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The History of the Pennsylvania Turnpike

Turnpike History

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 Angeles.

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 crossings.

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 design.

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 Pennsylvania Turnpike.

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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