Simple Dreams Have A Lot Of Work Behind Them

Well if you ever plan to motor west,
Just take my way, that's the highway that's the best.
Get your kicks on Route 66.

Well it winds from Chicago to LA
More than two thousand miles all the way.
Get your kicks on Route 66.

Well it goes through St. Louie down to Missouri
Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty.
You'll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico
Flagstaff, Arizona, don't forget Winona,
Kingsman, Barstow, San Bernardino.

Won't you get hip to this timely tip
And think you'll take that California trip.
Get your kicks on Route 66.
Get your kicks on Route 66.

(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, By Bobby Troup, 1946

 

Whether it a road or a rail line, there are few things duller than a legislative session on a transportation project, and the accompanying meetings on its route, makeup and so forth. So it's good to remember that all this dullness can produce dreams and songs.

Bobby Troup's bouncy 1946 tune about the joys of Route 66 has its roots in a very dreary place, the halls of the U.S. Congress and a series of federal transportation bills it passed after World War I and the resulting scramble by state boosters and budding state transportation departments to get a piece of the action.

In this, it is similar to President Barack Obama's and the current Congress's effort, which resulted in large part from state and regional lobbying, to create a high or higher speed rail system.

We pretend to justify transportation projects in practical terms alone, but dreams have something to do with them as well. That's certainly true once they are finished. Let's look more closely at famous Route 66, and the messy sausage making that produced it, and the result. Perhaps we will gain perspective on our current round of sausage making, when it comes to transportation.

Troup said he was inspired to write his song while literally driving Route 66. At that time, in post-war America, driving from the Great Lakes beside Chicago to the beaches of southern California in one's personal automobile was still a novel and amazing thing. Route 66 had been cobbled together by linking some existing roads, and many of them still just dirt, until the make-work, depression relief, WPA project under President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 completed its paving. Those final drops of asphalt completed a vision that had taken two decades of policy-making and spending to achieve. This was the dream of true inter-city highways, a dream that then seemed as distant around World War I as 200 mph trains do today.

It took a few attempts to get it right. In the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, Congress approved $75 million — back then, a whole lot of money — to go for roads outside and between cities. But states, who were in charge of distributing the money, anxious to be fair, tended to give money to every county, which meant the effects of the money were felt everywhere and nowhere.

To counteract this tendency, in the successor Federal Aid Road Act of 1921, Congress required that 60% of the money be used for intercity travel and on a limited number of roads. This helped create Route 66, which was not really a new highway, just a cobbling together of existing dirt or roughly paved roads through common signage, along with a commitment to improve them.

But as these essentials were nailed down came arguments about the location of routes. Just like today with high speed rail, states and regions recognize that being on a route is ticket to prosperity. But even identifying numbers were considered important. Regions vied to be designated one of the numbers divisible by ten. Route 60 was thought to be particularly attractive.

Things were at loggerheads, until Oklahoma promoter Cyrus Avery from Tulsa, who was on the numbering board appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, decided Route 66, with its alliteration, would be even better than Route 60. (The decision was the Agriculture Department's because at that time, the Bureau of Public Roads, which would grow into today's mammoth federal transportation department, was one of its divisions. The main purpose of good roads was thought to be to help farmers get to market.)

Avery in 1925 sent a telegram to the Bureau of Public Roads chief, Thomas MacDonald, who would lead the agency for another three decades, saying "We prefer Sixty-Six." And the fight ended. Cyrus had had the insight that the alliterative "Sixty-Six" was catchier than say "Route 60" or "Route 70." And it seems Cyrus was right. Singing "Get Your Kicks On Route 60" just doesn't sound the same.

Now let's flash forward three quarters of a century. Right now, state and regional boosters and backers are fighting for a piece of the billions that Congress has awarded for higher speed rail, just like boosters and backers did for road money back in the 1920s. This is messy, but also to be expected. It's unwise to think that the selection of routes and spending of money can be done on some sort of pure technocratic basis. Who wants it more is a valid criterion — one of them — for awarding funds.

What the feds should not do is attempt to be "fair," and fritter away the high speed billions by giving a pittance to everyone. That's what happened with Congress's first attempt in 1916 to start a national road system. Spend the money on a few places, where it can demonstrably and dramatically improve train travel, making it higher speed if not true European style high speed travel. Only then can we jump start our dreams, as well as a few projects.