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New bill aims to preserve Route 66 ahead of centennial celebrations in 2026

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Photo by Jannes Glas.

While much of Route 66 remains in existence and in use, its decommissioning more than 30 years ago has left its fate largely to the various states through which the Mother Road passes, but a new bill proposes to not only coordinate the preservation of the highway on a federal level but also to provide federal funds for that effort.

The Route 66 Centennial Commission Act, also known as H.R. 66, which Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois introduced in Congress last week, not only proposes the formation of a commission tasked with celebrating the road’s centennial in 2026 it also directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to prepare a preservation plan for Route 66.

What exactly of the route would be preserved would be up to the USDOT and the relevant states, according to Miles Chiotti, Davis’s assistant in charge of the legislation. “There’s a big desire to preserve it so as not to disturb the roadbed as much as possible,” he said. “But we made sure to word it to leave it up to the DOT and the states to determine the course of action.”

Bill Thomas, president of the Route 66: The Road Ahead Initiative, which worked with Davis’s office to draft the bill, said the road itself could indeed benefit from preservation in some places, as could the route’s many bridges, what Thomas described as “architecturally iconic.”

“You hate to see them get torn down because what goes up to replace them these days doesn’t have a lot of character,” he said.


Brick section of Route 66 in Auburn, Illinois. Photo by Jim Grey.

However, preservation of Route 66 should extend beyond the highway itself, he said. “There’s a healthy interest in preserving the idiosyncratic local character of Route 66: the mom-and-pop cafes, the weird roadside attractions, the wonderful neon signage.”

Current preservation efforts fall to the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, initiated in 2009. According to Thomas, the program distributes about $100,000 per year to local or state projects, based not on any sort of route-wide priority list, but on which projects have sufficient matching funds. However, that program is set to end in 2019, with no similar program scheduled to replace it.

As proposed in the Route 66 Centennial Commission Act, the Secretary of Transportation and the governors of all eight states through which the highway passes would prepare a route-wide preservation plan due no later than three years after the passage of the Act (2020, should it pass this year). The bill doesn’t provide any specific funding for the preservation plan, but Thomas said the Road Ahead Initiative is working on other federal legislation that would.

In addition, the Road Ahead Initiative has worked with Illinois legislators to introduce a similar Route 66 Centennial Commission bill there, and Thomas said he hopes to leverage that effort to get state-level centennial commissions started in the other seven Route 66 states.

Decommissioned in 1985, Route 66 remains more than 85 percent intact, according to the NPS, though as Thomas pointed out, little remains of the original 18-foot-wide poured concrete roadbed that hasn’t been paved over or widened, and signage varies widely from state to state along the route. In 2008, the World Monuments Fund added Route 66 to its watchlist, noting that the highway’s “surviving businesses are struggling, and its roadside architecture—a tapestry of 20th-century Americana—is deteriorating. Some places are threatened by development. Others are falling prey to vandals, decay, and abandonment.”

As for centennial celebration events, Chiotti said those would be entirely up to the committee, though the bill did float the idea of a conference on the U.S. Numbered Highway System. Thomas said it’s way too early to plan any such events, but said it would be a nice centennial present to the nation to ensure that Route 66 is still there for the anniversary. A number of celebrations – most along the route, but also as far away as Germany – marked the highway’s 90th anniversary last year.

In addition to the preservation effort and centennial planning, backers of the Route 66 Experience in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Route 66 founder, Cyrus Avery, was based, said they expect groundbreaking for the $23 million museum to take place in the spring, with the grand opening anticipated for fall of next year.

H.R. 66 is currently in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.