Officially, it’s Interstate 476, the Mid-County Expressway. No one ever calls it that, though. They call it the Blue Route, and people in suburban Philadelphia have both loved and hated this lightning rod of a highway for forty years. To many it’s just another road, merely a way to get from one place to another. Or a commuter nightmare: on an average day, some 130,000 vehicles jam the busier stretches of 476. Gruesome accidents and nightmarish traffic jams are not uncommon.
To me, though, it’s always been something more, possibly because I first encountered the Blue Route while it was still in a state of suspended animation, trapped somewhere between conception and birth. I had just graduated from high school and was driving to a party in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I made a wrong turn, ending up on a street that dead-ended at the top of a steep hill. I stepped from the car to ask an older gentleman walking a dog for directions. I happened to look down the hill and nearly broke my neck doing a double take. There was a six-lane highway below, complete with an overpass in the distance, but the road was completely empty as far as the eye could see in either direction. It was twilight on a summer day and the highway was eerily beautiful in the dying light.
“What the hell is THAT?” I asked the man with the dog. “That,” he informed me, “is Interstate 476, better known as The Blue Route.” The man didn’t seem very happy about the presence of a fragmentary interstate highway in his backyard. He had a lot of company in those days. Me? I’d found the equivalent of buried treasure. I’d joined the ranks of those fascinated and repelled by the nascent ‘Mid-County Expressway’. I wanted to know the story behind the story, wanted to know the ‘why’. I was always interested in the ‘why’.
It amazed me that here was this literal road to nowhere, this lost highway, just sitting there abandoned and forgotten behind suburban subdivisions, strip malls and soccer fields. Staid Republican Delaware County, Pennsylvania, sociological Wonder Bread, was a generally boring, predictable and sheltering environment, most of its leaders as humorless and coldly efficient as a Third World military junta. But here was, quite literally, concrete testimony that powerful people, movers and shakers, had dreamed big, had plotted, calculated and schemed, and had yet somehow screwed up on a grand scale.
The Blue Route, a Frankenstein monster of sorts, had defied its masters, had run off into the night, cackling. It was charming and mysterious, impressive in its way, a Stonehenge among split levels. On another level, it was a symbol of futility and a bone of contention that began at the rear of a strip mall and ended in the middle of a cornfield, mired in a swamp of litigation. I followed the saga, a decades-long soap opera as it played on and played out, the labyrinthine plot offering more twists than a tractor-trailer full of soft pretzels. It took 33 years for the road to open to traffic AFTER it was designed, approved and budgeted; nearly a quarter century to complete once construction had begun. Why? You could write a book about that.
Several years ago I found a striking Scott Kozen photo of the orphaned Blue Route near Conshohocken, PA in 1974, a photo that reminded me of my own experience on that long ago summer day. I stared at the photo and I thought: there’s a novel in there somewhere…
There was, as it turned out.
Writers find inspiration in all sorts of strange places. Not many writers find that inspiration in infrastructure, true, but then there has never been a highway with the quirky history, odd cast of fellow travelers and discordant detours that surrounded the Blue Route, for better or worse.
One day someone will write a definitive nonfiction account of possibly the most bizarre road construction project in U.S history. To me, though, as both citizen and writer the Blue Route was never so much fascinating as fact written in concrete and rebar. It was about how The Road affected individuals, families and communities, and it was a metaphor for the journey of life: a lot of twists and turns, bone-jarring potholes and wrong exits that take us into places we didn’t really want to go. It was about the power of persistence.
Neither building the Blue Route nor writing a 400-page novel about the project was a simple undertaking, but if you just keep your eyes straight ahead, both hands on the wheel and your foot on the pedal, well, eventually you get where you’re going. The Blue Route is twenty-two miles long and there are a lot of stories along the path of the road and beyond. I’m going to track those stories down and book ‘em. Hopefully, it won’t take 33 years. None of us is getting any younger, after all.