike route was later replaced
by a canal after 1800 and then the beginnings
of a railroad in the 1880s. The Allegheny Mountains
posed a barrier to William Vanderbilt and Andrew
Carnegie, who at the time were building a railroad
from Harrisburg west to Pittsburgh to compete
with a more northerly route provided by the booming
Pennsylvania Railroad. Over one-half of the roadbed
was constructed and seven tunnels partially excavated
before Vanderbilt went broke in 1885.
As early as 1910, ideas arose to convert the abandoned
railway route into a motorway. The idea of a turnpike
to cross the Alleghenies was supported by the
trucking industry as well as the motoring public.
A feasibility study began in 1934 with surveyors
collecting information and engineers selecting
routes and preparing plans. Although the U.S.
Bureau of Public Roads favored improving urban
highways instead of building intercity expressways,
the concept of limited-access highways was further
inspired by the construction of the Henry Hudson
Parkway on the west side of Manhattan in 1934,
the Bronx River Parkway, the Merritt Parkway in
Connecticut, and the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los
In 1937, the governor signed a bill to create
the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission during a
period when the nation was still recovering from
that era's depression. President Roosevelt supported
the construction on the turnpike to lower unemployment
through his WPA. Since bankers were skeptical
of supporting the unproven nature of a toll superhighway,
the project wound up being financed by a loan
from the New Deal's Reconstruction Finance Corporation
for almost $41 million at 3.75 percent. The WPA
would also provide another $29 million in grants.
A model of this new form of superhighway was displayed
at the General Motors Highways and Horizons Futurama
exhibit at the 1939 New York City World's Fair.
The new turnpike was visualized to be a different
form of highway in America, but similar to Germany's
100-mph autobahns, built to serve the needs of
the users rather than controlled by the terrain.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike project limits were
from Middlesex, located west of Harrisburg, to
Irwin, east of Pittsburgh, a distance of 160 miles.
For the project to be constructed on schedule
in a mere 20 months, 1,100 engineers were employed.
Noteworthy was the consistency of the design standards
of the turnpike, much different than previous
piecemeal attempts to build roads through different
areas. Plans called for a 200-foot right-of-way
with two 12-foot lanes of travel provided in each
direction with medians, berms, long entrance and
exit ramps, banked curves, and separated grade
Revisions made during the course of design included
changing from two asphalt and two concrete lanes
to all concrete lanes. A four-foot median was
replaced with a ten-foot one. Although Vanderbilt's
railroad bed was originally planned for a maximum
two percent grade, the maximum grade selected
for the turnpike was three percent, which an automobile
could easily tolerate but was still much less
than the nine to twelve percent grades on local
highways. At first a tunnel was considered near
Everett, but later it was decided to remove 1.1
million cubic yards of rock and earth to create
the largest open cut of its time.
A standard sight distance of 600 feet was chosen.
Straight-aways were designed for 100 mph and the
spiral curves were superelevated to accommodate
70 mph. Easy grades were carved through valleys,
ravines, and mountains. Almost 70 percent of the
original turnpike was straight, with the longest
a 40-mile stretch west of Carlisle relieved by
one curve to break the monotony.
Many innovations were introduced during the layout
of the highway. When possible, the turnpike route
was laid out on southern exposures to let the
sun heat the ice and snow on the roads. Toll booths
off of the turnpike were located on downhill grades
to allow drivers time to react instead of being
surprised. In addition to the roadway, there were
over 300 bridges and culverts, nine interchanges,
ten service plazas, and eleven toll booths to
After plans were completed in October, 1938, 155
construction companies and 15,000 workers from
18 states were under contract with the Turnpike
Commission. Six of the seven original railway
tunnels ranging from 3,500 to 6,800 feet had to
be completed or widened to allow two lanes of
vehicles. Work began at a slow pace due to difficulties
acquiring right-of-way, but a year later fifty
crews were building a ribbon of pavement at a
rate of three-and-a-half miles a day.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike officially entered service
October 1, 1940, exhibiting new concepts of superhighway
design and demonstrating that revenue bonds could
finance toll roads. Planners predicted that 1.3
million vehicles would use the turnpike each year,
but early actual usage was 2.4 million vehicles,
sometimes as many as 10,000 vehicles per day were
recorded. In addition to reducing travel time
between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg by three hours,
the turnpike created an economic boom to areas
along its path. This magnificent road was a monument
to national pride and the spirit of motoring during
the late years of the depression.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike
was an excellent example of public-private partnerships.
Fares collected from the turnpike tolls allowed
the construction bonds to be retired early and
reissued for capital improvements to the road.
Following the success of the Pennsylvania Turnpike,
other states began plans to build their own toll
roads after the war including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,
New York, and New Jersey.
The United States entered a new era of transportation
in 1941 with President Roosevelt appointing the
National Interregional Highway Committee, which
proposed a 34,000-mile highway system for defense
and post-war modernization. The Federal Aid Highway
Act was approved in 1944 and adopted two years
later, authorizing $1.5 billion for three post-war
years of interstate highway construction. The
interstate highway system was built on the "forgiving
road" concepts learned and tested on the
Although the Pennsylvania Turnpike has one of
the lowest fatality rates in the country, the
need for more safety improvements became apparent
in response to the rising number of accidents.
Improvements over the years have included better
pavement drainage and stabilization, a 300-foot
right-of-way, a 60-foot median, computerized toll
booths, plazas moved back away from the road,
and curves added to the boring, straight stretches.
Improvements to the turnpike's tunnels have also
been given much attention by their widening and
lighting. In the 1960s, $100 million was spent
building bypasses to eliminate three tunnels.
A new 4,400-foot, two-lane tube was completed
in 1991 next to the existing Lehigh Mountain Tunnel
using the New Austrian Tunneling Method (NATM).
The NATM involves shooting the walls and ceiling
with a fast-setting shotcrete to stabilize the
rock, preventing rock falls and eliminating the
need for heavy ceiling support.
As the Pennsylvania
Turnpike operates in its sixth decade of service,
the original 160-mile route has been expanded
to 514 miles, carrying 156.2 million vehicles
a year at a toll of just over 4.1 cents a mile.
In the engineering design of this highway, utmost
attention has been given to the drivers' safety
and comfort. Today the Pennsylvania Turnpike,
part of Interstate 76, can be recognized as the
first of a new breed of American tollways in the
interstate highway system.
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