Nation's oldest `superhighway' celebrates 50 years of smooth cruising

It was a daring experiment. Parallel two-lane roads, no stoplights, and toll-takers at every exit. Motorists could drive at top speeds for 162 miles and never make a stop. But would they really pay to try out this new creation, this ``superhighway?''

Oh, yeah!

This month, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission celebrates the 50-year anniversary of the ground-breaking for the nation's first such highway. It has announced a logo contest and applied for a commemorative postage stamp. The big celebration is set for 1990, 50 years after the turnpike opened.

In many ways, the Pennsylvania experiment was a forerunner of today's interstates. It had entrance and exit ramps, standardized banked curves, and careful grading of roads, says Walter Kilareski, a civil engineering professor at Penn State University.

Such designs were known at the time, but the turnpike was the first highway to incorporate the ideas consistently and over such a long stretch of road, says Neal Wood, bridge engineer for the turnpike commission and its unofficial historian. Previously, it took nine hours along US Route 22 to drive from Harrisburg, Penn., to Pittsburgh. The new highway cut that time to four hours, punching through the Appalachian Mountains with seven tunnels, many of them unfinished from a discontinued railroad project. Some of those tunnels have since been bypassed because their maintenance costs were so high. Eventually, the highway was extended to link Ohio and New Jersey, as well as Philadelphia with Scranton.

Tolls paid for maintenance and other expenses. A car toll on the original road was $1.50. For that same stretch of road now, the toll is $5.00, and to drive from Ohio to New Jersey costs $9.80.

There were some early snafus, of course. ``People drove fast,'' recalls Harry Hrenda, one of the turnpike's original toll takers. Since speed limit enforcement was lax, drivers whizzed along at 80 miles an hour or more. The entrance ramps, looping west to get on to the east-bound highway, for example, took some getting used to. In those early days, a lot of confused drivers simply backed up the ramp and complained to the toll takers about bad directions, Mr. Hrenda recalls.

For the most part, though, the new turnpike was deemed progress, says Bill Yocum, a former trucker and now president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association. ``We were able to travel on a night when we would simply have had to park if we were on another highway.''

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