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ONLY PA: Exploring America’s first ‘superhighway,’ the Pennsylvania Turnpike

SWATARA TOWNSHIP, DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. -- The Pennsylvania Turnpike is a legendary roadway which connects east to west, brings family members closer together and cements the Keystone State's role as a transportation hub.

Some may gripe about paying increasing tolls, but others say the value of memories from family road trips taken on the turnpike is priceless.

For many other Pennsylanians, the Turnpike is more than just a roadway filled with tollbooths and tunnels between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and points beyond.

Turnpike traveler Sarah Lightner said "it's like the line between my family and his grandparents, and where we're living at the moment, so that we can get back and forth between the two."

Turnpike traveler Lew Burley said "very, very explicit memories of traveling to and from, crossing Pennsylvania to visit my grandmother, visit my father when he moved back here, to visit my mom, family who came from there."

It was to be no ordinary highway. After all does Route 30, Interstate 81 or 83 have its own theme song? The Turnpike was dubbed a superhighway, and it was America's first.

Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission public relations director Carl DeFebo said "nothing like it had been attempted in America. The only model that the Turnpike actually looked at briefly was the Autobahn in Germany."

Turnpike traveler Don Duvall said "I remember when I was very young, and seeing them build it, a part of it. I traveled on it, the last 40, 50 years."

The first motorists couldn't travel as far as drivers can today. The original turnpike only stretched 160 miles between Carlise and Irwin, near Pittsburgh. Today, the turnpike's network of roadways has more than tripled in size to more than 550 miles.

"I think the Turnpike was really about surmounting obstacles, making that drive, between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, much easier, and much shorter, and much safer," DeFebo said.

DeFebo explained the route wasn't always meant for cars.

"Even though the South Penn Railroad never opened, they had dug a number of tunnels, through the Allegheny Mountains," DeFebo said.

The Depression era wasn't a time to let things go to waste.

"This agency came up with the concept of using those abandoned South Penn Railroad right-of-way and tunnels, to create an all-weather highway. The thought being, they could put a lot of unemployed men to work," DeFebo said.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened on October 1, 1940, and became the forerunner of the interstate system.

"The Federal Highway Administration and the federal government, really created criteria for the interstate system, but they based their criteria on the criteria that the Turnpike developed 15, 16 years beforehand," DeFebo said.

State Museum of Pennsylvania director Beth Hager said "four-lane highways that were unbroken by traffic signals, or stop signs, were unheard of back then. This was a whole new way to travel in the United States."

The Turnpike's place in history earned the superhighway its own exhibit at the Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg. Visitors can see everything from an original map used by the Turnpike Commission to highlight road conditions, to one of the original tollbooths. Hager noted that there's also a large collection of Turnpike memorabilia featuring placemats, pennants, plates and much more.

"All the little souvenirs that people collected. I know my grandparents collected the very same thing, from Greene County, Pennsylvania, thinking again about the pride of being able to travel across the state," Hager said.

Yet some motorists had no particular place to get to on the Turnpike.

"It was almost a destination in of itself, because it represented so much progress, and going into the Jet-Age," Hager said.

"People would get on at Carlisle and drive out to the Midway Service Plaza, have Sunday dinner or Sunday lunch, and then get off at Bedford and turn around and come back to Harrisburg," DeFebo said.

The number of service plazas on the turnpike has dropped from 21 to 17. These places where drivers now find Starbucks and fast food, used to be a slightly more formal affair.

"They weren't in a rush like we are today. It was part of the travel experience, and they were just happy to have a place to eat that they didn't have to get off at an exit," DeFebo said.

Some drivers on a long haul may pass on taking a break at a service plaza, but road weary motorists may be kept awake by the Turnpike's sonic nap alert patterns or SNAP. Another Pennsylvania first.

"We invented this concept that when you're driving on an interstate, and you go out of the lane a little bit, and you hear these rumble strips. That was invented by the Turnpike Commission, and now it's on interstates across the world," DeFebo said.

Technology isn't the only thing that's changed on the toll road. When it first opened more than 75 years ago, it costs drivers only about a penny a mile. Today, it costs about 15 cents per mile or more than $50 dollars to drive a car from one end to the other.

"We've had a number of toll increases, and we also have a funding obligation that we didn't have when we opened, so over the years, the tolls have gone up, and over the last decade or so. They've gone up each year," DeFebo said.

The increasing pain motorist may feel at the tollbooth is partly due to a 2007 Pennsylvania law, Act 44.

"The Turnpike has been contributing $450 million to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from toll revenues. That money has gone initially to help highways and bridges in Pennsylvania, and to today where we're supplementing public transportation agencies," DeFebo said.

There are different ways of paying tolls, but soon, cash might not be one of them.

"If you don't have EZ-Pass, we have a payment method called Toll-by-Plate, in which we take a photo of your license plate, and send a bill to the registered vehicle owner for that toll," DeFebo said.

Another peek into the future of the Turnpike includes a plan for what the famed roadway will look like when it turns 100 in the year 2040.

"The Turnpike is already taking some steps to build communication and infrastructure that we're going to need for platooning vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and for connected vehicles," DeFebo said.

Times may change, but one thing may stay the same for travelers taking a trip on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

"People have a lot of positive, sentimental feelings about the Turnpike, because it was about that journey," DeFebo said.

"Memories of counting cars, playing games, stopping at the different rest stops, there are all sorts of fun things that people remember going along the Turnpike," Hager said.

The Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg will host an event, “Stories along the Turnpike," Sunday, October 1st, 2:00 - 3:00 pm.