AMERICANS TEND to think of interstate highways as multilane necessities having no true beginning or end. They have become the national equivalent of latitude and longitude - horizontal and vertical bands crosshatching the map.
While it is abundantly clear that Interstate 95 originates near the northernmost tip of Maine and terminates in Miami, anyone who has driven on it between Baltimore and Washington has tasted the meaning of the word eternity. The sensation of sheer, never-ending duration can be acute on late summer afternoons, especially after an accident. As forward velocity recedes to a mere memory, I-95 is often experienced as a highway with no origin, no terminus, no movement.
How odd, by contrast, is the experience of Interstate 70 - a highway with a beginning (or end) that is unambiguous, unmistakable and spectacularly unromantic. Right here, where Baltimore County rubs elbows with the western edge of Baltimore City, where Cooks Lane evolves into Security Boulevard, I-70 begins its transcontinental journey.
The area labeled "Park and Ride" is the deadest of dead ends. Most of the parking is done by tractorless trailers, lined up like boxcars on a railway siding. As a part of my daily commute to Rockville, I make the hairpin turn at the "Park and Ride" that launches me due west. I pass a smattering of parked cars, the omnipresent trailers and, occasionally, some of the more unusual looking people I've ever seen. They always seem to be waiting for someone or something that will never arrive.
Clearly, I-70 was not supposed to halt abruptly in Franklintown. A trip into the city on Route 40 becomes surreal as that street blossoms, for a brief span, into a stretch of interstate highway.
Rolling like a canyon through West Baltimore, an orphaned piece of I-70 rumbles wide, fast and as out of place as an airport runway in a residential neighborhood. And then, it just isn't anymore, as it crosses Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and slams into the edge of downtown at Greene Street.
The history of highway planning in the Baltimore region is deeply enmeshed in the larger history of urban redevelopment and the political battles of another era. Some of the scars of those battles, like the course of I-70, remain writ large on the urban landscape.
Regardless of what happened in the construction of I-70, the fact remains that its eastern terminus consists of long rows of jersey walls, overgrown vegetation and the ambience of a truck stop minus the availability of diesel fuel and a decent place to eat.
The segment of I-70 east of the Beltway is a slice of highway with minimal purpose and a split personality. By day, it often serves as a speed trap for state troopers looking for abundant and easy prey. Long after dark, it functions as a speedway for drag racers. In the stillness past midnight, you can hear them from miles away.
In truth, the interstate that stretches westward from this humble "Park and Ride" is the mighty I-70 that cuts through most of Maryland then doglegs north to Pennsylvania. There, it merges with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It continues west through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado. Next, to Utah, where it empties into Interstate 15, which cuts south through Nevada and ends up in Los Angeles. Not a bad run for a major highway.
An interstate with such a prestigious route deserves a classier point of origin. The "Park and Ride" site has potential - it is surrounded by tall, dense trees of Leakin Park, for starters. With some landscaping and imaginative design, who knows what could happen?
If the "Park and Ride" is to remain the equivalent of an elephant graveyard for tractor-trailers, maybe an all-night diner would work. Even drag racers have to eat sometimes.
Stephen J. Stahley, a free-lance writer who lives in southwest Baltimore County, works for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville.
Metro Journal provides a forum for examining issues of concern to the region's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.