Open Menu
Open Menu

Could Route 66 be saved by recommissioning it?

Published in

Route 66 in California. Photo by Hannah Swithinbank.

With a couple proposals already on the table to preserve Route 66 ahead of the planned defunding of a critical federal program, another option floated some years ago calls for the reversal of the road’s decommissioning and for adding it back to the country’s numbered highway system.

Primarily intended to enhance signage along the existing sections of Route 66, the idea was floated as early as 2003 by Fred Cain, who formed the U.S. Route 66 Recommissioning Initiative to promote the idea. After watching the signs for the road come down as early as the 1970s, and then witnessing a re-awakening of interest in the road in the 1990s, he began to believe that Route 66 could be reinstated to its former status – and he said the process of recommissioning is much simpler than most people believe.

“U.S. Highways and to a large extent even our Interstate Highways, are managed at the state level rather than the federal level,” he wrote at “State highway departments report to their state capitals, which in return report to their voters. If the state legislatures in the 8 states once served by Route 66 begin hearing from their constituents that they would like to see U.S. 66 re-commissioned, then it can and will happen.”

As Cain detailed the plan to recommission the highway, any existing roads designated Historic Route 66 or Route 66 Scenic Byway would revert simply to Route 66. Any no-longer-existing sections of Route 66 since replaced by other highways would receive Route 66 signage along those sections that replaced them.

Specifically, Cain envisioned recommissioning the highway through the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the non-profit organization that not only oversees highway design and construction standards but also administers highway numbers. It was the AASHTO which decommissioned Route 66 in June 1985 after I-40 and other interstates effectively rendered Route 66 obsolete.

AASHTO officials did not return calls for comment on the recommissioning proposal or whether a recommissioned Route 66 would have to comply with modern highway standards. While many U.S. routes have been decommissioned, it appears none of them have since been recommissioned.

According to an older article in Route 66 News, Cain’s proposal hadn’t found much support among Route 66 enthusiasts and preservation societies, who claimed that recommissioning the highway “would necessitate tearing down old bridges and razing or moving businesses close to the road to meet modern highway standards.”

Cain responded by claiming that a new U.S. highway designation for Route 66 would do nothing more than provide for consistent signage along the length of the road. “A new U.S. Route designation would probably be less intrusive than several other plans that have surfaced,” he wrote. “An important concept to grasp is that above and beyond all else, the Route 66 Recommissioning Initiative is strictly a re-signing proposal and not a ‘highway’ plan.”

The recommissioning plan Cain proposed, however, does not address funding except for that necessary for new signs. The $100,000 or so per year for Route 66 preservation projects currently distributed through the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is scheduled to disappear after 2019, causing concern among the Route 66 enthusiast community and at least one preservation commission to declare the road endangered.

In response, congressional lawmakers have proposed forming a Route 66 preservation commission and/or designating Route 66 as a National Historic Trail. Both proposals would ostensibly provide not only consistent signage along the entire Route 66 but would also continue funding preservation projects after the sunset of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.

Cain said he remains unconvinced the National Historic Trail designation would do much more than his proposal.

“While I really wanted to see a new official U.S. Route designation, the idea of a National Trail (NT) might be just as good,” he said. “But will a NT result in good signage? I don’t know that for sure… I’m not sure why we couldn’t do both. In any event there really needs to be some kind of federal support to help pay for signs. That’s kind of the nut we need to crack.”

Both H.R. 66, which calls for the formation of the Route 66 preservation commission, and H.R. 801, which calls for Route 66’s designation as a National Historic Trail, remain in congressional committees.