What’s the best way to leave town?Published 10:16am Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Column: Pothole Prairie
No matter where you go, the people of every place in America see one major north-south route and one major east-west route through their area.
That area could be defined as their county or their valley or their regional hub or what have you, but that same perspective of two main routes is consistent. The two main routes make all other routes less significant to the people living in that area.
Allow me to refine my point a little. Thanks to the numbering schemes federal, state and local civil engineers create for roads, sometimes the task of, say, a north-south route is handled by two different names but still going in the same direction (kind of like how U.S. Highway 69 and Minnesota Highway 13 work out on the west side of Albert Lea). So sometimes the two main routes are really three or four highway numbers but still do the job of one north-south way and one east-west way.
For the Albert Lea area, it’s pretty clear which routes are the two main: Interstate 35 and Interstate 90. In this case, they really are more significant than all other highways and byways and provide quick 70 mph access on four-lane, divided highways to other locales. It’s a nice convenience for a city that serves as the regional center.
In Ames, Iowa, I-35 handled the north-south traffic out of town and U.S. Highway 30 the east-west traffic. Sure, U.S. Highway 69 streamed through the city as Grand Avenue, then Lincoln Way, then Duff Avenue, all major streets with lots of commerce, but U.S. 69’s significance dwindled once it left the city limits. Drivers going south to Des Moines or north to Clear Lake almost always opted for I-35, even though U.S. 69 went to both places.
When I lived in Ellensburg, Wash., I-90 was the main east-west route. Interstate 82 and U.S. Highway 97 were the north-south routes. (I-82 began just outside of the city and headed south to Yakima and shared its roadway with U.S. 97; from E-burg to the north, U.S. 97 was on its own.) Ellensburg was in a valley, and all four directions had traffic hazards to consider when driving in inclement weather. It could be sunshine and fair skies in town but snowy and slippery in the mountains.
Where I grew up in Calhoun County, Iowa, U.S. Highway 20 was the main east-west route and Iowa Highway 4 the main north-south route. Being local yokels living in the country, we often took county roads instead, but once we were on voyages longer than 30 miles, these two roads time and again became our means of travel.
U.S. 20 hits some pretty big places, but Iowa 4 isn’t a major route to anywhere. Still, for cities like Jefferson, Churdan, Panora, Rockwell City, Pocahontas, Emmetsburg and Esterville, the road matters. It keep its number as a Minnesota highway and bisects St. James, Sleepy Eye and Paynesville.
What’s also interesting is that every place seems to think its two main routes, while handy, are also the source of crime and drug trafficking. The folks in Humboldt, Iowa, are on the corner of U.S. Highway 169 and Iowa Highway 3. Many times I had conservations with people there who said these were major routes for moving drugs, guns or whatever. I am not saying they were wrong because drug runners presumably want less-patrolled routes, but the funny thing is that in other cities people say the same things about their main routes, too.
The complaint in any city in America goes something like, “Boy, (insert city) sure is a nice town, but I worry about some of the criminal activity going through on (insert names of two highways here).”
Routes are often the main way in or out of an area and can become political fights, too.
I did a stint at the newspaper in Conroe, Texas, in Montgomery County. The north-south route was I-45 and east-west was Texas Highway 105, which went through a town by the name of Cut and Shoot. No kidding.
Anyway, I-45 was how Montgomery County folks headed south to Houston in Harris County. Counties there seemed to have a large amount of control on how the state spent federal construction dollars on freeways. I-45 was a gigantic road all through Harris County until just before the Montgomery County border, where it shrank to merely a four-lane road with only a guardrail for a median and a potholed surface much in need of replacement. It was a bottleneck slowdown that was a traffic hazard twice a day every weekday. It was clear Harris County wanted to discourage people from moving outside of its jurisdiction to the affluent suburb of The Woodlands in Montgomery County. The freeway fight was all about retaining tax revenue. From looking at Google Earth, I believe the problem has been fixed since then.
Look on any map. Pick any city. Even if the north-south route doesn’t go exactly north and south or the east-west route doesn’t go exactly east and west, the story is pretty much the same. The people of every city view the primary means of getting out of town and back home again — usually two main routes — as more important than all others.
Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column usually appears every other Tuesday.