Political Access

On April 1, 2012 · 3 Comments

No less than the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is responsible for the claim, which it considers "Other Interstate Trivia" by the way, that: "All but five state capitals are served by the interstate highway system. Those that are not served are: Juneau, AK; Dover, DE; Jefferson City, MO; Carson City, NV; and Pierre, SD." Every other website that features this interesting tidbit seems to feed directly from the FHWA source. Most don’t even bother to change the language. They simply cut-and-paste the quote verbatim without attribution and present it as fact.

It seems odd to our sensibilities that the capital city of a given state might not be served by an interstate highway. One imagines that if any place were able to secure the necessary Federal highway funds it would be the center of a state’s political universe. How can a capital city, one wonders, live practically off-the-grid like that? Is the claim factual? In a strict technical sense, yes as of the date I posted this article. However, as with many things discussed on 12MC, a closer examination reveals nuance and shades of gray. A city isn’t isolated just because an interstate highway doesn’t run up to its doorstep. Keep that in mind as we proceed.

Let’s start with the easy one. Three guesses why Juneau, Alaska isn’t served by the interstate highway system. Right.

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Juneau grew along a narrow flatland, hemmed-in between a tall ridge of coastal mountains on one side and and the Gastineau Channel on the other. That was perfectly fine when boats were a primary means of transportation. It’s considered a detriment in an automobile-oriented culture. Juneau’s Glacier Highway does continue to push farther north along the coastline (much farther than when I went "Out the Road" a number of years ago). Perhaps someday their road will extend all the way to Skagway through some engineering miracle and massive amounts of oil revenue to finally connect Juneau to the outside world by road. However, even if it ever did, it would still be a long way from interstate quality. Ships and airplanes seem to be a better option for Juneau. It might be easier to simply move the capital elsewhere.

Jefferson City, Missouri and Pierre, South Dakota also come close to proving the adage. Access to either one is considerably easier than Juneau, though. Both have four-lane highways leading from an interstate in at least one direction albeit these access roads have plenty of at-grade intersections. That condition by itself fails to meet interstate highway standards. I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons too. The Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce has pushed for a road that would become Interstate 570. However it remains only a pipe-dream at this time without any meaningful planning or funding. I couldn’t find any similar efforts in Pierre. Apparently they’re satisfied with the existing 4-lane road. At-grade crossings are less of a problem in a rural area within the Great Plains. Much of the 34 mile stretch of U.S. Route 83 extending between Interstate 90 and Pierre traverses the Fort Pierre National Grassland.

Carson City, Nevada and Dover, Delaware are different stories. Carson City will likely drop from the list before too long. It is served by U.S. Route 395 that drops south from Interstate 80 at Reno. Much of Route 395 has already been upgraded to interstate standards. Construction continues and before long it will become Interstate 580. Readers can track progress through a Nevada Department of Transportation site dedicated to keeping the public informed.

The extension of I-580 from the Mt. Rose Highway to Bowers Mansion cutoff will connect Reno and Carson City, effectively completing I-580 in Washoe County. NDOT has been planning for several decades to improve I-580 to freeway standards for its entire length in Nevada. Piece by piece, the long-range plan is taking shape.

It could be finished this year and suddenly a thousand unoriginal websites shamelessly copying from the Federal Highway Administration verbatim will be wrong. Incorrect information on the Intertubes? I know, I know… heaven forbid.

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U.S. Route 1 as it drops south from Interstate 95 between Newark and Wilmington down to Dover sure looks like it must be a prominent freeway based on the map. Indeed it is, and it’s even constructed to interstate highway standards. It’s a toll road, the 51-mile Korean War Veterans Memorial Highway. Nonetheless it is not an interstate highway, not even a secrete one. I don’t know why. If someone in authority in Delaware snapped his or her fingers and planted a few signs it could qualify as an interstate highway. That would instantly drop Dover from the list.

Final verdict: the FHWA list of five is correct. However one state capital has a road that’s an interstate highway equivalent and another will have an actual interstate highway soon.

Let’s not forget about Honolulu, Hawaii, either. It’s not on the list because it is served by an interstate highway.

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There are a number of interstate highways in Hawaii although, paradoxically, none of them are actually interstate for the obvious reason. An interstate highway has to adhere to specific design characteristics but it doesn’t have to cross a state border, oddly enough.

On April 1, 2012 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Political Access”

  1. Karl Z says:

    One more interesting detail…in all five of those states, the state capital is not the largest city in the sate, and in the case of all but Delaware, not number two, either, which may explain why they didn’t get an Interstate when the routes were originally drawn up. (Obviously, Juneau is isolated, too.)

    After your mention of Carson City being served (soon) by I-580, I took a quick look at the rest of the country to see how many other state capitals are served by only a three-digit Interstate (a loop or a spur). Surprisingly, the answer is none, depending on how you define “served”. The closest one I could find other than Carson City to being served by only a three-digit Interstate is Lansing, Michigan, but I-69 and I-96 circle the periphery of the city (only I-496 actually goes to the heart of town) and are close enough to “serve” the community. Another honorable mention is Lincoln, Nebraska (Interstate 180, which turns into 9th and 10th Streets downtown), and even then Lincoln has grown so much that Interstate 80 is no longer in the countryside (as it was when I was in grad school there in the mid-1990s).

    Personally, I think that state capitals might better serve people by being a little more isolated, where they’ll cause less trouble for the rest of us, but that’s just a reaction…

  2. Jasper says:

    That’s DE-1 going to Dover, not US-1.


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