Travels on an American Turnpike

By , Guy Halverson writes a weekly column on Wall Street for the Monitor.

WHEN one thinks of New York and Philadelphia, grand images often come to thought: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Liberty Bell. Forget for a moment that the statue actually resides in New Jersey waters, or that bands of homeless can be found prowling the corridors of Wall Street and the ``City of Brotherly Love.'' In the America of the late 20th century, image is as important as fact - a matter that Angus Kress Gillespie and Michael Aaron Rockland recognize. Gillespie and Rockland are professors in the American studies department at Rutgers University. They have produced a fascinating account of the best known landmark in the state of New Jersey - the New Jersey Turnpike, a roadway immortalized not only in asphalt and steel, but also in songs by Chuck Berry, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen.

Cutting across the Garden State for 142 miles, from the George Washington Bridge on the north coming out of New York, to the Delaware Memorial Bridge on the south leading into Delaware, the turnpike is the most important single highway link on the East Coast of the United States and probably the best-known roadway in the Western world. Boasting 12 lanes at some points, it carries 190 million vehicles a year. At the same time, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority is a quasi-military agency that has enormous political power.

Yet, for hapless travelers forced to drive this behemoth, there is probably no more depressing stretch of roadway imaginable. And therein lies a major problem for New Jersey: ``Because the Turnpike passes through such an extraordinarily industrialized area,'' Gillespie and Rockland write, ``there is a tendency, especially among visitors, to see New Jersey as a place of unrelieved blight. There is blight, but it is by no means unrelieved. The Garden State has vast areas of pretty countryside, fine beaches, charming colonial towns, enormously productive farmland, and the largest deer population in the United States. It is also the ultimate suburban state, but it suffers from a negative industrial image generated in large measure by the Turnpike itself.''

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If there is anyone out there who believes that a book on a turnpike will be dull and uninspiring, guess again. Gillespie and Rockland have written a good and often funny book. They argue that this particular highway has much to say not just about one turnpike, not just about one state, but also about the United States. Their book is somewhat like the turnpike itself: austere and lean, at times vulgar, but at best lyrical.

The first modern-era turnpike is the Pennsylvania Turnpike, twice as long as the New Jersey version. It was opened 10 years earlier, in 1940. The New Jersey Turnpike was planned in the late 1940s and formally opened on Nov. 30, 1951, with Republican Gov. Alfred E. Driscoll, perhaps the founding father of this particular limited-access express highway, officiating at the dedicatory ceremonies.

From the outset, this was to be an engineers' highway. Its creators remained anonymous, reflecting the era of ``The Organization Man'' and ``The Lonely Crowd.'' The road was designed to be efficient, thus, absolutely utilitarian. Maximum allowable grade: 3 percent. Rest areas were frequent (there are 13, named after such luminaries as Joyce Kilmer, Vince Lombardi, and Woodrow Wilson) but no-frills. Asphalt was used for the roadway and there was little regard for aesthetics.

The road was even designed to hide its engineering uniqueness. Many drivers are unaware that at several points they cross rivers. The bridgework is hidden, with the carrying structure under the roadway. What a contrast to crossing the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson: ``Passing beneath the majestic steel towers is like walking down the nave of a cathedral.... The [New Jersey] Turnpike, in other words, does not see itself as a purveyor of scenery, architecture, or geography. It moves traffic. Period.''

The turnpike, as the authors show, is a hermetically sealed world, although there are avenues of escape (again, hidden). A cash cow, it collects $180 million a year in tolls, albeit more money is spent on toll collection than on repair and reconstruction. Toll collectors can earn up to $70,000 a year. Troop D of the New Jersey State Police guards the roadway with a zeal that horrifies civil libertarians, but that also results in assisting 80,000 disabled motorists a year and apprehending not a few drug lords.

Countless roads in the US are prettier, such as the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut or the Pacific Coast Highway, which meanders along the outer limits of the Western US. But for pure highway grittiness, visual nastiness, and unrelieved driving monotony, nothing surpasses the New Jersey Turnpike.

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