It's Labor Day weekend, when we honor the common working crowd by trooping home from one last camping trip or stay at the beach, our cars filled to the gills with sandy kids and suitcases. For many of us that trip means enduring Interstate 95, otherwise known as your favorite East Coast parking lot. For me, and others who grew up on the East Coast, I-95 is not just 1,894 miles of paved road that ambitiously connects Miami to Maine. It's also road trips and vacations and learning to white-knuckle drive going 60 miles an hour while Dad sat in the passenger seat giving pointers. After each lesson, he always had a quick shot of bourbon to calm his nerves.
Interstate 95 and I were born in the same era, and we have grown up together. When we were both young, I-95 was an open, uncluttered road. My earliest memories of it date from the summers of the 1960s when Dad would carefully cram into the car enough stuff to keep a family of seven -- mother, father, four girls, one boy -- happy for four weeks, and we'd take off from Philadelphia, encountering I-95 as we headed to the Jersey shore for the entire month of August.
Dad had managed to find a paying job as an Episcopal minister at a small summer church that came with a beach house. He took his vacation from what his offspring thought of as the winter job to go to the summer job. The old man was always thinking.
My parents sat in the front of our faded green Chevrolet station wagon, my father always the driver, my three older sisters in the back seat arguing over who had to sit over the hump, and my younger brother and I left in the back to slide around among the cargo, free of seatbelts. Those were the brand-new days of I-95, which was part of a grand design undertaken in 1956 when Congress passed legislation to pay for what came to be called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. It quickly became an important part of our annual summer adventure.
As a young Army officer, Eisenhower had traveled across the country in a military convoy in 1919. The trip took two months and made him see the need for a way to move supplies and troops more efficiently around the country to protect national security. During World War II, he traveled the German autobahn and came home with a vision for great ribbons of highway. Earlier planners, in the 1930s and '40s, had big dreams as well. "The interstate was going to reverse suburbanization, reverse the tax blight and revitalize our center cities," said Richard Weingroff, an information specialist with the Federal Highway Administration, though the inner loop roads that were supposed to revitalize the cities were mostly forgotten. Instead, we common folk took a good idea and crowded it. And we transformed the interstate for our own purposes, moving in greater numbers to the suburbs and creating ever more traffic as we did so.
Walter E. Woodford Jr., the former chief engineer for what was then the Maryland State Roads Commission, says he saw all that traffic coming on Nov. 14, 1963, the day he stood at the Delaware border watching the inauguration of the Maryland segment. Four lanes of brand-new pavement stretched between Baltimore and Wilmington. "I knew it was going to be a major highway and some day it would need to be expanded," he said. Seven million cars drove that segment in its first full calendar year, as measured by tolls.
Seems quaint now. Five years later another lane in each direction was added along that stretch, and later still the road was expanded to the current six- and eight-lane superhighway that 29.7 million cars used in fiscal year 2003.
The opening reception was held at the Maryland House, an odd jewel in highway rest stop history. Located just north of exit 80 near Aberdeen, it isn't a cookie cutter building designed to get people in and out and back on the road. It was a destination, designed by a Maryland architect, Henry Powell Hopkins, and it served Maryland's own food, such as crabs from the Eastern Shore, in an upscale restaurant named the Maryland Room. "Some of the local people came out after church every Sunday and had dinner," a tradition that has since died out, Woodford said. That restaurant was closed in 1986 and now Roy Rogers and Bob's Big Boy occupy the space.
Our family moved to Alexandria in 1970, still traveling to the Jersey shore for the summer job, and stopping at the Maryland House was a highlight. Today, it's still large and clean, but it has the same fast food available everywhere, and you wouldn't know if you were in Maryland or New York.
My dad remembers traveling I-95 when it first opened, driving along vast, empty stretches of dark pavement where they hadn't had a chance to put up any signs. He went as fast as he could push one of his perpetually old cars. As the number of cars has grown, Dad has tweaked his strategy for the Jersey trip, putting in short jaunts on side roads to avoid trouble spots or tolls. He keeps the carefully measured routes (to a tenth of a mile) written down on an old yellow legal pad in a file for his now-grown kids to use when we come to visit at his summer job. As I said, he's always thinking.
Over the years, as traffic has gotten worse, some drivers have learned to avoid peak hours. But peak hours are growing longer and stretching farther and farther away from the cities, and there are fewer valleys between the peaks. Bill Mann, a senior transportation engineer for Virginia's Department of Transportation (VDOT), predicts that at the current rate of growth of 4.4 percent more cars per year, in five years traffic, which is often at capacity but moving, will become more stop and go on I-95 from the Washington metro area all the way to Stafford County 40 miles south.
A large part of what's pushing that trend is the distance people are choosing to live, whether for economic or quality-of-life reasons, from where they work. It's not unusual anymore to know someone from as far away as Richmond who commutes to Washington, about a 120-mile trip one way, leaving at 4 in the morning to beat the stop-and-go traffic. More cars traveling longer distances can only mean more traffic. "By the year 2025, at the present growth rate, it's possible there could be all-day peaks" in some areas, Mann said.
New Jersey, where I-95 travelers find themselves on the New Jersey Turnpike, has a similar story. "Summer traffic has been extraordinarily high, the highest ever on the New Jersey Turnpike," said Jack Lettiere, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation. "Ten years ago we thought that stretch of 95 would live forever and would be able to handle the amount of traffic as we saw it coming," he said. Now, there's way too much.
With businesses and communities growing up along its exits, I-95 travel has taken on many local as well as long-distance travelers, with most people using it to go only two or three exits. "I call the Beltway our area's Main Street," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for the Mid-Atlantic AAA, "and I call 95 our nation's Main Street. It's not just from Portland [Maine] to Florida. It's Stafford County to Washington, D.C., or Columbia to Silver Spring." All of it adds to the need for solutions to the congestion.
Each state has jurisdiction over its section of the road, and ideas for solutions vary from state to state. Lettiere says New Jersey hopes to add more than 400 cameras along I-95 in the next year so that Internet users can see conditions in real time and consider alternative routes. Also being weighed is expansion of the working hours at shipping ports, so truck volume isn't as concentrated at certain times. Every truck on the road has the effect of six cars, because they are bigger and slower than cars, so spreading out truck traffic would have a significant impact, Lettiere said.
Talk of solutions usually comes down to widening the highway. Virginia has understood, however, that even though a great highway inspires drivers with visions of the open road, the road has its limits. "We're coming to the realization we can't meet the supply side," said Ben Mannell, a VDOT planning manager. "You can't put down enough pavement. In the 95 corridor in Northern Virginia by the year 2025 there will be 300,000 vehicles in [some] places, and there's no way we could lay enough pavement." Maybe some of us need to take the bus or telecommute or move closer to our jobs.
In the meantime, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey are using overhead message boards to redirect traffic to those sometimes forgotten alternate routes; they're synchronizing traffic signals on those routes and encouraging more use of the Internet cameras available at each state's Web site so routes can be checked out ahead of time. Express toll lanes are under consideration.
For me, my relationship with I-95 is coming full circle as I teach my son, Louie, a new driver, to take on the highway and claim it as his own -- a first real step toward leaving home. He's already talking about the great road trip he'll take with his buddies when he's 18. He'll head back to the Jersey shore, seeking his own adventures along the route traveled by two generations before him. Maybe he'll find ways to make the trip smoother and less frustrating, but what he sees ahead of him on the road, or what it helps him leave behind, will always remind him of the long, beguiling ribbon, just as it has the rest of us.
Engineers may always look at I-95 as a problem, trying to figure out what needs to be done to improve the trip. To me, both of us have aged gracefully, perhaps with a few add-ons, and you'll find me still heading out on the highway looking for the possibilities, the adventures that lie just off my exit.