Route 66 is ubiquitous to American culture. It’s mentioned in films, books and music. It’s signature sign adorns café and gas station walls.
But it could soon be a thing of the past. The National Trust for Historic Preservation added the road to its annual list of America’s most endangered historic places this week.
“Route 66 has fueled America’s imagination, popular culture, and passion for the open road for nearly a century,” Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said. “It deserves a place not just in our rearview mirror, but on our roadmap of unique travel experiences for generations to come.”
The route and its surroundings are funded in part by associations in the eight states it traverses and grants from the National Park Service.
The trust argued that unless Congress takes action, Route 66 could continue to fall victim to more direct travel routes until it is left to all but the history books.
Built in 1926, Route 66 was the first paved U.S. highway system between the Midwest and California. It employed thousands during the Great Depression, carried hundreds of thousands of Americans escaping the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and connected slews of military bases during World War II.
Its use began to decline as the nation’s interstate system was put in place.
“Over time, travelers began bypassing Route 66 for the Interstate, causing the independent businesses, rich roadside architecture and kitschy landmarks and attractions that the roadway was known for to slowly diminish,” a trust petition demanding Congressional action read. “By the 1960s, many communities and businesses along the route fell into deep decay…or disappeared entirely.”
But there is hope for the road. Last year, U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Illinois) introduced H.R. 801, which would designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail. The designation would open new means of federal funding for maintenance and promotion of the iconic highway and its signature businesses.
“Towns across the nation and throughout my district have seen the Mother Road bring tourism, employment, a higher quality of life, and civic pride to their communities,” LaHood said in a release. “We appreciate the support of this legislation because it will allow visitors from around the world to experience the history of Route 66 while our local businesses and tourism industry receive the economic benefits.”
Another Republican congressman from Illinois, Rodney Davis, echoed his colleague’s sentiments and seemed optimistic the bill would become law.
“I am proud to have America’s most iconic road run through the middle of my district and it’s important we celebrate its history,” he said. “We represent different parts of the country and we’re from different political parties but we can all relate to the significance of Route 66
The bill, which has 21 co-sponsors, passed the House unanimously on June 5. However, it needs Senatorial and presidential approval to be signed into law.
Should the Senate – which has assigned the bill to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources – or president not act on the bill, it will expire and the cycle must then begin anew in the House.