Road Geek Rage

No, I am not experiencing road rage. I am simply a raging road geek.

A little caffeine too late in the day (not to mention curious preoccupation with discovering the mystery of eon8) has kept me up well into the night.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent trip to D.C. and Baltimore, and in particular about the roads there, as I did a fair amount of driving in my 3 days in the area.

I’ve always been fascinated by roads, in particular the Interstate highway system, and in even more particular with anomalies in the Interstate system. The Interstates were conceived as a massive public works project and also as a vision of taking America into a bold, gleaming, gasoline-fueled future. But somewhere along the way reality stepped in and many planned freeways were never built, such as I-335 in Minneapolis or whatever they’d have called Ayd Mill Road in St. Paul if it had become a real freeway.

You can see remnants of such works throughout the country in the form of blocked-off ramps to nowhere or peculiar artificial mounds where bridge embankments had been created but the bridges themselves never constructed.

One thing that’s striking about Baltimore is that, for all of its interesting history and charming neighborhoods, it also has more than its fair share of blight. That was another unexpected side effect of the construction of the Interstate system. (Well, I doubt it was that unexpected to the large numbers of mostly African-American residents who were displaced by eminent domain or who saw their neighborhoods sliced in half by right-of-way lines planned by the mostly white, crew-cutted proto-geeks working in the various state departments of transportation in the ’50s and ’60s.)

While studying the map of Baltimore in anticipation of my upcoming visit, I noticed something rather odd: an “orphaned” stretch of freeway running through a part of the city west of downtown. As it turns out, this freeway, now signed as US 40 but originally identified as I-170, was a failure on a scale that puts Ayd Mill to shame. I didn’t get a chance to drive this road (and I suspect that if I return to the area I probably won’t have much cause to then, either, unless I can convince my family that it’s worth going to an undesirable neighborhood just to drive on a pointless stretch of road), but thanks to insomnia and the wonders of the Internet, now I can feel like I did.

There were also some interesting freeways in the D.C. area, such as the long stretch identified only as To I-295 because, even though for all intents and purposes it really is I-295, it cannot be designated as such due to federal standards for Interstate-grade roadways.

On a less dismal note, I had a couple of other interesting freeway experiences. First, driving into D.C. on I-66, I was surprised to discover that, once you crossed the Beltway, all lanes of the freeway were designated as HOV during rush hour. (Yes, in other words, if you’re driving by yourself, you have no business whatsoever being on I-66 inside the Beltway between the hours of 5:30 AM and 9:30 AM on weekdays.)

The other, and undoubtedly most pleasant, discovery was the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, identified inelegantly on some signs as the “Balto-Wash Pkwy.” This is, surprisingly, a 4-lane freeway, with relatively brisk-moving traffic, managed by the National Park Service, connecting Baltimore and Washington, and perhaps sometime in the distant past actually signed as Maryland (and D.C.) 295, as shown in my 2006 road atlas. The most surprising feature of this road was that it was densely tree-lined for most of its run, completely devoid of billboards and rarely within sight of any artificial structures other than the road itself. Best of all (especially since I drove the entire return trip in heavy rain), commercial trucks are not allowed.