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The 1940s: Construction

The founding fathers of the PA Turnpike, the original Commissioners, made history by convincing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to grant them federal funding to create America’s First superhighway.

Pictured here is Commissioner Charles T. Carpenter, Commissioner Thomas J. Evans, Executive Secretary and General Counsel John D. Faller, Chairman Walter A. Jones, Chief Engineer Samuel W. Marshall, Commissioner Frank Bebout and Secretary of Highways I. Lamont Hughes.

In a span of 23 months 160-miles of pavement was poured to construct the original Turnpike. The roadway also consisted of:
200 feet of right-a-way
12 foot-wide concrete traffic lanes
10 feet of median strip
A total roadway width of 78 feet
A maximum grade of 3 percent and curvature of 6 degrees
Limited access with 1,200 foot long entrance and exit ramps

You cannot find cross streets, driveways, traffic signals or railroad crossings anywhere on the PA Turnpike.

Completing the original tunnels was the most challenging part of the construction of the Turnpike. Six out of seven of the tunnels were already partially constructed by the abandoned South Pennsylvania Railroad project but had not been “holed through.”

Work on the tunnels consisted of drilling, detonating, clearing rubble, reinforcing walls and floors, enlarging and reshaping entrances and exits and more.

Originally called ticket offices, 11 interchanges were built at Middlesex, Carlisle, Blue Mountain, Willow Hill, Fort Littleton, Breezewood, Bedford, Somerset, Donegal, New Stanton and Irwin. A single ticket office served both Carlisle and Middlesex.

Later renamed Carlisle, as the original Carlisle exit was eventually closed, the construction of the Middlesex ticket office is pictured here.

Ten service plazas, located 25 to 30 miles apart, were constructed with the original Turnpike. Allowing customers to rest, eat or buy fuel during their travels, the total cost of the plaza construction was $500,000.

Continued today, the Commission leased the plazas to outside vendors. Originally, Standard Oil Co of PA held the lease and subcontracted the dining areas and gift shops to Howard Johnson’s.

Pictured here is South Midway Service Plaza on Memorial Day, 1941.

The original PA Turnpike construction project gathered thousands of workers to Pennsylvania’s southern tier. By the spring of 1940, 15,000 workers were on the job with contracts awarded to 155 companies or subcontractors from 18 different states. With the country in the depths of the Great Depression the small surge in employment was a great boost to Pennsylvania’s economy.

When America entered World War II in 1941 highway travel, like all other facets of American life, was changed greatly.

Gasoline rationing was imposed causing passenger vehicle numbers to greatly decrease. With the movement of materials in convoys the number of trucks rose significantly. PA Turnpike engineers and supervisors, who had just built the original Turnpike in only 23 months, went immediately to wartime work building airports and defense installations in the United States and abroad.

On October 1, 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened to traffic and ushered in a new era of transportation. The original Turnpike spanned from Middlesex in Cumberland County to Irwin in Westmoreland County and consisted of 160 miles of four-lane-all-concrete highway, seven tunnels, eleven interchanges and ten service plazas. A modern marvel, built in just 23 months.

As word spread that the Turnpike offered a dream highway experience, thousands of motorists flocked to the highway daily. In its first 12 months, the Turnpike carried 2.4 million vehicles, nearly twice the original projection of 1.3 million.

Here, cars line up to pay their toll exiting the Blue Mountain Interchange opening weekend.

Today, sign colors and verbiage are dictated by state and federal guidelines. But, when the PA Turnpike first opened, engineers had to create a new informative art form.

The original, black and white highway signs seen along the Turnpike – this one photographed in 1941 one mile from the New Stanton Interchange – used reflective glass beads imbedded in the letters for better nighttime visibility.

The 1950s

In the early 1950s, speed and crossover collisions were the highest factors for fatalities on the Turnpike. A number of enhancements were made to improve safety including these railroad-like signals placed on the median strip. For a time the speed limit on bridges was 45 mph as shown here.

In the 40s traffic was light enough on the Turnpike that motorists could stop to picnic on the grassy median strip. After World War II, traffic volumes became so heavy that there were a great number of head-on collisions. Beginning in 1953, the Commission continued to address the safety concerns by installing guard rail, pictured here near Somerset.

To construct the Turnpike, the Commission had to acquire private properties. St. John the Baptist, in New Baltimore, was one of the many properties that lay in the path. But the church had a cemetery and state law prohibited graveyards from being acquired by eminent domain. As part of an informal mitigation agreement, the church agreed to relocate the graves and allow passage in exchange for a physical connection to the roadway. Steps were built that started on the Turnpike and led up to the church.

While the steps are no longer in use, travelers today can still see the church and the stairwell remnants just east of the Allegheny Tunnel.

Borrowing a page from the autobahns, planners designed the original service plaza buildings to resemble regional architecture – in this case, early Pennsylvania stone houses.

Built by 18 firms under 27 contracts, the Western Extension covers rugged territory, crossing two major rivers and goes from Pittsburgh to Northeast Ohio. The extension was opened in stages, first, from Irwin to Pittsburgh, on August 7, 1951; then to the Gateway interchange at the Ohio line, on December 26, 1951.

The rapid increase in traffic was wearing out the original 1940 concrete road surface, and in 1954 the first repaving – with a three inch layer of asphalt project began. By 1962, the entire 160-mile original turnpike had been resurfaced.

The 1950s was a decade of expansion to the east. Before the Turnpike had even opened to traffic, Act 11 authorized the Turnpike Commission to reach eastward to Philadelphia.

On November 20, 1950, the Philadelphia Extension opened to traffic and connected a 100-mile segment of Carlisle to Valley Forge. Another monumental event occurred in November of 1957 when the 110-mile Northeastern Extension opened and connected Clarks Summit to Philadelphia.

Constructed and jointly financed with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the Delaware River Bridge opened on May 23, 1956. With a length of 6,571 feet it is the longest bridge on the Turnpike’s system.

With the bridge’s opening motorists could now travel between Maine and the Indiana-Ohio border (soon to be extended to Chicago) entirely on limited-access highways.

The 1960s

By 1960, the Turnpike was preparing to count its 200 millionth vehicle.

To accommodate traffic growth four tunnels were expanded to four lanes, thanks to the addition of a second tube. Pictured here is the ribbon-cutting event for the Allegheny Tunnel on March 15, 1965.

The original Turnpike’s longest tunnel, Sideling Hill (6,782 feet) and its shortest, Rays Hill (3,532 feet) had large backups due to congestion. It was determined by engineers that the best way to ease congestion at the single tubes was to abandon those tunnels and channel traffic over a new 13.5 mile-long bypass. A third truck-climbing lane was also added at each end.

This scenic photo along the Northeastern Extension was used to illustrate a New York Times travel feature about the Turnpike’s 25th anniversary in 1964 stating that the roadway is, “the first of the great modern toll routes, [and] grows older and broader...”

There is a lot more to running one of the largest and oldest toll road systems than meets the eyes. It takes the skills and talents of many employees to keep customers safe and traffic moving. This early plow shows what the Turnpike is known for – keeping the roadway safe and traffic moving even during the worst conditions.

Technology and design had come a long way since the original tunnels were built. For motorists, the biggest change in the 60s was the new bright interior look in tunnels, thanks to white-tile walls and fluorescent lighting. The new features were both easier to clean and maintain than the old recessed lighting and concrete lining. Other improvements were a new ventilation system and new portal buildings.

Many families traveled the PA Turnpike strictly for leisure during the early years. After taking in the sights of the tunnels, bridges and scenery, many would stop and picnic along the side of the highway or visit a Howard’s Johnson service plaza to have a sit-down dinner.

The 1970s

The diverse scenes and settings along the Pennsylvania Turnpike are products of the geographic splendor of our state, its seasonal changes and the remarkable people and places of Pennsylvania. From mountaintops to riverbeds, rural villages to urban centers, you can see it all.

In December of 1973, a 55-mph restriction was enforced on the Turnpike because of a fuel supply crisis. The total vehicle volume dropped from 57 million in 1973 to 55 million in 1974 and 1975 before edging back up to 57 million in 1976.

The Turnpike marked the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 with construction of a 320-space park and ride lot for eastbound motorists at the Valley Forge Service Plaza. Tourists could park and catch a 10-minute shuttle bus to the Valley Forge National Military Park. Signs were placed at every toll booth celebrating the “Spirit of 76.”

In the 1970s the Turnpike had become such an integral part of Pennsylvania life that it surfaced in advertising and pop culture. A tire maker manufactured and marketed Pennsylvania Turnpike tires. A rock group, based near Harrisburg, named itself The Pennsylvania Turnpike. Later, radio stations began playing a country tune titled “Pennsylvania Turnpike I love You.”

By the early 1970s median barriers were placed across the entire Turnpike system, shown here. As traffic incidents continued to occur regularly, the Commission adopted additional safety measures including a reduced-speed limit.

This photograph was taken on September 22, 1972 looking north at oncoming traffic entering the Harrisburg East Interchange. The PA Turnpike uses a dual system for classifying cars of both axle count and weight of each vehicle.

The 1980s

An electronic call box system to aid travelers was tested first in western Pennsylvania and then installed systemwide. The initial phase was completed in December 1988 with a call box located at every mile along the PA Turnpike.

Here are ribbons of traffic taken at night from an overhead bridge on Route 283, showing the approach lanes at the Harrisburg East Interchange in Dauphin County. In the 80s customers knew the exit as number 19, but it has since been changed to exit 247 to incorporate the new interstate milepost renumbering system in 2000.

By the mid-1980s the fast-food trend was well-established, and a new look came to all of the service plazas. Fast food dining and drive-through windows, at some locations, replaced the cozy, sit-down atmosphere of the original Howard Johnson’s Turnpike restaurants.

Pictured here is the Hempfield Service Plaza, in Westmoreland County, which was modified with a popular fast-food concept. It was later closed in 2007 as part of a roadway reconstruction project.

The Lehigh Tunnel broke ground in February 1989 eliminating the last remaining stretch of two-lane roadway on the Turnpike. This project was the first highway construction project in the U.S. to use the New Austrian tunneling method (NATM). NATM takes advantage of strength available in the surrounding rock mass to stabilize the tunnel.

Shown here are workers meeting in the middle after mining from the northside of the mountain, in Carbon County, and the southside, Lehigh County, on June 13, 1990.

In 1980 the Turnpike saw 63 million motorists travel its system. the figure rose to 97.4 million by 1989. The average daily traffic count of 270,000 in 1989 was 75 times the level predicted for the original Middlesex-Irwin Turnpike before it opened in 1940. Traffic volume reached a ceremonial milestone on October 31, 1989, when the commission welcomed its two-billionth traveler.

The first Act 61 construction work, which allowed the Commission to pursue new projects, was a $120 million six-lane widening of the main line near Philadelphia. On March 10, 1986, work began on a 17-mile stretch between the Philadelphia Interchange and the Northeastern Extension junction. It was opened on November 23, 1987.

Computerization of the toll collection system went into effect in 1987. The new system weighed vehicles, both at entry and exit, to calculate the fare. All tickets were dispensed automatically at the tollbooths and contained a magnetic strip encoded with fare and vehicle information.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, several short extensions were planned, to improve access for economically distressed areas. Groundbreakings accord for both the James E. Ross Highway, also known as the Beaver Valley Expressway, and the Amos K. Hutchinson Bypass, or Greensburg Bypass, both in southwestern PA.

The 1990s

To adjust to the increase in traffic, a southbound side of the Lehigh Tunnel was completed in 1991. This eliminated the final two-lane section on the entire Turnpike system. For the opening ceremonies, Governor Robert P. Casey rode a 1909 Peerless automobile through the tunnel.

The massive total reconstruction project for the entire Turnpike, which involves digging up the original 1940 road and replacing it with a wider median and shoulder, began in the summer of 1998.

Administrative growth prompted a need for more room for Turnpike employees. The central office staff outgrew the space in the administration building at Highspire, just off the Harrisburg East Interchange. To cope with the need for larger quarters, the Commission leased space in a nearby hotel and placed modular offices on the property. A gutting and refurbishing project of the administration building began in September 1999.

The volume of cars and trucks rose to 121 million a year by the mid-1990s, up from 100 million at the beginning of the decade. The 90s became a decade of expansion to accommodate the increased traffic.

While the 90s brought growth and expansion in construction to the PA Turnpike, it also became a decade of lasting innovations. In 1993, the Commission began to coordinate with several other toll roads to begin electronic toll collection — permitting travel without stopping at a tollbooth. 27 years later the entire PA Turnpike converted to All-Electronic Tolling.

The largest and most expensive interchange in Turnpike history, the 17 lane Mid-County Interchange, opened fully in 1992. Mid-County links the mainline Turnpike, the Northeastern Extension and Interstate 476.

The Turnpike entered the on-line age of the Internet on April 29, 1996, when it launched its first website. The original site featured an interactive travel map, a toll and mileage calculator, a complete travel weather forecast service, monthly construction schedules and telephone numbers.

As the use of cellular car phones grew, in April of 1992 the Turnpike expanded a pilot emergency-service program to systemwide use. Drivers could now call *-1-1 on their cell phone keypads to report accidents or summon help.

The 2000s

The Traffic Operations Center, originally located, and pictured here, in the Central Administration Building is an emergency 911 dispatch and traffic management center. Duty officers handle a wide variety of calls relating to incidents on the roadway and dispatch fire, emergency medical services, State Police, tow trucks and Hazardous Materials Response Teams for customers in need.

In 2000 the first five mile section of the statewide total reconstruction initiative was completed between milepost 94 to 99 in Westmoreland County. When total reconstruction is completed, the entire Turnpike will be a six-lane highway.

By the 2000 decade, the original 160-mile PA Turnpike was expanded to 514 miles, carrying 156.2 million vehicle a year at a toll of just over 4.1 cents per mile.

Many changes occurred in 2000 including the renumbering of the original exits to coincide with the mile marker of their location.

On December 2, 2000, the Turnpike launched E-ZPass electronic toll collection for passenger vehicles, only between exits 18 and 33. During this trial period 30,000 passenger vehicles were pre-enrolled and more than 55.6 million transactions occurred through E-ZPass within the first year. The system went statewide in 2001 and commercial vehicles were included in 2002.

Today, eight out of every 10 transactions on the Turnpike are paid through an E-ZPass.

Opening in the early 2000s, the Joe Montana Bridge carries Turnpike 43 over Mingo Creek in Washington County. The girder bridge was named after the Pro Football Hall of Famer and local high school football star Joe Montana. With a height of 255 feet it's the highest bridge on the Turnpike’s system.

On June 1, 2003, the Warrendale Interchange opened to traffic. This 13-lane mainline plaza became the new western limit for the ticket system.

The new plaza had the first PA Turnpike express E-ZPass lanes, which allowed motorists to pay their tolls while continuing to drive at 55 mph. Included in the construction was a direct connector to I-79 which helped to eliminate some of the congestion on State Route 19 in a quickly growing area of Cranberry Twp., PA.

On June 7, 2007, Oakmont Plum became the first travel plaza on the Turnpike system to be completely rebuilt as part of a service plaza redevelopment plan. With the constant increase in traffic, the plazas were no longer efficiently serving the needs of travelers. Under the plan, the service plazas were revitalized with larger buildings, more varied food options, outdoor dining areas and more.

Opened to traffic on May 16, 2007, the Susquehanna River Bridge was the state's first major, segmental-concrete bridge. The six lane, 1.1 mile-long bridge replaced a 4-lane structure from the 1950s.

Before traffic crossed the bridge, the Commission held a community-fun day. A Once & Done Turnpike Run allowed pedestrians the chance to walk or run on the bridge before any cars.

The 2010s

In 2017, the PA Turnpike launched the Art Sparks program, a partnership between the PCA’s Arts in Education residency program and the PTC to bring student-created artwork to service plazas across the PTC’s 550-mile system. Eventually all 17 service plazas will have installed art created by local art students.

Turnpike signage has played a large part in keeping the traveling public aware of important information such as closures and inclement weather. In the 2010s the Go Orange campaign was launched to promote driving safely through work zones. Signage now warned motorists when they were approaching a work zone so that they had plenty of time to slow down.

In September of 2018, the PA Turnpike celebrated the opening of a long-awaited interchange connecting Interstates 95 and 276 (the PA Turnpike) in Bucks County. The new interchange completed I-95’s missing link, making the interstate continuous from Florida to Maine.

Here is the newly renovated South Midway Plaza in 2013, which kept its original classic style, and is now a flashback in time with all the modern conveniences. The plaza also houses a display of original Turnpike memorabilia.

Despite the Turnpike’s long history as a high-speed roadway, officials decided in 2001, as a safety measure, to drop the speed limit to 55 mph on a 55-mile stretch in western PA. The section was chosen due to the S curves while traveling through the mountains. After the speed was lowered the Troop T Somerset State Police reported a 100% reduction in fatalities in that stretch in the year following the change.

By 2010 the Pennsylvania Turnpike statewide total reconstruction initiative had completed 13 projects including new bridges, more six-lane widening and added roadway safety features.

To help improve traffic flow on the Allegheny River Bridge, the original structure was demolished and reconstructed between 2007 to 2010.

To maintain traffic through construction, the eastbound side of the bridge was first completed in 2009. To construct the westbound, the steel structure needed to be imploded. On a Tuesday in 2010, traffic was stopped for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, and river traffic was stopped for only 24 hours for cleanup of the debris from the bridge. The new bridge is a cast-in-place concrete segmental bridges and is the first of its type in Pennsylvania.

The Mon/Fayette Expressway is a culmination of more than 30 years of work. On August 2, 2012 Phase 2 of the Uniontown to Brownville Project opened to traffic completing nearly 60-miles of the expressway system. In April 2013 the Turnpike dedicated the 3,022 foot long, 200 foot high Mon River bridge to fallen Vietnam War Pfc. Ronald C. “Smokey” Bakewell.

In an effort to shorten commute times, lighten rush-hour volumes at neighboring Turnpike interchanges and reduce congestion improving safety and accessibility across the region, slip ramps were added. The Route 29 slip ramp was the first four way, all access interchange added to the turnpike system in 2012.

The 2020s

In January of 2020, the Pennsylvania Traffic Incident Management Enhancement (PennTIME) program celebrated its third anniversary. PennTIME is a partnership of federal, state, county and municipal agencies who have joined forces to educate both first responders and the public while developing programs to promote stronger traffic incident management (TIM) safety practices at roadway incidents in Pennsylvania.

In its first three years, PennTIME has conducted 251 TIM Training classes statewide training over 6,000 emergency responders.

Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, on March 16, 2020, Governor Tom Wolf mandated all counties in Pennsylvania to follow a stay-at-home order, restricting all non-essential outings, in the Commonwealth. For safety reasons, the PA Turnpike was forced to move to an All-Electronic Tolling system and close all dining and public restrooms inside service plazas.

Plazas were quickly reopened on March 19 for the many truckers continuing to work and delivering supplies during the pandemic. While most services were still limited, indoor restroom facilities, convenience stores and some dining options were reopened.

During the COVID-19 outbreak passenger traffic dropped due to stay-at-home measures but commercial traffic remained steady. The first week of March 2020 traffic totals were 3.8 million. By the second week of April traffic had dropped below 1.5 million a week.

During the statewide stay-at-home order, Governor Wolf ordered construction projects to be put on hold across the state, to stop the spread of the virus. March 30, 2020 projects were given the go ahead as long as precautions were followed on the job sites.

Work on the monumental project, the Southern Beltway, located in Allegheny and Washington counties, restarted at the beginning of May.

On June 2, 2020 a unanimous decision was made by the Commissioners to keep All-Electronic Tolling (AET) in place permanently. Originally the conversion was scheduled for the fall of 2021, but with the uncertainties of what will occur during the ongoing pandemic, AET is a safer option. Here a Digital Message Sign is alerting motorists that AET is in place at all toll plazas.

With the switch to All-Electronic Tolling, a new era of innovation was ushered in on the PA Turnpike. At every interchange customers now have two payment options. If they are not an E-ZPass customer, overhead cameras capture a picture of their license plate when entering and exiting the system. They are sent a TOLL BY PLATE invoice in the mail.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Turnpike partnered with Penn State University to commence site planning and design for the Pennsylvania Safety, Transportation and Research Track, (PennSTART) a state-of-the-art facility envisioned to benefit emergency responders, transportation organizations and research institutions.

The facility is anticipated to be operational in the near future and will benefit emergency responders, transportation organizations, and research institutions.

2020 became a milestone year for work zone safety. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Turnpike implemented a statewide Automated Work Zone Speed Enforcement (AWZSE) program to improve work zone safety for workers and motorists.

AWZSE uses portable systems to detect and record vehicles exceeding work zone posted speed limits by 11 miles per hour or more using electronic speed timing devices.