Route 66 -- what's in the plan?


KTUL Newschannel 8 has a story about the Route 66 component of the "capital improvements/community enrichment" ballot item, part of the 13 year sales tax hike proposal Tulsa County voters will decide on September 9. The story makes a perplexing claim:

Twenty-four miles of the legendary road run right through the heart of Tulsa. But, for the most part, you have to hunt for it, in places where weeds grow through the sidewalks and grass tries to cover up signs of the 77-year-old American highway.

Tulsa may actually be one of the easiest cities for Route 66 aficianados to follow the old highway. Coming from the east, you exit at 193rd East Avenue, head south to 11th Street, then west on 11th all the way to and through downtown and across the bridge which puts you right on Southwest Boulevard. The western terminus can be tough to navigate, whether you try to get on the "new" 4-lane to Sapulpa or follow the old 2-lane which parallels the Frisco tracks through Oakhurst and Bowden. But the roads are all there, all well-traveled, no grass growing through the cracks.

Sometime back in the late '80s or early '90s, brown-and-white historic route signs were installed, but according to the Oklahoma Route 66 Association, many are weatherbeaten, have been stolen, or have been knocked down. So at the very least, we should see to it that new ones are put up, and we should put up signs on the interstate approaches to Tulsa to pique curiosity and help travelers find their way from the highway to the old road.

$15 million is earmarked for Route 66 improvements as part of the "capital improvements for community enrichment" ballot item. Voting for that item will impose a sales tax hike of 0.175% for 13 years. That's the second smallest item on the menu. The Newschannel 8 story gives a brief explanation as to what will be done with the $15 million:

Refurbishing the roads with lights, signs, museums, and parks will make it a fun roadway again for both Tulsans and visitors. It will breathe new life and hopefully tenants into now vacant buildings.

I need more detail, but if this is what it's all about, they've missed the point of Route 66. In 2000, there was talk of including money for Route 66 in the "Tulsa Time" sales tax package -- it was designated for "demolition and clearance". One of the task force leaders suggested turning Route 66 into a "tree-lined boulevard." This also indicated a failure to understand what makes Route 66 an attraction, what makes it fun.

Streetscaping and signage and museums are all well and good, but that's not what draws travelers to the old highway. As an old road rambler, I study old maps before embarking on a trip, and I allow for time to follow some of the old roads. We're trying to attract the same sorts of folks to drive old 66 through Tulsa.

Route 66 is a place to get a flavor of auto travel as it was before the interstates. For baby boomers, Route 66 is about remembering childhood family vacations. For Germans and Finns and Japanese, Route 66 is about getting a sense of America in all its weirdness and variety.

What makes Route 66 is the old stuff along side -- old motels, old gas stations, old cafe, old commercial blocks, like the one at 11th and Yale. When a Route 66 traveler approaches a city the big question is, "Do I stay on the interstate or take the old road?" The answer is determined by whether there's anything interesting to see along the city's segment of the old road.

Tulsa has already lost a lot: The Will Rogers Motor Lodge and Will Rogers Theatre. The Spanish-style Park Plaza Courts. Cook's Court. The art deco KVOO transmitter building. The Golden Drumstick. The Bowen Lounge. Wolf Robe's Trading Post. Nearly the entire West Tulsa commercial district. And countless other little motels, tourist courts, and greasy spoons.

Nevertheless, we still have a lot along the road worth seeing, and we ought to take steps to encourage its preservation. Some of these places are well-known enough not to be endangered: Warehouse Market, First Methodist Church. Others are important but underappreciated, all the more reason to identify and work to preserve them. Tulsa County's stretch of road has lodgings (active and inactive) from each decade of the road's heyday -- from the rustic simplicity of roadside cabins in far east Tulsa to the post-war flash of the old Saratoga Motor Inn. The Rose Bowl is a landmark, but the little old Tastee Freeze east of Yale deserves honor as well. Flashy neon signs are slowly breaking and not being replaced, which is sad. We need to keep that Desert Hills cactus glowing.

Oklahoma City decided that such things were too tacky for the approach to the State Capitol and cleared them away from the segment of old 66 which is Lincoln Boulevard. Perhaps a scenic view of Oklahoma's new dome outweighs preserving the spirit of the old highway. But that doesn't apply in Tulsa's case. A Route 66 project that omitted preservation wouldn't make much sense. Perhaps someone will supply me with details to satisfy my concern.

UPDATE: Got a call from Councilor Chris Medlock, who is part of the group developing the plan for Route 66. He says that the focus of spending for this initial phase will be on the sections of the road just outside downtown, for a few miles in each direction, along with money to direct travelers from the interstates to the old road. The aim is to provide public infrastructure improvements which will encourage businesses along the old road to make their own improvements. Councilor Medlock reminded me that the plan considered in 2000 ($30 million) focused on the construction of two visitors centers which would need to be staffed and maintained; this plan focuses on infrastructure which would require very little maintenance, and it leaves the focus on the businesses lining the old highway. Ultimately the goal is to encourage both preservation and development of new businesses reflecting the historic theme. (I guess Metro Diner would be an example of the latter, built in the '80s to look like something out of the '40s.) This is my paraphrase and condensation of Councilor Medlock's summary -- if I missed something crucial, I'll be glad to update this entry again.

Tulsa has not made much of Route 66 as an attraction for visitors and locals, so I hope we can do something to change that. I'd prefer to find a way to do it without raising taxes, however.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 13, 2003 7:48 PM.

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