Everybody Hates Breezewood, Pennsylvania
An object lesson in bureaucracy and the reason why infrastructure projects aren't as easy to complete as some think.
Jonathan Turley is really annoyed by Breezewood, Pennsylvania, that odd little strip of gas stations and restaurants that anyone wanting to get from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Interstate 70 (or vice versa) must drive through:
Anyone traveling from the Midwest (millions of drivers each week) will usually take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Interstate 70. While the other turnpikes simply connect to other turnpikes or interstates with ramps, drivers hit a bottleneck at Breezewood where millions of drivers are forced to pass through the unincorporated town and stop at a red light. The result is as you might expect if you put a red light in the middle of one of the nation’s busiest highways — gridlock at peak times. Over ten years ago, Business Week called Breezewood “perhaps the purest example yet devised of the great American tourist trap…the Las Vegas of roadside strips, a blaze of neon in the middle of nowhere, a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.” Since then, the problems have only multiplied with the increase in traffic.
I travel through Breezewood often and generally have little trouble. We often stop at the Starbucks on the way to Pittsburgh or Chicago to see relatives. It is the perfect distance for a stop from Washington.
In the ultimate trip through six states, we spent one-tenth of our time moving through Breezewood. Call me a skeptic, but I wonder if this is really necessary. Breezewood is historically a junction for travelers in the area. While you would not know it from the strip of fast-food joints and tee-shirt shops, the town goes back to colonial times and once housed British troops. However, it would seem easy to create a bypass ramp from the turnpike to 1-70 or an elevated ramp at the intersection to allow traffic to move directly to 1-70 without stopping at the light or the town.
This is of course not unique. There are other planned bottlenecks between highways, but few are at such a critical junction. While the transfer results in millions of dollars in sales for Breezewood, it adds huge delays for travelers going to Washington or other East Coast destinations. Such tourist traps can produce a race to the bottom if other states burden the Interstate System with bottlenecks and loops through towns like Breezewood. While there are an estimated 1000 people working in the city, millions are delayed with added costs of fuel and time. Many of us would still stop in Breezewood if we were given a choice but we are not given the choice. It is time to remove the bottleneck with a bypass in Breezewood.
Turley is right, of course. Anyone who travels this route regularly recognizes the disruption that having to pass through Breezewood just to go from one highway to another represents. While I’ve rarely encountered the bottleneck that Turley did when I’ve hit Breezewood on the many occasions I’ve encountered it since traveling with the family as a child, and now into adulthood, it does slow you down for several minutes at least and just seems really darn annoying because it’s so unnecessary. Yes, it’s convenient to be able to stop for a quick cup of coffee or gas (or to take that often necessary rest break), but that’s a small benefit compared to the disruption and utter stupidity of there not being an easy bypass from the Turnpike to I-70 like there is for practically every other major highway intersection in the country.
Many people have wondered why this was even allowed to happen. The most popular theory I’ve heard is that it was the doing of some powerful member of the Pennsylvania State Legislature who set this whole thing up to benefit the community he represented. The actual story, though, is far less interesting and yet another example of how dumb bureaucracy can be:
I-70 uses a surface road (part of US 30) with at-grade intersections to connect the freeway heading south to Hancock, Maryland with the ramp to I-76, which through this section is thePennsylvania Turnpike toll road. According to the Federal Highway Administration, a division of the United States Department of Transportation, the peculiar arrangement at Breezewood resulted because at the time I-70’s toll-free segment was built, the state did not qualify for federal funds under the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 to build a direct interchange, unless it agreed to cease collecting tolls on the Turnpike once the construction bonds were retired; a direct interchange would have meant that a westbound driver on I-70 could not choose between the toll route and a free alternative, but would be forced to enter the Turnpike. However, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was not willing to build the interchange with its own funds, due to the expected decrease in revenue once Interstate 80 was completed through the state. Accordingly, the state chose to build the unusual Breezewood arrangement in lieu of a direct interchange, thus qualifying for federal funds because this arrangement gave drivers the option of continuing on the untolled US 30.
When the Turnpike was later realigned through the area, resulting in what is now the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, the connection from the Turnpike to Breezewood was realigned, shortening the US 30 concurrency slightly.
So basically, Breezewood came to be because nobody was willing to pay for the bypass. The Federal Government, because it would only do so if Pennsylvania eliminated tolls on the Turnpike (which is largely self-funding at this point) and Pennsylvania because it didn’t want to eliminate the tolls, especially not in the 1960s when Interstate 80 was expected to cut down significantly on East-West toll traffic on the Turnpike. As a result, the monstrosity that is Breezewood came into existence.
Now, of course, the possibility of building a bypass has become even less likely. All of the businesses in the area oppose it because of the rather obvious fact that a bypass will seriously impact their business and, of course the President Pro Tempore of the Pennsylvania State Senate, strongly opposes a bypass. So, Professor Turley, you, I, and millions of other people are going to have to deal with Breezewood for a long, long time to come.
One thing this teaches us, of course, is why it’s so hard for major infrastructure projects to be completed in the United States. Rationally, there’s no reason why the bypass from I-70 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike shouldn’t be built. Politically and financially, there are a ton of reasons why it probably won’t be anytime in the foreseeable future. Additionally, lord knows how long a project like that would take to be completed even if it was approved given all the environmental studies and such that must be completed before work even starts. The Hoover Dam took five years to build. The Golden Gate Bridge took six. The Sears Tower, now the Willis Tower, took three years to complete. By contrast, it’s taken 11 years for One World Trade Center to take form on the site of the former World Trade Center. It’s simply not as easy to build major projects as it used to be.
Note: The original post indicated that the President Pro Tempore of the State Senate represented Breezewood. This was incorrect and the post has been edited to reflect the same