A version of this post originally appeared on the Tedium newsletter.
If you’ve had a chance to ride on Interstate 180 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, you might have noticed something strange about the road. At roughly a mile long and with four stoplights, I-180 doesn’t look anything like a freeway. And it doesn’t seem like an “interstate,” a word that implies a certain set of rules about what the road should look like.
I-180 is one of only many unusual points in the Interstate Highway System, the network of controlled-access roads which, when completed in its initial form in 1991 after 35 years of work, cost a total of $128.9 billion. (Sound like a lot? When you add in inflation over the period, the total balloons to over $500 billion.)
Introduced by Eisenhower in the 1950s, the freeway system—90 percent of which was paid for by federal funding—may be the country’s greatest-ever gift to itself. While it generally follows standard procedures in terms of signage, routing, and numbering, there are points in the system where things get a little weird.
Take Baltimore’s Interstate 170, or the “highway to nowhere,” as local residents call it, which is the result of numerous fights that took place over where the freeway was supposed to go. The auxiliary road was initially intended to hook up with I-70, which runs from just west of Baltimore to near Cove Fort in Utah. But because of community protests, that hook-up never happened.
Despite being just 1.4 miles long, the road ended up going through numerous residential neighborhoods, displacing people and breaking up the character of the areas in the process. “If the highway actually did go somewhere, the situation would be even worse,” Reason scribe Jesse Walker noted earlier this year.
The road still exists, despite a partial demolition of an unused section a few years ago, but it’s pretty much a waste of space.
In nearby Washington, D.C., talk of turning the region into a similarly interstate-driven metropolis nearly threatened the character of the community’s many neighborhoods. Fortunately for the city, community campaigns stepped in to stop the city from being taken over by freeways.
Reginald H. Booker, the chairman of the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis, was among the leading voices in fighting the earmarked interstates during the 1960s and 1970s. “The whole theory was to appeal to homeowners, no matter what race they were,” Booker recalled in a 2000 Washington Post article. “Our movement was unique. It was blacks and whites in a common effort, an integrated group, working in their own interests. That was the significant thing. It was an issue that united people.”
The resulting advocacy efforts led much of the money intended for the interstate to instead go towards the creation of the city’s Metro system, which—complaints notwithstanding—is still one of the best examples of a mass transit system in the United States. Campaigning also saved a lot of neighborhoods throughout the District.
Nearly as unloved as Baltimore’s “highway to nowhere” is an auxiliary road in Illinois that leads to a tiny town.
Hennepin, population 722, is perhaps the smallest town in the country with its own freeway—a 10-mile spur of interstate highway called I-180. Why were the residents of Hennepin considered so deserving? At the time the highway was built in the 1960s, it led to a steel mill. Steel is an important material in building defense materials—and defense is why the interstate highway system exists.
While companies have played up the role of the interstate in the past, low traffic on the spur road has led to recent talk of downgrading the highway to something a little less inviting than an interstate.
There are a lot of dull highways, but you probably won’t find one much duller than the 37-mile stretch of I-80 in Utah. The area around the Bonneville Salt Flats is the longest stretch of straight Interstate in the entire country, with only a rest stop about eight miles in offering your eyes a break from the flat straightness of the highway. Tthere are longer straight highways in the U.S.—among them Highway 46 in North Dakota, which goes for 123 miles with only a handful of slight turns—but what really sets I-80 apart is the flatness of the land and the lack of exits. No trees, no curves, nothing.
Basically, there are only three things to do in this general area:
1. Get off at exit 4—but be sure to travel from the west, so you don’t have to drive 37 miles with nary an exit in sight—so you can see land-speed record attempts at the Bonneville Speedway.
2. Drive past mile-marker 26, after committing to driving this God-forsaken stretch of land, so you can see Metaphor, the Tree of Utah, a man-made art structure in the middle of nowhere. (Swedish artist Karl Momen built it in the 1980s.) Since you’ll be driving by at 80 miles an hour, it won’t exactly feel worth it, so the full-color photo book about it might be a better way to appreciate it.
3. Get out of your vehicle and, uh, appreciate the salt. The reason it’s there is because it once existed as part of an ancient lake that dried up.
If you don’t want to find yourself on this desolate highway, you’re in luck—Kyle Motch, a YouTuber who has made a name for himself by driving down unusual roads, has made the trek, which you can watch right here. It’s an easier drive when you can skip back and forth in a video on the internet.
The rest stop along I-80 in Utah—a respite in the middle of nowhere—follows a general rule for rest areas on the interstate. You need a place for people to get off the highway every once in awhile, for safety reasons. Eventually, people need to have a spot to go to the restroom or to take a load off.
“Rest areas are to be provided on Interstate highways as a safety measure,” an American Association of State Highway Officials policy stated in 1958. “Safety rest areas are off-road spaces with provisions for emergency stopping and resting by motorists for short periods.”
Generally, this has translated to rest areas showing up once every half-hour on the interstate. But during an era of budget cuts, a lot of rest areas have been decommissioned in recent years, particularly in Virginia. (Though the state brought many of them back by popular demand.)
Part of the problem may be their image. “People don’t see it as an academic thing because it’s a bathroom,” historian Joanna Dowling, the creator of Rest Area History, told the Wall Street Journal in 2009.
The interstate highway system may have been finished in 1991, but it’s far from done. Expansion is still taking place around the country.
One such road that’s currently in the works is Interstate 99, a Pennsylvania highway that breaks the rules. The defiance comes down to the initial interstate grid. The intended layout of the U.S. interstate system would require an interstate with a number that high to be pretty much on the edge of the Eastern seaboard due to the Interstate’s grid setup. That’s why I-95 is in the Northeast Corridor and I-5 is on the West Coast.
But I-99? It runs through State College, right in the middle of Pennsylvania. You can thank former Rep. Bud Shuster, who represented a district that I-99 travels through, for that—he had its unusual designation written into law in 1995.
There are other “rule-breakers” out there as well. Some of them are due to historic precedent. In Texas and Minnesota, for example, Interstate 35 splits off into I-35E and I-35W. No other interstate in the country splits off in this way, instead breaking off into three-number auxiliary routes such as I-295 or I-480. The only reason I-35 is allowed to break convention like this is because American Association of State Highway Officials let them. (They must’ve nudged the right people.)
Other rule-breakers are a bit more understandable. For example, it’s not possible for Alaska, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico to have “interstate” highways in their respective regions, due to the fact that they’re not near another state.
Their highways, however, still get the designation due to the way “interstate” is defined: It’s a reference to how the road is paid for—that is, with federal funds—rather than where it connects.
Hawaii has traditional interstates as a result. Alaska and Puerto Rico, however, are allowed another exception by law—their roads don’t have to meet federal Interstate standards, and as a result, don’t have signage up reflecting the fact that they’re funded like interstate highways. (In fact, much of Alaska’s “interstate” system is made up of two-lane roads.)
In a lot of ways, the future of the interstate highway rests with Interstate 69, a once-regional road that’s now part of an ambitious plan to improve North American trade between Canada and Mexico.
Initially, the road only extended to Indianapolis; now, it’s intended to extend from Port Huron, Michigan to Laredo, Texas when complete.
The result has been controversial over the years—concerns about splitting up small towns, who wins and who loses, environmental impact, stuff like that. The end result may never connect into a single whole, perhaps because we’re not crazy about interstates like we used to be.
The drama around I-69 eventually became worthy of a full book. Matt Dellinger, a onetime writer for the New Yorker, attempted to split the controversy about the highway down the middle.
“Everyone was always asking me, ‘Is your book for or against I-69?’ And I had the hardest time explaining to them that it was neither,” Dellinger said in an interview. “In fact, there was a publisher who I think turned down the book because they wanted it to be a polemic one way or another. I guess they thought that might have sold better.”
The fight over I-69 has a lot in common with the battle over high-speed rail. People hate the money that has to be set aside and the messy work of getting the actual routes built, but once they are, they’ll never really complain again.
But unlike high-speed rail, the federal government loves building freeways—even if they don’t go anywhere or they destroy neighborhoods in the process.
A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.