Anytime I hear the name Route 66 I immediately think of the animated movie Cars. Little did I know that those cartoon vehicles were based on real people and the town is a compilation of real cities along the highway that stretches from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. Route 66 was established in 1926 and takes up much of the National Old Trails Highway which was the primary way to travel during the early 1900's. Route 66 officially ceased to be recognized as part of the official highway system in 1984. It was replaced by the Interstate Highway System started in 1956.
The interstate system was a vast improvement on the existing highway system in the United States, connecting cities like never before. The interstates were built under unified federal standards unlike the highway, which ranged from two lanes to four lanes, some sections of dirt, some brick, and some paved. This vast improvement in transportation brought with it a rapid decline in the vitality of many towns across the country. Once strategically located on Route 66, they were bypassed by the new interstates, leading to their rapid decline. One town felt as if a gate had been put along the highway the day the interstate opened because they only saw about 12 cars pass through.
The economic decline in many of these towns led to the creation of ghost towns like Texola, Oklahoma. Shells of old service stations, drive in motels, and cafes are scattered from Illinois to California in all 8 states that Route 66 passes through. Other communities were near enough to interstate exits pull nostalgic tourists their way, using old directional signs and building from there like Lexington, Illinois. Many businesses have been taken over by Route 66 enthusiasts, excited to keep the history alive. The oldest continuously operating restaurant run by the same family since it opened is in Chicago. The Berghoff was opened in 1898 and still serves customers to this day.
Turning Route 66 into an electric vehicle route is an economic revitalization strategy that has been raised. Some gas stations have added electric vehicle charging stations. Tesla has invested in Shamrock, Texas adding electric charging stations. Other cities are trying to create environments that allow tourists to step back in time, eating at cafes and sleeping in motels that evoke the 1950's and 1960's atmosphere. Many are reviving the quirky tourist attractions that were common in the early to mid 1900's including pinball machines, small zoo's, and natural features like the Coconino (Dinosaur) Cavern in Arizona.
With all this investment being made by both new and old Route 66 enthusiasts, the problem of road maintenance remains. Almost 95 percent of the bridges along the route are due or overdue for maintenance, but without being a certified highway, have no funding. A route in place purely for tourism is hard to fun, when major public infrastructure still moving people is failing. In 2013 the National Park Service started the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program with funding from American Express. Much of the highway has been added to the National Register of Historic Places as well.
It is hard to say what the future of Route 66 will be. Most business owners and travelers are in the baby boomer generation and older. Most millennials choose to travel to a specific destination and do not have any ties to the old highway. Will the continued success be dependent on the international tourism that has grown? It is more of a novelty for European populations than it is for American's that drive these highway systems daily. It is possible that as we move away from car ownership that we may want a place like Route 66 to relive the old days of long distance vehicle travel with the old drive in motels, greasy cafes, and service stations.