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

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why Did They Build The Schuylkill Expressway?

     In an earlier post, I suggested that there are usually more fundamental reasons why something is done than those which dominate the publicity about it at the time, particularly when that something involves spending a substantial amount of the public’s money.  My example was the “Pottstown Expressway,” a concluding link in the network of limited-access highways that have combined to relocate the economic core of Southeastern Pennsylvania from Philadelphia to King of Prussia.  The fundamental reason for spending all that money to build the road—as far as the general public was concerned—was to throw a lifeline to beleaguered Pottstown; hence the name.  I had the temerity to suggest however, that the underlying and unspoken reason for the highway’s construction (not to mention its exact route) was to “develop” the stretch of land over which the new highway would be built, with any benefit to Pottstown appreciated, but by no means necessary.

     As I said then, there was nothing new about this.  To demonstrate both the principle and to take it to a different—and more fundamental—level, I return to the days of the very first one of these limited-access highways and ask the same question: why did they build the Schuylkill Expressway?

    The idea of such a highway originated in the 1930s as a means for automobiles to drive into and out of Philadelphia more easily than was possible at the time.  It was termed the “Valley Forge Parkway,” and was to connect Philadelphia (actually Fairmont Park) with Valley Forge Park.  Its design was modeled on the parkways Robert Moses built to connect New York City with its immediate environs.  Like the roads built by Moses, the Philadelphia Parkway was to be for automobiles only; no trucks allowed.  It was an entrancing idea, but never anything more.

     The opening of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1940 between Irwin in the west and Carlisle in the east changed everything, and is the true origin of the Schuylkill Expressway.  Its immediate—and overwhelming—success quickly spurred plans to extend it in both directions.  World War II put that idea on hold, but by war’s end engineers and road builders were straining at the bit to get underway. The two extensions were approved, with the eastern one to proceed from Carlisle to a new terminus amid the bucolic countryside of Upper Merion Township known  (only locally) as “King of Prussia.”

     The economic movers and shakers of Philadelphia viewed this eastward march of the Turnpike with great interest.  They realized that the Pennsylvania Turnpike would finally realize the ancient goal of Pennsylvania’s leaders, one that dates back to William Penn: to connect the western and eastern ends of the Commonwealth so that commerce might flow between them, and in particular to the port of Philadelphia.  The history of Pennsylvania is replete with attempts to accomplish this, all failures until the Reading Railroad, and even it was forced to follow a very circuitous route.

     A significant component of this long-abiding dream is rooted in the competition between Philadelphia and New York City that began in colonial times.  The epic struggle between these two ports for economic supremacy on the eastern seaboard was quite a battle, fought out over a great many rounds spanning two centuries, but for Philadelphia, most of those were rear-guard actions; the winner had been decided quite early.  One huge thing that continued to stick in Philadelphia’s collective craw after all these years was the memory of how Philadelphia had won all of the early rounds of this battle, only to lose the war.

    New York was a decidedly inferior city to Philadelphia, in virtually every manner of measurement, from early colonial times until after 1825.  In that year the Erie Canal opened a connection between New York City and the fertile lands west of the Appalachians, and the riches of a rapidly developing hinterland quickly began to funnel increasingly through New York, not Philadelphia.  Pennsylvania’s attempt to breach the Appalachians—the “Main Line of Public Works”—failed, and Philadelphia sank into an economic status permanently below that of New York.

     But even post-World War II Philadelphians possessed an intense, if resigned, view not just of their city’s history, but of its superior-turned-inferior relationship to New York City, the much bigger apple at the other end of New Jersey.  That is why the approach of the Turnpike so interested them.  Why, they reasoned, should we not make every effort to encourage that new traffic to terminate in Philadelphia, instead of New York City? 

     There were two sound reasons for making this argument: the two roads travelers would encounter after they exited at King of Prussia.  In 1950, arrivals at the new eastern terminus of the turnpike, whether commercial or private, would have had basically two choices once they left that modern marvel of concrete.  They could use U.S. Route 202 to go north to New York City, or Pa. Route 23 to go east to Philadelphia.  Neither was an appealing choice from a purely logistical standpoint, compared to the road that all confronted by this choice had just traversed.  In 1950, U.S. Route 202 was a two-lane asphalt roadway for most of its length to New York, bristling (okay, relatively so, compared to today) with grade-level intersections and stop signs.  The journey to Philadelphia via Pa. Route 23 was considerably shorter, but the road itself was worse, utterly inadequate for many cars of that era, let alone trucks.  What if Philadelphia provided a modern, limited-access highway connection from the turnpike terminus into the heart of the city?  And not a parkway, of course, but a limited-access highway open to commercial traffic as well?  Would that not perhaps change the financial calculation of some manufacturing and shipping firms about the benefits of doing business in Philadelphia?

     Mind you, nobody actually believed that connecting to the Turnpike would reverse the economic fortunes of a century and a half, but neither did they want to send any potential traffic to New York by default if they could help it.  This desire to send to Philadelphia, not New York City, the cross-state traffic that the city’s economic and political elite expected would arrive at the new eastern terminus of the Turnpike lies at the very foundation of the 1947 decision to build the Schuylkill Expressway.

     This lingering sense of economic competition was also the foundation on which support for such an expensive undertaking was built.  To actually build such a highway its advocates needed to sell the concept to a much wider audience than the local lords of commerce, so they did.  The good thing about the economic competition with New York City part was that like most foundations, it was largely out of sight.  No one had to make the historical/commercial argument publicly, beyond mutually understood comments over lunch at the Rotary Club or dinner at the Chamber of Commerce (those are plural references, the economic benefit was widely understood).  Everyone could concentrate on making the case of the Schuylkill Expressway as the greater good for the greater number, a much more popular approach.  This wasn’t all crass hype; the steadily swelling residential suburbs on the periphery of Philadelphia were already an understood factor, as was frustration with the local roads.  The latter was expected to reach a crisis point once the Turnpike extension opened.  And so, the decision was made to build.

    Enough time has passed to obscure the local motivational components surrounding the construction of the Schuylkill Expressway, the deals and understandings that no doubt populated the decisions to locate what where, particularly those all-important on-off ramps.  We are left with the broader and quite persistent issues of the Expressway's effect on Philadelphia and of its future in regional transportation planning.  The Schuylkill Expressway did not quite contribute to the economic rebirth of Philadelphia after its completion in 1960, because no such rebirth took place.  Highways encourage travel in both directions, regardless of the wishes of the planners who conceive them.  The Schuylkill Expressway, designed to funnel vehicles and products into Philadelphia, proved to be a major artery by which wealth and capital flowed out of it instead.  Whatever threat U.S. Route 202 may have posed to directing vehicles and products into Philadelphia has long since been rendered irrelevant by a multiplicity of limited-access highways that do not direct commercial and individual traffic into Philadelphia as much as allow such traffic to avoid the city altogether.  So, on the subject of the Schuylkill Expressway, are we talking success, failure, or what?

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