Today in Tedium: If you’ve had a chance to ride on Interstate 180 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, you might have noticed something strange about the road. Despite being called an “interstate,” which implies a certain set of rules about what the road should look like, it doesn’t look anything like a freeway. In fact, it’s the only interstate highway in the continental United States that doesn’t meet federal standards for being an interstate highway. The road is roughly a mile long and has four stoplights—or if you’re a perfectionist, exits. Today’s Tedium is about I-180, and similar aberrations in the U.S. Interstate Highway System. We’re going on a road trip, America. — Ernie @ Tedium
The total cost of the interstate highway system, when adjusted for inflation into 2015 dollars. (That number is based on a 2006 inflation estimate by USA Today’s late founder, Al Neuharth, which estimated the then-inflated total at $425 billion.) When completed in 1991, the total cost over the 35-year building process was $128.9 billion, with federal funds paying for roughly 90 percent of that total. After completion, the states own and operate the final result.
This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About
There are a lot of dull highways, but you probably won’t find one much duller than the 37-mile stretch of Interstate 80 in Utah where there is literally a whole lot of nothing.
The area around the Bonneville Salt Flats is the longest stretch of straight Interstate in the entire country, with only a rest stop about eight miles in offering your eyes a break from the flat straightness of the highway. Now, there are longer straight highways in the U.S.—among them Highway 46 in North Dakota, which goes for 123 miles with only a handful of slight turns—but what really sets I-80 apart is the flatness of the land and the lack of exits. No trees, no curves, nothing.
Basically, there are only three things to do in this general area:
Get off at exit 4—but be sure to travel from the west, so you don’t have to drive 37 miles with nary an exit in sight—so you can see land-speed record attempts at the Bonneville Speedway.
Drive past mile-marker 26, after committing to driving this God-forsaken stretch of land, so you can see Metaphor, the Tree of Utah, a man-made art structure in the middle of nowhere. (Swedish artist Karl Momen built it in the 1980s.) Since you’ll be driving by at 80 miles an hour, it won’t exactly feel worth it, so this book might be a better way to appreciate it.
Get out of your vehicle and, uh, appreciate the salt. The reason it’s there is because it once existed as part of an ancient lake that dried up.
If you don’t want to find yourself on this desolate highway, you’re in luck—as Kyle Motch, a YouTuber who has made a name for himself by driving down unusual roads, has made the trek, which you can watch right here.
It’s an easier drive when you can skip back and forth in a video on the internet.
“Rest areas are to be provided on Interstate highways as a safety measure. Safety rest areas are off-road spaces with provisions for emergency stopping and resting by motorists for short periods.”
— The official policy set up by the American Association of State Highway Officials in 1958, when deciding on the necessity for rest areas. The rule, in general, is that there should be at least one rest stop every half hour. However, rest areas have gotten the short end of the stick over the years, and have come up as a frequent target of budget cuts. Part of the problem may be their image. “People don’t see it as an academic thing because it’s a bathroom,” historian Joanna Dowling, the creator of Rest Area History, told the Wall Street Journal in 2009.
Five Noteworthy Quirks of the Interstate Highway System
- Baltimore’s Interstate 170 is frequently derided by residents as the “highway to nowhere,” which is understandable, because the 1.4 mile road went through numerous neighborhoods during its path of destruction—a destruction that proved an absolute waste after the connecting Interstate 70 was prevented from going any further into the city.
- Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico each have interstate highways—despite the fact that their “interstate” highways clearly don’t touch another state. The reason for this is that the term “interstate” is a reference to how the road is paid for—that is, with federal funds—rather than where it connects. The roads in Alaska and Puerto Rico, however, are not required by law to meet federal Interstate standards, and as a result, don’t have signage up reflecting the fact that they’re funded like interstate highways.
- At two different spots along its route—in Texas and Minnesota—Interstate 35 splits off into I-35E and I-35W. No other interstate in the country splits off in this way, instead splitting off into three-number auxiliary routes such as I-295 or I-480.
- Perhaps the smallest town with a three-number auxiliary route is Hennepin, Illinois. The town, population 722, was nonetheless considered worthy of I-180, a 10-mile spur of interstate highway. Why’s that? Well, at the time the highway was built in the 1960s, it led to a steel mill. Steel, you see, is an important material in building defense materials—and defense is why the interstate highway system exists. (Side note: Why does I-80 get all the weird stuff?)
- Pennsylvania shouldn’t have an Interstate 99, but it does. See, the intended layout of the U.S. interstate system would require an interstate with a number that high to be pretty much on the edge of the Eastern seaboard due to the Interstate’s grid setup. But instead, it runs through State College. You can thank former Rep. Bud Shuster, who represented a district that I-99 travels through, for that—he had its unusual designation written into law in 1995.
“The whole theory was to appeal to homeowners, no matter what race they were. Our movement was unique. It was blacks and whites in a common effort, an integrated group, working in their own interests. That was the significant thing. It was an issue that united people.”
— Reginald H. Booker, the chairman of the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis, a Washington, DC-based group that successfully fought against the bulk of the U.S. Interstate system that was earmarked for the District during the 1960s and 1970s. The result of the work of Booker and others led much of the money intended for the interstate to instead go towards the creation of the city’s Metro system, which—complaints notwithstanding—is still one of the best examples of a mass transit system in the United States. It also saved a lot of neighborhoods throughout the District. Other cities weren’t so lucky.
As originally planned, the interstate system is largely complete, though sections are still being built to this day. Perhaps the section with the most potential is Interstate 69, a road that’s intended to extend from Port Huron, Michigan to Laredo, Texas when complete.
Initially, the road only extended to Indianapolis, but it eventually drew attention as a potential way to connect trade between Canada and Mexico, so a plan to extend it was hatched.
The result has been controversial over the years—concerns about splitting up small towns, who wins and who loses, environmental impact, stuff like that. The end result may never connect into a single whole, perhaps because we’re not crazy about interstates like we used to be.
The drama around I-69 eventually became worthy of a full book. Matt Dellinger, a onetime writer for The New Yorker, attempted to split the controversy about the highway down the middle.
“Everyone was always asking me, ‘Is your book for or against I-69?’ And I had the hardest time explaining to them that it was neither,” Dellinger said in an interview. “In fact, there was a publisher who I think turned down the book because they wanted it to be a polemic one way or another. I guess they thought that might have sold better.”
The fight over I-69 has a lot in common with the battle over high-speed rail. People hate the money that has to be set aside and the messy work of getting the actual routes built, but once they are, they’ll never really complain again.
But unlike high-speed rail, the federal government loves building freeways, even if they don’t go anywhere or they destroy neighborhoods in the process.