When U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, said Wednesday he had been named chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he cited the Pennsylvania Turnpike as one of the three most significant projects for transportation nationwide in the past 150 years.
The turnpike, the nation’s first superhighway, was ranked by Shuster with the same importance as the Transcontinental Railroad and the Panama Canal.
Since its inception, the turnpike has played a significant role in the Cambria-Somerset area.
Somerset is one of the original counties to host what started out as a four-lane limited access highway covering 160 miles from Carlisle to Irwin.
The goal of the turnpike, designed in the 1930s, was to cross the numerous Allegheny Mountain ridges east of Somerset County toward Carlisle.
The end result revolutionized automobile and truck traffic, allowing motorists to travel on a highway with no cross streets, railroad crossings or traffic lights.
James Orr of Grove City, a history buff who follows the turnpike, said the state capitalized on tunnels bored through the Allegheny Mountains in the late 1880s to be part of the South Pennsylvania Railroad.
The brainchild of magnate William Henry Vanderbilt, the railroad was proposed to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad. But it never fully materialized, and the right of way was unused for 50 years.
The rapid acceptance of the original 160-mile stretch of the superhighway prompted a second phase, from Carlisle to Valley Forge in 1950 and a third in 1951 from Irwin to the Pennsylvania-Ohio border.
In 1954, the Delaware River Extension was built from Valley Forge to the Delaware River and in 1955, the Northeast Extension was completed to just beyond Allentown.
In 1957, the final link completing the toll road was opened, extending the turnpike past Scranton to Clark’s Summit in Lackawanna County.
When possible, the route was laid out on southern exposures to allow the sun to melt ice and snow from the surface.
The initial part stretching through this area was designed and built in record time, according to the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s website.
Design was completed in October 1938 and the highway opened Oct. 1, 1940, about 72 years and two months ago.
The turnpike today spans 514 miles, and the highway carries 156.2 million vehicles annually.
The price to drive a car on the pike is 9.4 cents per mile for cash customers. A 10 percent rate hike is planned on the first of the year.
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