Before there were freeways or state highways, it was known appropriately as “The Road to the West,” then rebranded “The Mother Road” by the great Western novelist John Steinbeck, and often given the simple moniker “Main Street of America.”
Route 66, a 2,400-mile-long roadway connecting the heartland of Illinois and Missouri to Western desert cities and Southern California is referred to in many ways, but two members of Congress want to add one more title: National Historic Trail.
A bill introduced on May 28 would add this status, marking the first, full-length national designation of the road that passes through eight states, while opening a permanent pathway to federal dollars for preservation, promotion and rehabilitation.
HR 3600, co-authored by Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-El Monte, and Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Illinois, was reintroduced as bipartisan legislation after it failed to become law in 2018 and again in 2020, when it was bogged down by an issue in the U.S. Senate over whether oil and gas pipelines could be built across or under the road. The new bill includes a sentence that says nothing in the so-called Route 66 National Historic Trail Designation Act can stop “the development, production or transmission of energy.”
The bill will start its new journey shortly in the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, of which Napolitano is a member. With the energy issue settled, observers see it clearing the House and Senate for approval by President Joe Biden.
“I think this is a nonpartisan issue and a nonpartisan topic,” said Scott Piotrowski, president of California Route 66 Association and a South Pasadena resident. “All this will do is increase tourism in these regions and throughout the United States.”
Napolitano and LaHood agreed. As more people are traveling with the COVID-19 pandemic easing, road trippers will want to experience the road, often in sections, to explore throwback stores and roadside pop-ups, old-fashioned gas stations and kitschy motels.
“Providing critical funds to be used in close coordination with cities and stakeholders, our legislation will help rehabilitate, improve, and preserve the legacy of the iconic road, benefiting millions of residents and boosting our economic recovery,” said Napolitano in a statement.
On Dec. 23, 2020, a companion bill was passed in the Senate and signed by President Donald Trump. This establishes a 15-member Route 66 Centennial Commission that will plan a 100-year celebration of the famous roadway in 2026. Bill Thomas, a historian and long-time advocate of the highway and president of The Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership, a nonprofit focusing on new monies and more publicity for the roadway, said the members have not yet been chosen.
Why would a road need to become the 20th U.S. Historic Trail, joining others such as the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail? Money, Thomas said. It would establish a line item in the National Parks Service budget, funding that currently is very tentative, he said.
“The single most practical thing is creating a permanent, federal designation,” Thomas said Tuesday, June 1. The road was a national highway but was decommissioned in 1985. “Once you receive (the trails) designation it is a forever designation,” he added.
While Thomas said funding would be determined by the National Park Service, he foresees monies will be used to help small businesses such as motels and eateries make improvements, as well as for roadway maintenance and new signage.
Route 66 was made famous in the song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” by American songwriter Bobby Troup and sung by Nat King Cole.
It was featured in countless Hollywood movies including “The Grapes of Wrath (1940)” starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad leading his family out of economic ruin into sunny California. It was used during transports of soldiers during World War II.
Duarte residents Alan and Claudia Heller authored a travel book, “Life on Route 66: Personal Accounts Along the Mother Road to California.” Allan Heller said they’ve enjoyed the railroad museum in Kingman, Arizona and eating at a diner on the route in Amboy. “That was a throwback in time” to the 1950s, he said. “It was like you used to see in “Happy Days.”
Tourists spend $38 million a year in communities along the route, according to a 2012 economic study from Rutgers University.
In San Bernardino County, Route 66 runs from Needles to Barstow, then to Victorville and through the Cajon Pass, before entering into San Bernardino, along Cajon Boulevard and Mt. Vernon Avenue. At Foothill Boulevard (Fifth Street), Route 66 turns and continues west.
The recognition could be a boon for San Bernardino, mentioned in the iconic song, which has held car shows over the years. The fabled road passed by such landmarks as Mitla Cafe and the Wigwam Motel, both in San Bernardino, and Bono’s Restaurant in Fontana, a landmark delicatessen and restaurant since 1936, before heading further west.
On Foothill Boulevard in Rancho Cucamonga — some of the oldest sections of Route 66 — two restaurants honor the road’s legacy: Magic Lamp Inn and the Sycamore Inn, the latter existing when Route 66 was a dirt road.
The road zigzags from Foothill Boulevard and Huntington Drive in the San Gabriel Valley, to Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, the site of the annual Rose Parade.
In Los Angeles, the road originally ended at Broadway and Seventh Street but was extended to Santa Monica in 1936 and ends at Lincoln and Olympic boulevards.
The road in Los Angeles County can be hard to find, Piotrowski said.
“In the desert, I see an increase in domestic tourism. But in the metropolitan area, the affect will be on signage. In the L.A. region you have multiple alignments of the road. That will be assisted greatly with this act,” he said of the proposed legislation.
Source: Orange County Register