Still chasing the future

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Returning from a speaking engagement in Boston recently, I stopped at the Hampton toll booths to make my contribution, as all Mainers must, to New Hampshire’s overflowing highway slush fund
. Pulling away from the booth on one of the eight or 10 or 12 lanes (too many to count), I had to wonder just how much of this fine velvety highway I had helped pay for with my contributions.


After the New Hampshire highway experience, I was almost embarrassed when back in Maine, driving on our state’s three meager turnpike lanes. I know it’s been asked many times and many ways before, but how come we have only three modest lanes on our most impressive highway and our New Hampshire neighbors have many times more? Why can’t we have eight or 10 lanes like they do across the river? I’m not envious, just curious.


As I counted Maine’s lanes I was reminded of something I read in The Old Farmer’s Almanac a few years ago. The article told about a General Motors exhibit at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair. The 7-acre display, designed by Norman Bel Geddes, showed the gawking throngs of fair visitors what lay ahead, down the road a piece, in the far-off 1960s.
 Now, let me take a minute to do the math for you. From his perch in 1939, Mr. Bel Geddes was looking 21 years into the future where he saw – among many other things – superhighways with no fewer than 14 lanes. From what I saw out on the highway recently, we’re nowhere near achieving his vision of our freeway future.


I’m sure some of Maine’s highway officials and legislators must have attended that famous fair back then and they must have been impressed by GM’s futuristic exhibit because two years later – in 1941 – the Maine Turnpike Authority was created and given the mission of building and operating a four-lane highway from some point at or near Kittery to someplace at or near Fort Kent. Sure, it was only four lanes to start but everyone knew that the other 10 lanes would soon follow. And the folks in Fort Kent are still waiting for the turnpike to arrive.


Some of Bel Geddes’ futuristic predictions have come true, sort of. For example, he predicted that cars would travel on futuristic superhighways at speeds of over 100 mph and would be equipped with radio beams to ensure that they wouldn’t get too close to other vehicles. What he failed to mention was that such reckless speeds would be restricted to selected Massachusetts drivers as they weaved in and out of crowded travel lanes while commuting to work on Boston’s outer beltway – 495. As we now know, however, our present-day turnpike operates without the benefit of safety features like radio beams. In fact, most of today’s numb drivers aren’t even listening to a radio, but are listening instead to something wild and crazy on satellite.


Mr. Bel Geddes also predicted back in 1939 that cars of the future – supposedly the one you drive now – could cross the country from New York to Los Angeles in 24 hours. After thinking about that for a minute I realized he was partly right. 
It can sometimes take about two or three hours to drive from Manhattan to JFK Airport and then you wait around the airport for two hours before boarding your plane for the six-hour flight to Los Angeles. Once there you can take another hour or so to get to your destination. The whole trip ends up taking you about 12. It just seems like 24 hours – just as the futurist Bel Geddes predicted it would.

And now that I think of it, our Maine Turnpike is fine just the way it is, without Bel Geddes radio beam features.

John McDonald writes books about Maine, and his latest is “Moose Memoirs and Lobster Tales.” Contact him at maineauthorjohn.mcdonald@yahoo.com or 899-1868.