In Part 1 of this article, the early history of the Pennsylvania Turnpike was highlighted. In Part 2, an overview of the Turnpike from its opening in 1940 until now was provided. In Part 3, more details about the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s construction and key issues are provided.
Behind the scenes details
As noted in Part 1, one of the earliest proponents of the Pennsylvania Turnpike was the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association (PMTA), and its national counterpart (the American Trucking Associations). However, in the months leading up to the Turnpike’s opening, the associations were in negotiations with PTC officials regarding the round-trip tolls for trucks (motorists were going to receive a discount when they bought a round-trip ticket rather than a one-way ticket). The associations also sought reduced rates for high-volume users.
A Fourth of July opening was originally scheduled, and the prime rumor was that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would cut the ribbon. However, poor weather slowed work on the final Turnpike tasks, and the opening ceremonies were postponed.
The National Guard and dignitaries see the Turnpike first-hand
The first major “unofficial” use of the Turnpike took place on August 6, 1940. A military convoy of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 108th Field Artillery battalion made a 135-mile trip from the Indiantown Gap military reservation (north of the state capital of Harrisburg) to Bedford. Of the 135 miles the convoy traveled, 85 miles was on the unfinished Turnpike. The training exercise took over eight hours due to equipment breakdowns and a detour around the Blue Mountain and Kittatinny Mountain tunnels because of ongoing construction in the area.
Later that month, PTC chair Walter Jones organized a two-day motorcade for 175 guests, including members of Congress. The tour began on August 25 in Harrisburg; the caravan began heading westward on the new superhighway the next morning. The group made frequent stops to “inspect toll booths, tunnels, ventilation fans, the Clear Ridge Cut, and for lunch at 1:00 p.m. at the Midway service plaza.”
So when is the Turnpike opening?
Despite the successful tour, many were beginning to wonder when the Turnpike would actually open. As pointed out in Part 1 of this article, the original deadline given by the federal Public Works Administration had been June 1, 1940. Because no dedication date had been set, a number of bondholders voiced their anxiety.
Moreover, toll rates had still not been decided. On September 11, 1940, the Turnpike commissioners approved the first toll schedule, which was approximately $.01/mile for automobiles ($1.50 for the full length of the 160-mile highway), and $2.50 for a round-trip. Truck tolls were based on weight and vehicle class, and ranged from $3 to $10. The PMTA was vocal, calling the toll rates too high, and it urged its members to boycott the Turnpike.
The Turnpike commissioners met again on Monday, September 30. Chairman Jones announced that afternoon that the Turnpike would open at a minute past midnight the next day, October 1. In the end there were no ribbon-cuttings and no ceremonies.
12 hours notice didn’t stop the crowds
Even though Jones’ notice about the Turnpike’s opening was given less than 12 hours before “America’s first superhighway” would open, the news spread rapidly. Radio stations broadcast the news repeatedly; by 6:00 p.m. motorists were lined up at toll booths along both sides of the Turnpike to be among the first to take a ride on the highway.
As the appointed time came in Irwin, “attendants waved the lines of vehicles forward, began stamping and handing out the first yellow toll tickets.” Not so fast, though. Before the first motorists began their trips, they were congratulated by local officials and interviewed by reporters…
The first driver through the Irwin toll plaza was Carl A. Boe of McKeesport. But before he could start his journey, he was waved down by two men from Greensburg; they were the first hitchhikers on the Turnpike (hitchhiking was later banned by law, as it is on the Interstate Highway System). A father from Pittsburgh with his school-aged son and daughter made an overnight round-trip just for fun. As they waited in line to start their journey, their father told reporters, “We filled the tank with gas and the car full of sandwiches. I promised to have the kids back in time for school tomorrow.”
At the Carlisle end of the Turnpike, the first car to pass through the toll booths was owned by Homer D. Romberger, a local feed and tallow dealer. He had also been among those at the groundbreaking ceremonies on the Eberly farm less than two years earlier. Other Turnpike firsts at Carlisle included: the first out-of-state traveler, Bruce Carroll, on a journey back to his home in Ohio; the first commercial vehicle on an interstate journey (bound for Steubenville, Ohio); and the first heavy truck loaded with potatoes. Twenty cars and four trucks passed through the Carlisle toll plaza in its first hour of operation.
After a few hours the first drivers began reaching the Turnpike’s other end. They proudly told of driving at 80 and sometimes even 90 mph – while not having to worry about cross-traffic – or speeding tickets from the Pennsylvania Motor Police.
When it opened, the Turnpike did not have a speed limit. After test cars reached 80, 90 and even 100 mph on the Turnpike, Governor Arthur James agreed that the normal statewide limit of 50 mph would not work on the new superhighway. But the Pennsylvania Attorney General convinced James that a speed limit was needed.
Therefore, a week before the highway opened, it was announced that the Turnpike would have a 50 mph speed limit. However, the speed limit was ignored by motorists – and the troopers who patrolled the highway. At toll booths, drivers asked attendants what the speed limit was; most received the answer, “Drive carefully.” An Ohio trucker who expected to get a speeding ticket told this story: “I was going down one of those grades at 70 to 80 miles an hour. I looked in the mirror and saw a white car following me. I didn’t know whether I was going to get arrested, so I pulled off the road as though to take a rest. The white car pulled off, too. An officer got out and asked me, ‘How do you like the road?’ I said, ‘It’s very nice – I guess I get a ticket.’ The cop told me, ‘No, we aren’t interested in the speed limit. As long as you stay on your own side and watch yourself, we won’t bother you.’”
An early and unqualified success
As the first day of Turnpike operations ended, it was reported that 1,550 vehicles had entered the Turnpike at Irwin, and more than 1,900 at Carlisle. The daily log at the Bedford headquarters of the Pennsylvania Motor Police Turnpike Division noted: “No accidents, no arrests, and no unpleasantness.”
During its first 15 days of operation, more than 150,000 vehicles traveled on the Turnpike. However, many of these trips were one-time curiosity trips; the PTC still did not know how many cars and trucks would use the Turnpike once its novelty wore off.
Opposition to the Turnpike (and/or its tolls)
Continuing its protest against the toll rates on trucks, the PMTA urged its members to boycott the Turnpike while they kept negotiating for a reduction in truck tolls. The advantages in delivery time, fuel savings and driver comfort were real, however, and within weeks, intrastate and interstate trucks were using the Turnpike by the thousands.
A more serious issue was that the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (predecessor to the Federal Highway Administration) had predicted that only 715 vehicles per day would use the Turnpike. The bureau’s policies were anti-toll highways, and it was also against intercity limited access highways – either toll or free. While the Pennsylvania Turnpike was under construction, President Roosevelt asked Thomas MacDonald, the Bureau’s director, to conduct a study into building six national toll highways – three east-west and three north-south. However, MacDonald thought toll highways would never attract enough customers to repay their construction costs; he believed the improvement of urban highways was a higher priority. He did agree that a national system of highways was useful, but most needed to only have two lanes for much of their length. As the 1930s were ending, the total length of four-lane highways was only 11,000 miles – out of three million miles of U.S. highways.
The Bureau report to Congress was titled “Toll Roads and Free Roads.” In it, the Bureau “attacked a national system of toll superhighways as wasteful, presenting traffic estimates that showed that only 3,346 of the proposed 14,336 miles required more than two lanes.” Moreover (according to the Bureau), only 547 miles would return more than 70% of the receipts needed to retire the construction bonds. BPR analysts assumed that public resistance to tolls would deter traffic and that limited access would prevent superhighways from serving the local traffic that formed the majority of all trips. “The BPR simply believed toll highways were unprofitable.”
The Turnpike’s traffic counts confounded the critics. In his 1986 book Open Road, Phil Patton wrote, “The BPR had no notion that the construction of new superhighways, like the introduction of such inventions as the telephone and the auto itself, might create its own demand.”
A key impact of the Turnpike’s success was that it altered national highway policymaking. MacDonald’s (and the Bureau’s) opposition was based on the nation’s transportation needs of the 1930s. However, two factors emerged in the post-war years – the increase in the size and scope of the trucking industry (to the detriment of the railroads) and recreational travel. The Bureau was so wrong about toll highways that it lost much of its power to set the federal government’s highway agenda. From then onward, highway-related decisions were made by voter-sensitive officials rather than just the engineers. Because of the Turnpike’s success, Roosevelt and Congress developed the first draft of the plan for the Interstate Highway System (although nothing was actually done because of World War II).
By the end of 1940, the traffic totals for the first three months of Turnpike operation were impressive: 514,231 cars, 48,170 trucks and 2,409 buses had traveled on the highway. Total revenue was $562,464.
One issue that was highlighted was that cars built in the mid- to late 1930s were not built to travel at 80 mph (or even 60 mph) for long distances. Fortune magazine noted: “The Turnpike is the first American highway that is better than the American car. As such, it will represent the maximum in road construction for many years. It is proof against every road hazard except a fool and his car.” According to Engineering News-Record: “Excessive speed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike has been checked more by the experience…that cars and tires do not stand up under high sustained speed…than by any other means.” Engine overheating and tire blowouts were common occurrences along the highway in its early years.
In 1941 the PTC and the state trucking association reached an agreement on toll rates for trucks. Carriers that were volume users of the Turnpike received discounts as high as 20%. In addition, monthly fleet billings were also begun.
Then, on April 15, Governor James signed legislation that set the Turnpike speed limits at 70 mph for autos and between 50 and 65 for trucks (depending on their size and weight). The speed limit in the Turnpike’s tunnels was set at 35 mph.
With the Turnpike level of service well established, the media and public both looked toward the benefit of extending the comforts of superhighway travel east to west and north to south. In fact, four months before the Turnpike opened, Governor James signed legislation that authorized an eastward extension of the Turnpike to Philadelphia. The next year, James signed another bill into law that authorized the Turnpike’s extension westward.
During its first 12 months of operation, 2.4 million vehicles passed through Turnpike toll plazas; the PTC’s projection for first-year volume had only been 1.3 million vehicles. However, the Turnpike’s volume decreased dramatically after the United States entered World War II. The number of troop and war materiel movements along the Turnpike increased, but the number of civilian trips decreased.
World War II
The Federal Office of Defense Transportation imposed a 35 mph speed limit on all U.S. highways beginning in December 1941. That was followed by gasoline and tire rationing in March 1942. These and other factors caused a huge drop in Turnpike toll receipts and use (which fell 70% – from 2.1 million in 1941 to just 581,000 in 1943).
There was a major increase in the number of trucks on the Turnpike, however. Those numbers jumped from 48,000 in 1940 to about 300,000 in 1942, and that level was consistent throughout the rest of the war.
During the war a number of publications recognized the Turnpike’s role in moving military cargoes. According to the Pennsylvania construction industry’s magazine The Highway Builder, “Should the conflagration now destroying Europe ever blaze across the Atlantic to sear these shores, the Pennsylvania Turnpike would ably demonstrate its ability to adequately carry the heavy gear of war.” In another magazine the following was printed, “Over the Pennsylvania Turnpike (costing less than one battleship) a great army could be rushed eastward from beyond the mountains in the shortest possible time.”
Congress saw the military value of the Turnpike, and in 1944 legislation was passed that outlined a national system of limited-access highways. This became a basis for the Interstate Highway Act that was passed in the 1950s.
Post-World War II
Tire rationing ended in 1946; that year 2.4 million vehicles used the Turnpike (about the same number that used it during its first year of operation). The PTC established three separate operating and accounting divisions, each with its own bond issues to get extensions to Philadelphia and Ohio underway.
Then in 1947 Governor James H. Duff signed legislation that merged the proposed eastern and western extensions and the existing highway into one body. A bond sale to begin the Philadelphia Extension netted $87 million. This new highway was to be a 100-mile section from Middlesex to King of Prussia. Groundbreaking ceremonies occurred on September 28, 1948. Traffic on the original sections of the Turnpike continued to grow; in 1949, the Turnpike’s traffic totaled 3.8 million vehicles – three times the expected volume.
Success inspires imitation
The Pennsylvania Turnpike’s success influenced a number of other states to develop their own toll roads. Maine was the first to do so in 1945, when a 47-mile-long project that paralleled US 1 was authorized. (To read the FreightWaves Classics about the Maine Turnpike, click here.) Among the other states that also authorized toll roads were: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia.
Because of topography, the Turnpike’s Philadelphia Extension was not as difficult a task as the original project. No tunnels needed to be excavated and the land was not as hilly. However, a bridge did need to be built across the Susquehanna River. A 4,526-foot-long steel girder and concrete bridge was designed. At a cost of $5 million, the bridge was supplied and erected by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation.
In total, 17 companies were awarded 28 contracts for the Extension’s construction, which lasted two years. The new Philadelphia Extension was opened on November 15, 1950. The Turnpike’s eastern terminus was now 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia’s central business district.
Unlike the Philadelphia Extension, the Western Extension was quite a construction challenge. Its terrain was much more rugged, and it crossed two major rivers. A 2,180-foot-long bridge was built to cross the Allegheny River at Oakmont, while a 1,540-foot-long bridge was built over the Beaver River north of Beaver Falls.
This project was opened in sections: the Irwin to Pittsburgh section opened on August 7, 1951; the section from Pittsburgh to the Gateway Interchange opened on December 26, 1951. The final section was the Beaver Valley Interchange, which opened on March 1, 1952.
Turnpike expansion and upgrades
The new extensions had been designed with modifications from the original Turnpike. An additional sub-base was put down for better drainage and the roadway’s concrete mixture was adjusted. On the Western Extension, the design of its overpasses was changed from concrete arched bridges to all-steel. Design specifications were also different on the extensions: the Philadelphia Extension’s grades were 2% and its curves were 3%; the Western Extension’s grades were 3% and its curves 4%.
The new service plazas were also larger than the original ones. (As early as 1946 several of the older plazas were expanded.) Gulf Oil, which was headquartered in Pittsburgh, won the service plazas’ gasoline concession on both extensions; the restaurant services were once again subcontracted to Howard Johnson’s.
The traffic count for 1951 showed the Turnpike’s traffic growth. Although the Western Extension was only open for six days in 1951, the traffic count was 7.4 million with the addition of the Philadelphia Extension.
Following the opening of the Western Extension, the next expansion considered was to New Jersey. This would entail a 33-mile-long Turnpike extension from the Valley Forge exit to Bristol, as well as a bridge crossing of the Delaware River. With a bridge over the Delaware River, vehicles could access the New Jersey Turnpike, thereby making it possible to travel from New York City to the Ohio line on limited-access highways. Pennsylvania Governor John S. Fine signed legislation to construct the Delaware River Extension, as well as a joint toll bridge with the New Jersey Turnpike.
To finance its latest extension, the PTC issued $65 million in bonds in September 1952. The Valley Forge interchange was rebuilt to connect to a future highway (the Schuylkill Expressway) that would connect the Turnpike to Philadelphia.
The bridge over the Schuylkill River was 1,224-feet long; it was the longest structure of the extension. The first interchanges of the Delaware River Extension opened on August 23, 1954; the remaining interchanges were opened in phases by Thanksgiving.
While the Delaware River Extension was opening, the PTC was also planning a spur to Scranton. This was not a new idea; it had been authorized in 1947. The PTC combined the financing of the Delaware River Extension and the Scranton spur into a single $233 million bond.
The groundbreaking for the Northeast Extension took place on March 25, 1954, while the groundbreaking for the Delaware River Bridge occurred on June 22, 1954. Constructed and jointly financed by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, the bridge cost $27.2 million and opened on May 23, 1956 when governors George M. Leader of Pennsylvania and Robert B. Meyner of New Jersey met at the middle of the bridge for the ribbon-cutting. The bridge was built 135 feet above the Delaware River to allow ship traffic to pass beneath it.
With the bridge’s opening it was possible to travel between Maine and the Indiana-Ohio border without encountering a traffic light, cross street, or grade crossing. (This soon was expanded to Chicago after the completion of the Indiana East-West Toll Road.)
The first segment of the Northeast Extension was opened to traffic on November 23, 1955. Other sections opened before year-end. However, construction was ongoing on the two-lane, 4,461-foot-long tunnel through Blue Mountain. It was named Lehigh Tunnel so that it was not confused with the tunnel through the same mountain on the primary Turnpike.
The Northeast Extension was opened to the Wyoming Valley Interchange near Wilkes-Barre in April 1957. The last 16 miles to Scranton were opened to traffic on November 7, 1957. The Northeast Extension’s total length was 110 miles; the PTC’s total system length expanded to 470 miles.
The Interstate Highway System is born
By 1954, support for tolled highways had dwindled. Congress was debating the merits of interstate highways; President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act into law on June 29, 1956. Among other things, the legislation established $25 billion in federal funding for a national system of four-lane, controlled-access free highways. With the federal government offering 90% of the funding, states abandoned plans for additional toll highways.
Author’s note: FreightWaves thanks the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and pahighways.com for information and photos used in the articles about the Pennsylvania Turnpike.