Forgotten Highways Can Give Boost to Small Towns

Published January 10, 2010

John Gann has driven hundreds of thousands of miles during his many years as a community and economic development consultant, and he has become convinced thousands of small towns are failing to take advantage of an asset many of them view as a liability: Their off-the-beaten-path highways.

“We’re told all the time that we need to spend billions of federal and state dollars to fix up the interstate highways to carry more traffic with safety,” said Gann, president of Gann Associates, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. “But outside of the Interstates we have a great highway system that we’ve already paid for. The best of these are what I call the UNterstate highways. They’re still good, many of them, for long trips, but because of the Interstates they are not used as much as they could be. They’re underused and forgotten highways.”

He has produced “Marketing UNterstate Highways: Bringing Out-of-Town Dollars to Non-Destination Small Towns,” a 78-page manual offering local community and business leaders ways to draw more traffic to their roads in the interest of economic development.

Success could also have a side benefit of more evenly distributing traffic over the existing highway network.

‘Better Travel Experience’
“The manual is intended for bypassed rural communities that aren’t and can’t be tourist destinations, that maybe don’t have what it takes to attract industry,” Gann said.

“This is what I call economic development for the rest of us. It’s about getting business and traffic by being en route to someplace else.”

His manual suggests ways to induce travelers headed elsewhere to use non-Interstate highways that go through these small towns and rural areas. The increased traffic would result in more customer traffic for local businesses.

“We must show travelers through marketing that it’s in their interest to try these older highways, that they offer a better travel experience even if they might be a little bit slower than an Interstate,” Gann said. “There’s much less tractor-trailer traffic, less road construction, and more to see because you’re close to farms and towns. It’s easier to stop anywhere. You have more choices in where to buy gas or eat. If you’re in an emergency situation, you’ll probably be closer to help, not 15 miles from the nearest interchange.”

Faster Than Flying
Gann notes a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) study determined for trips up to 500 miles, flying is no faster portal to portal than driving, even when the plane is on time.

“When you consider the time people spend driving to the airport, then getting through security, waiting to board the plane, time in the air, time getting through the destination airport, and from there to the final destination, driving is as fast or faster,” he said. “Flying is a nightmare. We’ve got TSA security, whole-body scanners, delayed flights, passengers held hostage in grounded planes, and fewer and more crowded flights.”

Gann stresses UNterstates are not scenic or historic byways. Scenic or historic features of these highways are incidental to their utility. He is talking about highways that were mainstays of car and truck transportation before the building of the Interstates.

“They are the best of the older U.S., state, or sometimes even county roads that by themselves or in combination can provide good transportation for long distances between cities or other major destinations,” Gann said. “They’re selected as good transportation to get from point A to point B. I’ve driven many of them on long trips and have often felt like I am on my own private highway because there is so little traffic.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.

‘Beyond Suburbs, These Non-Interstates Shine’

John Gann says marketing UNtertstate highways “does not work in urban/suburban areas. In those areas people do better on the Interstates, but once they are beyond the suburbs, that’s where these non-Interstates shine.”

Here are some examples highlighted in “Marketing UNterstate Highways”:

Chicago to Wisconsin
“People from Madison, Wisconsin, heading for Chicagoland—or Chicagoans bound for The Dells or other central Wisconsin vacation spots—can pay tolls to drive the heavily traveled I-90.

“Or they can have their choice of good UNterstate candidates such as U.S. 20, U.S. 12, and U.S. 14. All are slow going once they reach Chicago’s spread-out suburbs but a pleasure to drive in the countryside.”

Across the Northeast
“From Boston west to Cleveland or Chicago or for just getting across Upstate New York, it’s hard to find a better UNterstate candidate than U.S. 20.

“The Interstate competitor, I-90, is pretty much a string of tollways from the Bay State to the Prairie State, so out-of-pocket savings can be substantial. . . .

“In Illinois it’s in the south Chicago suburbs, where it’s best avoided, as it should also be around Cleveland.”

Keystone College Towns
“[P]arents of high school seniors making campus tours have an alternative for getting between State College, home of Pennsylvania State University, and the campus of Clarion University in the town of the same name.

“It’s U.S. 322, also good for travelers wishing to avoid the heavy trucks barreling to and from New York City on the Keystone Shortway, Interstate 80.”

Marketing UNterstate Highways is available for $77.95 plus $5 shipping and handling from Carpe Horam (866) 614-6726. Information available from the author at [email protected].