Turnpike History

Turnpike History
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1791 - 1936: Before there was a Pennsylvania Turnpike

Colonial America’s Commitment to Building America’s Roads


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 road bed 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. In late 1934 the idea of building a new highway along the then-abandoned South Pennsylvania Railroad Company line through the Allegheny Mountains was proposed and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, who was looking for work-relief projects, thought the highway would fit the bill.

A feasibility study began in 1934 with surveyors collecting information and engineers selecting routes and preparing plans. In 1937, the governor signed a bill to create the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. America was still recovering from that the great depression, and so President Roosevelt supported the construction on the turnpike to lower unemployment through his WPA. 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 also provided another $29 million in grants.

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. 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. A standard sight distance of 600 feet was chosen. Straightaways were designed for 100 mph and the spiral curves were super-elevated 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. Initially, planners proposed nine tunnels. But, Quemahoning and Negro mountains near Somerset were both by-passed and seven tunnels made it from the drawing board to construction. 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.

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1940The 1940’s: Construction

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. When the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened for business on October 1, 1940, it was just 160 miles long stretching from Carlisle to Irwin. It included two-lane tunnels at Laurel Hill, Allegheny, Ray's Hill, Sideling Hill, Tuscarora, Kittatinny and Blue Mountain. Rapidly increasing traffic volumes, far surpassing anything anticipated by early Turnpike planners, soon made the two-lane tunnels obsolete and prompted consideration of by-passing or "double tunneling" the seven original tunnels.

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.

mr Smith

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 and the interstate highway system was built on the "forgiving road" concepts learned and tested on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

By the late 1940's, the "superhighway" concept had caught America's fancy and travelers longed for a Turnpike which crossed Pennsylvania from border to border.

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1950The 1950’s

Harry Truman was in the White House when the Carlisle to Valley Forge extension opened on November 20, 1950 to usher in the expansion decade. Extensions from Irwin to the Ohio Line and from Valley Forge to New Jersey soon followed. But the Northeastern Extension, from Montgomery County in the south to Scranton in the north, was the longest of the expansion projects crossing some 110 miles.

It was 1954 before financing for the Northeastern Extension was obtained as part of a package deal to also construct the Delaware River Bridge, the final link to New Jersey.

Groundbreaking for the Northeastern Extension was held on March 25, 1954 and sections of the Northeastern Extension began opening to travelers on November 23, 1955 when a 37-mile segment from Norristown to the Lehigh Valley opened for business. A 47-mile section of the Northeastern Extension opened on April 1, 1957, including the Lehigh Tunnel and a new 1,487-foot-long bridge over the Lehigh River. But the final 16 miles, taking the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the outskirts of Scranton, opened on November 7, 1957, bringing the Turnpike's total length to 470 miles.

The new Northeastern Extension had something in common with its parent highway, a tunnel built through the Blue Mountains. To distinguish the tunnel north of the Lehigh Valley from the Blue Mountain Tunnel West of Carlisle, the new tunnel was named the Lehigh Tunnel. Originally, the Lehigh Tunnel was one tube which accommodated just two lanes of traffic.

Other tunnel work was also in progress during the 1950’s. The Allegheny Tunnel was the only one of the original seven tunnels to be built in its entirety by Turnpike construction crews. There was a tunnel started in the mountain by the South Penn Railroad, but it was never completed. Water seepage in the original railroad tunnel caused the ceiling to crumble and parts of the tunnel filled with rock. Engineers decided to build a brand new tunnel 85 feet south and parallel to the old tunnel.

By the late 1950's, the need for a second tunnel had become apparent. The second tunnel was built and contained many modern features -- such as fluorescent lighting and powerful ventilating systems -- which were not available in 1940. The older tunnel was renovated to include those systems. The Allegheny tunnels, at 6,070 feet in length, are the longest tunnels still utilized by the Turnpike. (The decommissioned Sideling Hill Tunnel is 6,782 feet long.)

The opening of the Northeast extension would be the last such groundbreaking for an expansion project until August 20, 1989.

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1960The 1960’s

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.

By the early 1960's, a study of the traffic bottleneck at the two tunnels was undertaken and it recommended a 13.1 mile bypass that included reconstruction and relocation of the Breezewood Interchange and construction of a new east-west service plaza (Sideling Hill). The by-pass replaced 13 miles of the original Turnpike, so it did not add significantly to the length of the superhighway. The Sideling Hill By-pass opened on November 26, 1968, sending both the Ray's Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels into retirement. Portions of the vacated highway and the tunnels themselves still exist today and are used by the Turnpike for testing and research.

Work on the Blue Mountain and Kittatinny Mountain tunnels in Franklin County just west of Carlisle posed special environmental challenges. The short valley between the two tunnels is in the Shippensburg Water Authority's prime watershed. As a result, tunneling was carried out from only one end of each of the tunnels.

The second Blue Mountain and Kittatinny Mountain tunnels, along with the additional Tuscorara Mountain tunnel on the Franklin/Huntingdon county border, all opened to the motoring public on November 26, 1968. The Blue Mountain tunnel is, at 4,339 feet in length, the shortest tunnel currently in operation. (The closed 3,532 foot long Ray's Hill Tunnel is the shortest of the original seven tunnels.)

The turnpike's tunnels were also improved with widening and lighting.

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1970The 1970’s

In 1970, a plan was developed that involved updating the Turnpike’s original roadway through the Allegheny Mountains. This would be a road for the future, with the biggest part of the plan to include two lanes for cars and two lanes for trucks on both sides of the roadway. Some sections of the new turnpike would be 10 lanes wide. This new roadway would have an 80 mph speed limit and holographic roadway signs. It would even have an electronic computer system that would warn people of icy-roads.

However, due to the high cost of $1.1 billion dollar project, repeated disruptions in the flow of imported oil and a 55 mph national speed limit that would make an 80 mph highway an extravagance, a compromise was written that would only cost $356 million. The revised plan would upgrade the most heavily traveled areas to 8 lanes with a 70 mph speed limit.

1970 also saw the opening of I-80, which was a northern east-west route across Pennsylvania.

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1980The 1980’s

In 1981 a state bill was introduced to build the James E Ross Highway (formerly known as Turnpike 60, and changed in 2010 to Turnpike 376). The bill did not pass. However, the state legislature did pass Act 61 in September 1985 – and this legislated that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission complete route 60.

On the existing turnpike, changes were being made. Truck climbing lanes were added; interchanges were renovated and expanded, emergency call boxes were installed along the highway and service plaza locations and food offerings were modified to serve the 1980’s traveler better.

The toll system was computerized, and would use the now familiar 2”x5” ticket with a magnetic strip containing fare information. The system weighed all vehicles passing through toll lanes. The commission also approved use of the abandoned tunnels for Safety Testing and Research (STAR) which includes nighttime reflectivity tests, development/testing of rumble strips, sign reflectivity tests and Traffic barrier effectiveness, accident investigation training, heat lamp tests lead paint removal, a "road nail" system and the USDOT "Intelligent Vehicle Initiative.

The last remaining two-lane tunnel on the Turnpike was the Lehigh Tunnel on the Northeastern Extension. Work got underway on February 14, 1989. On June 13, 1990, crews working from both ends of the mountain "holed through" and completed their work by November 22, 1991, when the new Lehigh Tunnel opened for business. The new Lehigh Tunnel is 4,380 feet long. The tunnel's opening was historic because for the first time there was a four-lane highway the entire 506-mile length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike system.

On October 31, 1989, the turnpike saw its two Billionth traveler.

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1990The 1990’s
Ross family ribbon cut 1990

The first spades of earth were turned on Turnpike 60, the James E. Ross Highway in Beaver County, launching the 1990's as the next decade of expansion. It was the first major Turnpike expansion since the construction of the Northeast Extension in 1958. The section from US 422 to PA 108 was the first part to open, and the rest of the roadway opened one year later. It was constructed on time and under budget. The Act 61 projects had many other components that were completed in the 1990s including the Beaver Valley Climbing Lane, Lehigh Tunnel Number 2, the Downingtown Interchange Expansion, the Keyser Avenue Interchange, the Mid-County Interchange and the Beaver Valley Expressway.

The Northeastern Extension was also upgraded in the 1990s, including the addition of a second Lehigh Tunnel on November 22, 1991. The new 4,400-foot tube was built using a New Austrian Tunnel Method (NATM) in its construction. Previous tunnels built along the Pennsylvania Turnpike involved the blasting through rock which was then stabilized by a steel superstructure. The NATM method utilized a fast-hardening concrete mixture called "shotcrete" which was sprayed on the rocks making a steel superstructure unnecessary. The Northeastern Extension itself received designation as an interstate highway in November of 1996 when it shed its designation as PA Route 9 and became known as Interstate 476.

The original Turnpike was now 50 years old, and needed to be rebuilt. This began in 1998 and targeted a section between mileposts 94 and 99 near Somerset County. Reconstruction work continued eastward on mileposts 76 to 85 and mileposts 187 to 197. Emergency call boxes were made available across the entire Turnpike System.


And a baby was born … On September 14, 1998 near Gibsonia a newborn baby girl was found on the shoulder of the westbound lanes. A registered nurse was passing by and stopped. A medical helicopter landed at the Gibsonia maintenance shed and brought the baby to Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital. Amazingly, the baby did not suffer any major injuries.

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2000The 2000’s

By the 2000 decade, the original 160-mile route was 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.

The decade from 2000-2010 saw an increase in the use of intelligent devices to monitor the roadway and travel conditions. Roadway cameras, a highway advisory radio system, a truck rollover alert, a truck height alert system, fog detection system, a traffic flow detection system and weather stations were put in place along the turnpike. The commission started its public information program, TRIP, which alerts the public to travel conditions via web, phone, email and txt messages.

In 2005, the "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" highway reauthorization bill passed. This bill provided that the Interstate 376 designation would be given to the James E. Ross Highway from PA 51 to I-76, and also provided for improvements to the associated expressways such as the cloverleaf at US 22/US 30 – although the improvements did not have to be completed for 25 years.

In stages throughout the decade, E-ZPass was implemented across the turnpike. The PTC partnered with the Marriott Corporation to upgrade service plazas with new parking lot/lighting, new sanitary and wastewater treatment facilities, and renovated dining rooms.

meet Raymond

Act 44 was passed by the Pennsylvania legislature in July 2007, establishing for the first time ever an inflation sensitive, long-term funding stream to address Pennsylvania’s transportation funding crisis. Based on traffic and revenue forecasts, the Act provides minimum payments to PennDOT of $83.3 billion over a 50-year period for transportation maintenance and improvements in Pennsylvania by converting I-80 to a tolled facility, increasing existing Mainline Turnpike Tolls, and issuing Monetization Bonds based on future toll revenues.

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20102010 and beyond

The decade from 2010-2020 will see more of the Act 61 projects completed. The Mon-Fayette Expressway and Southern Beltway are scheduled for a 2015 completion and the I-95 interchange project is slated to be done in 2017.

Reconstruction across the highway will continue and the roadway will get new grading, new drainage systems, new pavement, new guide rails, and a new median widened to 18 feet. Larger shoulders will allow easier access for emergency vehicles.

Environmental awareness will expand. The original concrete from highway reconstruction projected is being recycled to provide a base for the new highway. The main administration building electrical needs are purchased from wind-generated power facilities. The commission will continue to explore new ways to conserve and recycle.

Tolling of I-80, discussed in Act 44, was rejected by the Federal highways administration. Funding for the Pennsylvania Turnpike and all Pennsylvania transportation funding will need to be re-evaluated and restructured. The Turnpike commission plans to improve customer service, continue to reconstruct and maintain the roadway, and is exploring new revenue sources.

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Pennsylvania Turnpike Historic Photos

High-Res Photos

Pennsylvania Turnpike 75th Anniversary Video

Click here to download a copy of the video (25MB Zip archive).

Pennsylvania Turnpike Timeline Video

“Pennsylvania Turnpike, I Love You” – composed by Vaughn Horton in the late 1970’s

America’s Dream Highway

Click here to download a copy of the video (25MB Zip archive).