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Put pedal to the metal for Route 66 and Illinois tourism

The starting point for Route 66 at Adams Street and Michigan Avenue. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Historic Route 66, one of the most popular draws in Illinois for international visitors, is in danger of getting a flat tire, but Congress can make sure there’s a spare ready to go.

For decades before the interstate expressway system was built, Route 66 was the “Mother Road” that connected Chicago to Los Angeles. And people still come from all over the world to capture a flavor of 20th century America by driving at least some of its iconic 2,450 miles. As author Susan Croce Kelly says, “Everyone has a Route 66 story.”

EDITORIAL

Historic Route 66 runs through eight states between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Historic Route 66 runs through eight states between Chicago and Los Angeles.

The National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has nurtured that enthusiasm by helping to restore many of the kitschy motels, mom-and-pop diners, giant statues and neon signs that give Route 66 its unique character. Over the past 16 years, the program has shelled out $2 million for nearly 150 projects and doled out $3.3 million in matching funds to local preservation groups. Just last month, The Mill restaurant reopened as a museum on Historic Route 66 in Downstate Lincoln. The restoration of the 1929 windmill-style building used $10,720 of federal matching funds along with even more local dollars and years of volunteer work.

But the federal program is scheduled to go out of existence in 2019, which could make Route 66’s future a highway to nowhere. Many sites remain dilapidated and many of the highway’s landmarks are in small towns that don’t have the money to restore and preserve landmarks on their own. In April, the nonprofit group Landmarks Illinois added Route 66 to its list of Illinois’ 10 most endangered places.

Sights along Historic Route 66. (Associated Press, Sun-Times photos)
Sights along Historic Route 66. (Associated Press, Sun-Times photos)

Letting such an iconic roadway fade from Illinois’ landscape would be a mistake. Those who travel here to experience a bygone era boost Illinois’ economy and image. At just one museum, the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum in Downstate Pontiac, 25,771 visitors stopped by in 2015. The Illinois Office of Tourism says Route 66 is one of the state’s top tourist attractions.

In February, U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., introduced a bill, which now has 13 co-sponsors, to have Route 66 declared a national trail, along with such icons of historical travel as the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. The designation would make money available each year to help preserve Route 66. Illinois Reps. Rodney Davis, Bill Foster, Adam Kinzinger and Daniel Lipinski have signed on. The rest of the Illinois delegation should do so as well.

Local officials and stakeholders can join the Route 66 Ahead Partnership, which works to boost preservation, promotion, economic development and education along the entire route.

Frank Butterfield, director of Landmarks Illinois’ Springfield office, says Illinois has many deteriorating landmarks that, if restored, could get visitors “to spend more time in Illinois, get out of the car, and take photos.”

In nine years, Route 66 will celebrate its centennial. Not just a road, it’s a destination.