Route 66, the historic American roadway that linked Chicago to the West Coast, soon may be dropped from a National Park Service preservation program, which would end years of efforts aimed at reviving old tourist spots in struggling towns.
A federal law authorizing the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is set to expire in two years, and some lawmakers are working to save the program or get Congress to designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail. That designation would set aside preservation funds annually.
The deadline, first reported by The Herald-News in Joliet, Illinois, also has Route 66 enthusiasts and preservation advocates scrambling to make sure the program or an alternative is maintained for the “Mother Road.”
The program is credited with helping bring back to life forgotten landmarks along the route, many in disrepair because of sharply lower Route 66 traffic. Development of the interstate highway system after World War II diverted motorists away from Route 66 and economically hurt communities along the road.
A bipartisan bill in Congress to designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail, sponsored by Rep. Darin LaHood, an Illinois Republican, is supported by 12 other members of Congress from Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma and California.
New Mexico has the longest stretch of Route 66 passing through urban communities, but state Tourism Secretary Rebecca Latham said she did not know whether the program would have an adverse impact on the state if it is not eventually refunded.
Preservationists fear that small towns along Route 66’s 2,500-mile path will miss out in much-needed investment if the funding program is not extended or if the route does not get the historic trail designation, said Frank Butterfield, director of the nonprofit group Landmarks Illinois.
“Route 66 runs through a lot of very small towns where there is not a lot of economic development,” Butterfield said. “It’s been quite impactful so it would be a great loss to the town where Route 66 passes.”
The uncertainty comes as the Trump administration is proposing deep cuts to domestic spending and various agencies.
Established in 2001 by Congress, the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program began as an effort to save aging landmarks and dilapidated structures.
The program has given out $2 million for nearly 150 projects and has generated another $3.3 million in matching funds, said Kaisa Barthuli, program manager for the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The program has helped fund projects like the El Vado Motel neon sign restoration in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the Baxter Springs Independent Oil and Gas Station restoration in Baxter Springs, Kansas.
Other grants are being used to repair the roof of the Historic Navajo County Courthouse in Holbrook, Arizona and restore a free-standing neon sign of the Donut Drive-In in St. Louis, Missouri.
Some places that have received preservation funding are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tourism and local officials believe the grants help revitalize forgotten structure and spur tourism, especially by international visitors who flock to Route 66.
Decommissioned as a U.S. highway in 1985, Route 66 went through eight states, connecting tourists with friendly diners in welcoming small towns.
It was once an economic driver for small towns from Illinois to California. Nat King Cole famously sang “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” in a 1946 hit that has been remade by countless other groups.
Use of Route 66 dropped significantly after highways were built as part of the interstate system, forcing businesses to close and leaving others in disrepair.
Barthuli said the program has funded 20 projects in New Mexico and given out $340,000 in grants, including $8,000 to help fix up the windows and neon sign of the historic Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. That grant helped attract an additional $27,000 for restoration.