Paved With Good Intentions: The Finalists

It wasn’t easy picking the finalists for our “Worst Roads in America” competition, but our intrepid judges Genevieve Giuliano and Mohja Rhoads, top transportation scholars at the University of Southern California, made their decisions and selected the posts below. Now it’s up to you to vote for the winner in the comments section.

1. Vicki

The on-ramp to the Beltway near the Woodrow Wilson bridge headed out of Alexandria, Va., into Maryland made me meditative. This scenic two-mile stretch of the on-ramp to I-495 has been a favorite place to while away an hour or two in my car pondering Buddhist philosophy as I watch a caterpillar crawling past me and 300 other cars stuck at the same intersection. Green light, red light. A fleeting chance to pass through three intersections. Another light change. Now the ethereal cacophony of honking drivers hoping to enter the on-ramp into I-495 rush-hour traffic at a rate of 5 miles per hour. Life is random and beautiful. Construction workers on this stretch of road also lean to zen Buddhism as they examine the weather, the car dealership across the street, and each other, slowing the rhythm of their months of work.

2. Brendan

The Tobin

I take the road most traveled,
With pot-holes galore and water dripping,
The pavement shattered,
The workers lost and mingling.

I take the road most traveled,
With the two levels crumbling,
A two-hour commute with drivers enraged,
And the fast-pass gate shuttering after every car.

I take the road most traveled,
The tourists lost and clueless,
Backing out of the fast-pass lane confused,
With the road trembling all the while.

3. Daniel

The “Big Dig” — the megaproject to reroute Interstate 93, the chief highway through the city of Boston, into a 3.5-mile tunnel under the city — has amassed an infamous reputation. As the most expensive highway project in the U.S. — the total now stands at a staggering $22 billion — it gave cause for longtime Congressman Barney Frank to quip, “Rather than lower the expressway, wouldn’t it be cheaper to raise the city?”

What truly makes this among the worst stretches of highway in the U.S. is for all the project’s lofty aspirations of alleviating the chronic congestion on I-93 that was predicted to have 16-hour traffic jams by 2010, the project has incurred criminal arrests, escalating costs, death, leaks, poor execution, use of substandard materials, and has had negligible impact of traffic. As my mother would testify to, trips at rush hours are longer and more congested, rather than less.

4. Raj Pandravada

Sweet Eighteen: On the Miserable RT-18 Through New Brunswick, N.J.

Oh eighteen,
For so long
Under construction
You have been.
It’s been seven years, they say
Since you were last free.
Only one lane each way,
All dust and no glory,
You lay there bare
With bumps and potholes,
And no one seemed to care.
For my rattled nerves and bones
Lately it’s been kind of alright.
There have been some repairs,
Usually in the dead of night.
And yes, now the lanes come in pairs.
Fleeting, I am sure is this respite,
For I know that come winter will appear
Your tempestuous mood and dark side.
We’ve lost all hope, I fear.
Eighteen, you miserable route,
Taking us from Brunswick
To Route 1 North and South
And I-95 to the city.
But hey, that’s another messy story!

5. David D

Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, especially the stretch between 70th and 30th Streets, appears to be host not only to the Double Parking Championship of the World, but also, as a bonus event, the Triple Parking Championship of the World. That these prestigious events take place year round is a tribute to the borough, but for cyclists like myself they represent more than a little threat to life and limb.

6. mike

I am forced to nominate, as nobody has been brave enough to contemplate its horrors, the stretch of I-80 that runs through Nebraska. Iowa is somewhat flat, but at least there are things (barns) to look at. Colorado and Wyoming have mountains and other fun stuff like that. But Nebraska? Nebraska has a spirit-crushing desolation that stretches for six hours. Nebraska has signs that torture you with slogans such as “You are Nowhere.” Nebraska has roads so straight, flat, and boring that it slowly breaks you down until you’re ready to drive your car into a tree. Only problem is that you are in Nebraska, and there is nothing to drive your car into.

7. Eric Schwartz

No one should ever drink and drive. This maxim is rarely disputed. However, after becoming too familiar with the cluster “truck” that is the tangled morass of merges leading to the Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City, N.J., I now truly worry about those drinking while paving. The result is just as dangerous and induces a similar pang of paranoia as each set of headlights bears down on you like a death horse bound to clip your trajectory at unholy angles and herald the coming of three more horsemen of the “Pulaski-lypse.”

Jersey City, this is an impasse as it is. Why not just rip it up and start over again? It would be safer as a molten gorge of blacktop surrounded by the famous N.J. “orange cones” than as the foyer to the afterlife that it is today.

8. Joe

When I first moved to Providence, I hoped that the on-ramp to I-195 East would be re-opened by the time I graduated. As the years ticked on, I thought it wise not to tell this to my adviser, for fear that he (conspiring with the DOT) would keep me from graduating. Now I have my Ph.D., and all I hope when I drive along Gano Street toward 195 is that one of the kiddie-pool-sized potholes will not swallow my Zipcar … or that if I am really lucky, maybe one of the concrete crevasses will return the tire, hubcap and all, that it ripped from my housemate’s car last winter. As snow and rain slowly shred the asphalt to gravel, this former construction site has turned into a destruction site. I’m leaving town this summer for a new adventure — if only I can find a ramp onto the highway.

9. Bill

There is a historical precedent to this nomination: it signaled a start to the end of British rule in the colonies. MA-2 is blessed with so much history: Walden Pond, Johnny Appleseed‘s route west, and the Minutemen’s first stand. But for my clan, everyone who came north from Florida had to ride this gauntlet with my cousin Mary Beth from Logan to Leominster. [It has] Narrow lanes with barriers designed to psychologically reduce speeds that appear to have no effect on the locals and those wondrous devices in lieu of traffic signals — the traffic circles, roulette wheels for adventurous visitors as round and round you go and where you come out only the Lord knows. It’s better than any Six-Flags ride and best enjoyed with rain or snow and a splash of Irish whiskey.

10. t paciello

The Cross Bronx Expressway. An oxymoron if ever there was one. It is a symphony of delay, dereliction, and despair. You get your first introduction by sitting in a cacophony of traffic at the George Washington Bridge toll plaza. The number of roads that funnel their cars to “the Bridge” look like a half-eaten bowl of linguine. Then the true nightmare begins as you hit New York City and begin the slow, desperate crawl through the Bronx. You can only wonder what Robert Moses was thinking when, like a kid with a shovel at the beach, he just dug a 100+ foot trench through the borough, displacing thousands of families so that hundreds of thousands of cars can crab their way at speeds upwards of 4 m.p.h. while being whipsawed by 48-foot tractor trailers arriving from points south and east after many hours of caffeine/Red Bull/?-aided driving alertness. Oh, and that is on a good day!

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  1. Alistair says:

    I live near MA-2 and can attest that nothing slows us down. (You’ve heard the terms for Massachusetts drivers — they usually begin with the start of our state name and end with ‘-tard’ or ‘-hole’…) But then I’m one of those invading Brits, for whom a traffic circle is no big deal. You should see some _real_ traffic circles ;)

    On the other hand, I drove the GW Bridge and Cross-Bronx expressway ONCE and vowed never again. (Thankfully I then learned better ways to get into and around NYC. Tappan Zee to get around the city, Cross County to Henry Hudson to get in and out.) So that’s what I nominate.

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  2. Michael says:

    I went on a drive from Cleveland to Nebraska to visit my brother when he lived in N. Platte. The Iowa portion was bad, but the drive through Nebraska felt like it took twice as long as it actually did. Later my brother and I drove from N. Platte to Denver to pick someone up at the airport. The only thing that broke up the monotony of that drive was miles of cattle stench.

    At least the speed limit was reasonably high.

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  3. charles says:

    #6 is my vote – excellent. Even better that it brought protest. And the gooch should note that a road’s impact on a driver is heavily dependant on the local geography. Don’t believe me..try hairpins in the mtns, let me know what you think. Flat for miles is a worse nightmare though.

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  4. JG says:

    Can I vote for Boston in general? After moving here 7 years ago, I emerged from a Big Dig tunnel trying to follow internet driving directions, ending up at the corner of Tremont and Tremont.

    #2 for the general quality of Boston’s roads (bridges) and #3 for the general quality of Boston’s urban planning.

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  5. Craig says:

    I have had the sad fortune to have traveled on four of the nominees:

    Vickie (I-95, Alexandria), Rak (Rt 18, New Brunswick), Joe (I-195, Providence), and T (CBE, New York).

    While I would normally hold in favor of the regional champion (I-95, Alexandria), honesty forces me to admit that I found the CBE to be the scariest stretch of road I have ever traveled. T neglected to mention the burned out wrecks that dot the shoulders of the CBE … with entirely too much time to contemplate their driver’s fates, and ones own fate.

    CBE, for the win.

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  6. Chad Bergeron says:

    Points to #3 for highlighting how the best intentions can take you further down the wrong road. The major highways in eastern MA are like the lines on a target scope, all narrowing to pinpoint on the mess of misrouted traffic and unusual intersections known as Greater Boston. This ties in with my other nomination, #9, which starts with the ugliest ‘rotary’ I’ve ever seen, the conjunction for 2 and 16 at Alewife. when you have two roads going across it and about a dozen lights to direct traffic in, out, and across, the word ‘rotary’ is like calling the Gordion Knot a ball of string. Following 2 into Concord you come across what really turned the British back to London, a three lane left hand near 90 degree turn in the middle of a major local highway, complete with traffic lights that are only brief to Rip Van Winkle. After that you get to thread the needle-narrow lanes and encroaching barriers that Bill alluded to as ineffective speed deterrents. What works much better are the tiny side streets and driveways that people come blasting from without care for who else is on the road. Should you live long enough to get there, the Concord Rotary presents new joys to the uninitiated interested in the panoramic views of gridlock traffic.

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  7. Brian Boyd says:

    Let’s go with the CBE … Scary stuff, that one is.

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  8. K says:

    To add to #14′s post, I would pick “event horizon” as the description of the layout of the roads of Massachusetts. The black hole at the center (the Big Dig) is where all of the funds that should have been used for maintenance and upkeep if the roads in the remainder of the state went.

    I travel up and down the eastern seaboard as well as to western NY pretty regularly. While traffic in the NYC and DC areas can indeed inspire grown men to cry, at least the tears would end up splashing on a roadway whose surface was in relatively good shape and had seen a paving crew recently. In MA, it’s difficult to find a road that isn’t suffering from frost heaves, potholes, inadequate signage (marking the street you are on is deemed “too expensive”), or a work crew who have been “working” on the road for at least a decade. And let’s not forget the state police office making overtime while sitting in the car watching the road crew, er, working detail and directing traffic.

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