We returned from Chicago last night after a wonderful visit to my home town to celebrate my mother’s 85th birthday. On the way back, I found another entry in my list of “things that tick me off” – list of those things everything in life that I find extraordinary frustrating or moronic. I created this list as a cathartic exercise to keep me from spontaneous explosions or psychotic episodes. When I encounter something like this, I simply say “I’ll add it to the list.” This week’s addition is Breezewood, Pennsylvania.
Anyone traveling from the Midwest (millions of drivers each week) will usually take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Interstate 70. While the other turnpikes simply connect to other turnpikes or interstates with ramps, drivers hit a bottleneck at Breezewood where millions of drivers are forced to pass through the unincorporated town and stop at a red light. The result is as you might expect if you put a red light in the middle of one of the nation’s busiest highways — gridlock at peak times. Over ten years ago, Business Week called Breezewood “perhaps the purest example yet devised of the great American tourist trap…the Las Vegas of roadside strips, a blaze of neon in the middle of nowhere, a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.” Since then, the problems have only multiplied with the increase in traffic.
I travel through Breezewood often and generally have little trouble. We often stop at the Starbucks on the way to Pittsburgh or Chicago to see relatives. It is the perfect distance for a stop from Washington.
Last night, however, I hit the city on a weekend coming from Chicago to Washington — particularly a Sunday. We had just covered over 700 miles and four states over the prior ten hours. We then spent over an hour moving less than a mile in the chaos that is Breezewood. First, millions encounter just four or five booths to leave the turnpike. It was so bad yesterday (45 minutes just to get to the booth) that I asked the turnpike collector if this was a worst than usual day. He laughed and said that it was a typical Sunday. Then, you faced even greater chaos as cars get out of the gates and face gridlock as the five lines are merged into two lanes in a relatively short space. There are no painted lines so cars are every possible angle as they inch forward. This is to force all of the cars into a sharp curve to direct them into the center of Breezewood with its fast food joints and gas stations. The cars then hit the traffic light in the center of the town. The result can be traffic jams on three different highways that connect around the city.
In the ultimate trip through six states, we spent one-tenth of our time moving through Breezewood. Call me a skeptic, but I wonder if this is really necessary. Breezewood is historically a junction for travelers in the area. While you would not know it from the strip of fast-food joints and tee-shirt shops, the town goes back to colonial times and once housed British troops. However, it would seem easy to create a bypass ramp from the turnpike to 1-70 or an elevated ramp at the intersection to allow traffic to move directly to 1-70 without stopping at the light or the town.
This is of course not unique. There are other planned bottlenecks between highways, but few are at such a critical junction. While the transfer results in millions of dollars in sales for Breezewood, it adds huge delays for travelers going to Washington or other East Coast destinations. Such tourist traps can produce a race to the bottom if other states burden the Interstate System with bottlenecks and loops through towns like Breezewood. While there are an estimated 1000 people working in the city, millions are delayed with added costs of fuel and time. Many of us would still stop in Breezewood if we were given a choice but we are not given the choice. It is time to remove the bottleneck with a bypass in Breezewood.
Now I feel better.