"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What’s In a Number? The Route of U.S. Route 422

     Back in 1985, the U.S. Department of Transportation changed the route one of its “shield” highways, U.S. 422.  Actually, it changed only a portion of one section of the route, at its eastern terminus.  This was by no means the first such change; Route 422 had seen changes in designation several times before.  People took notice, adjusted and then went on about their business.  The opening of the final segment of the “Pottstown Expressway” occasioned the change, and in turn became part of the new route of Route 422.  The opening of this long-anticipated highway was a most welcome event, but almost totally overlooked in the celebration was the enormous symbolism behind this simple act.

     An early historian of the Philadelphia area named John Faris described the main roads out of the city as being “fan-shaped.”  They exited the city and proceeded out along the compass points from north to south (except east, of course).  Two of the earliest roads to fan out from Philadelphia to its northwest were Germantown Pike and Ridge Pike; their origins date back to the 18th century.  The former first connected a much smaller Philadelphia to Germantown, and then gradually beyond.  The latter was built out of Philadelphia following roughly the “ridge” of the Schuylkill River’s left bank, also in fits and starts.  As settlement spread to the northwest, so did these two roads, until they came together to cross the Perkiomen Creek at Collegeville.  From there one road continued on as Germantown Pike to Pottstown, gradually extending the area of Southeast Pennsylvania that could access Philadelphia.  The railroads would do the heavy lifting, but the lifeblood of local commerce flowed between Philadelphia and its northwestern environs along Germantown Pike and Ridge Pike.  They would remain the main roads in Southeastern Pennsylvania for people to access Philadelphia until the 1960s.   The opening of the Schuylkill Expressway would begin their demise as the area’s main roads, and hasten the decline of Philadelphia itself.  The culmination of this process was the rerouting of U.S. Route 422.

     Both Germantown and Ridge Pikes never needed any validation of their importance in Southeastern Pennsylvania, but the U.S. Government provided one anyway when it established the first national highway system in 1926-27.  In every region of the country, engineers (and politicians) examined the local roads, and selected from them the main ones, the ones that connected major towns and carried the most traffic.  These were awarded the “shield” designation as a U.S. highway, according to an overall numbering system.   The road connection between Philadelphia and its northwest was designated U.S. Route 422 in 1927 (Route 422 is actually much longer, but a very complicated story). 

     Over the succeeding decades, substantial changes in the highway’s actual route took place.  To greatly simplify, the shield designation was applied to both Germantown Pike and Ridge Pike for the section between Collegeville and Philadelphia at different times, while largely continuing on Germantown Pike from there.   These changes included the highway’s terminus in Philadelphia itself, which moved eastward in stages to the Delaware River.

     The designation of these local highways as a U.S. Route was more than symbolic.  They became broader lines on local road maps, encouraging travel on them, commercial development adjacent to them and residential construction nearby.  All spread population and commerce along them prior to World War II.  This meant that by war’s end, while both Pikes continued to be the primary access roads to Philadelphia, local traffic on them had greatly increased.

     The explosive population growth outside of Philadelphia after the war was initially dependent on these Pikes and their counterparts along other points of the compass, with predictable results: traffic congestion.  Strip shopping centers appeared along their paths; their intersections with the more significant local roads across their paths sprouted small to medium-size shopping centers.

     Then came the era of limited-access highways.  Such a highway made its first appearance northwest of Philadelphia in 1950, with the arrival of the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s Eastern Extension in the quiet farmland of Upper Merion Township, known (only locally, then) as King of Prussia.  It stopped there only briefly before proceeding to the Delaware River.  Not long afterward came the start of a Northeast Extension.  Philadelphia reached out to this new highway via the Schuylkill Expressway; a fundamental motivation (although by no means the only one) for the road’s construction was to lure traffic from the Turnpike to the city.  Roads work their will in both directions, however, and it wasn’t too long before people realized that the net value was heading out of Philadelphia, not into it.

     An entirely new U.S. 422 between Philadelphia and Pottstown was a late entry in the road-building sweepstakes of the period.  That to a degree accounts for its prolonged, section-by-section construction over a period of twenty years.  The first flush of Interstate road-building had passed, while opposition to these highways had risen, as had their costs.  The story of this route is a fascinating one, and I shall continue on with it in my next post.  For now, however, I will jump ahead to the date of its conclusion: 1985.  This new section of highway, built to interstate highways standards, became the new route of U.S. Route 422.

     Remember how I mentioned above that the terminus of U.S. Route 422 had changed over the years?  It did so again in 1985, in a big way.  Its previous relocations had moved it steadily eastward within Philadelphia, until it reached the New Jersey border.  This time, however, the terminus of U.S. Route 422 was not only moved to the west, it was removed from Philadelphia altogether.  It now ends at its intersection with U.S. Route 202, in King of Prussia.  You can still get to Philadelphia, but you have to take two additional roads (at least) to actually get there.

     By 1985, what had happened to Germantown Pike and Ridge Pike had happened to the other main roads that had always connected Philadelphia to its environs.  U.S. Routes 1 and 30 still entered the city, but they had become local roads, despite considerable upgrading.  The new main roads were the Interstate highways, and of them only I-95 actually entered Philadelphia, and by that date a bypass—I-476—was well underway.  Not an Interstate, but built to Interstate standards, U.S. Route 422 was merely joining the new main roads that direct traffic to the new regional economic and social hub of Southeastern Pennsylvania: King of Prussia. 

     The symbolism is obvious, for it describes not just changes in a region’s main roads, but of the region itself.  For fifty-nine years, U.S. Route 422 had connected Philadelphia to the wide swath of land—and its people—to its northwest.  The actual roads which bore the U.S. Route designation had served that same purpose for over two centuries.  A numerical change in 1985 symbolized the much greater change that had taken place:  for some two hundred fifty years, from the early Colonial period to 1985, the main roads in Southeastern Pennsylvania converged on Philadelphia.  Now they converge on King of Prussia.
     For Southeastern Pennsylvania that pretty much sums up the last half of the 20th century, doesn't it?

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