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After 50 years, I-95 still East Coast's common thread and economic backbone

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On a brisk afternoon 50 years ago, Timothy Hyman snapped pictures as officials cut a ribbon to open the newest stretch of Interstate 95, connecting Baltimore to Delaware and onward north to Maine.

Amid the large crowd gathered at the Maryland-Delaware border, Hyman still remembers the civil rights advocates picketing just outside his frame, calling for the interstate to be interracial and to further advance their cause.

In that moment, Hyman said he saw a dual promise — of travel without congestion, but also without oppression.

As a black photographer from Baltimore working for the Maryland Traffic Safety Commission, Hyman, now 76 and still a state employee, had a working knowledge of how congested roads in the Baltimore region were. He also had been turned away many times at segregated lunch counters and motels along those roads.

"I remember it quite a bit," he said of that day, Nov. 14, 1963. "It was things we had to overcome."

Today, Interstate 95 remains a culturally significant force for change, an artery of personal significance for many and an economic backbone for the Eastern Seaboard, said Dan McNichol, writer of "The Roads that Built America."

"It facilitated and accelerated growth already in progress," McNichol said. "It generates energy through all those states."

According to the I-95 Corridor Coalition, an alliance of transportation and public safety agencies from Florida to Maine, about 110 million people live in jurisdictions directly served by the highway, up from 40 million in 1960, when the project's coastal connectivity was just an idea.

Those jurisdictions today represent 10 percent of the nation's land area and 37 percent of its population.

The highway system is the backbone of an East Coast economy measured in trillions of dollars that represents more than one-third of U.S. jobs and gross domestic product, according to the coalition. Considered alone, the region would be the world's second-largest economy, the coalition says.

"Besides breaking through the Mason-Dixon Line and literally opening up the South and paving over Tobacco Road, it freed up commerce," McNichol said. "I think its fame is yet to be understood. It's so depended upon. It's so necessary in people's lives. It's become part of them."

Along with much of the Baltimore Beltway, Interstate 95 opened to the region's drivers in 1963 after nine years of "planning, mind-making-up and mind-changing, legislative brawling and administrative postponing," as a Baltimore Sun article put it at the time.

But I-95's construction was rapid, with its more than 40-mile Maryland stretch built in less than two years.

Tolls, which had been a major source of delay and dispute among state planners, were instituted — originally $1 for cars — but drivers, including local commuters in small towns close to the highway, were undeterred, flocking to the road.

By that time, traffic on U.S. 40, the major artery through Baltimore and Harford counties, was horribly congested. The road had 21 traffic signals, 87 intersections and more than 1,000 commercial and private entrances in the stretch spanned by the new interstate. There were also many accidents on the road, also known as Pulaski Highway, with about 20 fatalities a year.

"There was a really bad one between Baltimore and Aberdeen at least once a week, and you would have God knows how many smaller ones," said Charles Anderson, a lifelong Harford resident who owned a farm equipment, feed and lumber business along Pulaski Highway then.

Interstate 95 offered an easy alternative.

"People took to it by choice," McNichol said. "They could have stayed on the old romantic roads but they flocked to it because it got them places so much faster."

Interstate 95 zoomed parallel to the gritty stoplight corridors of Americana motels and mom-and-pop lunch counters. In some parts of the country, the highway tore through poor neighborhoods — where land was cheapest — displacing urban homes and disenfranchising the poor, said Thomas Zeller, an associate professor who teaches transportation history at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Some took to protesting with signs that read "No White Man's Roads through Black Man's Homes," Zeller said.

Equity in transportation already had been a hot-button issue in Baltimore for years, including along Pulaski Highway.

In 1961, as President John F. Kennedy's administration struggled with how best to open the nation's transportation system to blacks, Maryland's roadways became a symbol of the obstacles.

Both Life and Time magazines ran stories about diplomats from newly independent African countries taking U.S. 40 from Washington to the United Nations in New York and complaining to the State Department after being turned away by local diner and motel owners.

The State Department dispatched its assistant chief of protocol to try to talk to the business owners. In a Time article from Oct. 13, 1961, the "beefy, red-faced" owner of a local restaurant is quoted as telling the State Department employee, "The hell with the United Nations and the hell with your colored diplomats!"

The incidents led to an apology from Gov. J. Millard Tawes, and, in 1963, Maryland passed a public accommodations law that banned segregation at roadside establishments, predating the nationwide Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When I-95 opened, it alleviated some of the remaining racial tensions on Pulaski Highway simply by offering an alternative route for black travelers, historians and local residents say.

It also immediately began turning rural enclaves into suburban commuter hubs while contributing to the steady exodus from city neighborhoods.

Between 1960 and 2010, as Baltimore's population shrank from 939,000 to 621,000, according to U.S. census data, formerly rural communities along the I-95 corridor saw spikes in population. Harford County, for instance, went from 77,000 residents in 1960 to more than 245,000 in 2010.

"I-95 made Harford County a bedroom community, because then you could jump on 95 and be in Baltimore in 20 minutes," said Anderson, 82, who served as Harford's county executive in the 1970s.

He welcomed the highway at the time, he said, but other motel and restaurant owners along Pulaski Highway were livid.

"You know how somebody says, 'We're going to build something,' and then you have 8,000 people against it no matter how good it is?'" Anderson said. "That's what you had with Interstate 95."

The business owners were smart to worry.

Before I-95, Pulaski Highway bustled with commerce and cars. Trucks rolled endlessly through town, and their drivers constituted the majority of business for some establishments, Anderson said.

"You could see everything God ever made going up and down that road," he said. "This was like a bustling, busy, busy operation, and then when [I-95] hit, that was the end of it."

Many of the hotels and restaurants went out of business or were forced to move closer to an I-95 exit, Anderson said.

As traffic on Pulaski Highway dropped off, it rose on the interstate. According to the Maryland Transportation Authority, the number of vehicles traveling through the state's Perryville toll plaza went from 6.2 million in 1964 to 29.2 million in fiscal year 2013.

Traveling on I-95 has become such an afterthought for East Coast residents that they sometimes forget its ubiquity in their lives, Zeller said.

"It's both mundane — all of us have driven there — but at the same time it ties into a lot of stories that we tell about ourselves," he said. "If you're born after 1960, then that's what you grow up with, that's ... the normal way of doing things."

Ruth Elliott, 78, a lifelong Aberdeen resident and current city councilwoman, said the highway allowed many in the town to have a suburban lifestyle for the first time.

Many residents were happy the I-95 corridor narrowly avoided their town and left its historical character intact when it was built, she said. But they were also thankful for the ease it brought to commuting to Baltimore and other nearby job markets.

"I think that's what a lot of the folks in Aberdeen to this day like to see," Elliott said. "A lot of them work in the big city and it's very, very busy and loud and noisy and all that, and then they come back home and it's a lot quieter and you don't have that hectic lifestyle."

At the I-95 ribbon-cutting in 1963, eight days before his assassination, Kennedy said his administration's goal was "the development of the most efficient, economic, and the safest transportation system for all our people."

The new highway, later named after him, symbolizes "the approach which we must have to the problems in this section of the United States, for it may be only a few years when the whole area, stretching from Washington to Boston, will be one gigantic urban center," Kennedy said.

As populations continue to grow, I-95 will continue to be a vital — and changing — artery, said Thomas Jacobs, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology at the University of Maryland.

"You're not going to see, in general, lots of lanes added in the corridor," Jacobs said, "but I think you will continue to see lots of technology continue to be implemented."

That could range from electronic tolling such as that being built into I-95 north of Baltimore to the highway being retrofitted to handle computer-driven vehicles, he said.

McNichol, who is documenting deteriorated roadways across the country, agreed.

"If there's something that I-95 does through Maryland and the rest of the Northeast and Southeast," he said, "it is connect everything else."

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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