Legislation introduced to designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail

Route 66 has been a crucial part for the heartland of America for nearly 100 years. Towns from the Midwest to the West Coast have seen the Mother Road bring tourism, employment, a higher quality of life, and civic pride to their communities.

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) introduced a bill to amend the National Trails System Act and designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail. Importantly, this legislation would make the designation without harming Texas and American energy development projects in the areas around Route 66.

Route 66, also known as the Will Rogers Highway, is more than 2,400 miles long, stretching from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, and crossing through eight states, including Texas. This legislation was previously introduced in 2022 by now-retired Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.)

About the legislation, Sen. Cruz said, “The great state of Texas is proud to be home to part of the iconic Route 66 and it’s an honor to work with my colleagues in a bipartisan fashion to designate this highway as a historic trail. Our bill providing the designation will ensure this historic route is protected for years to come while doing so in a responsible way, and I’m proud to champion this effort for Texas.”

“Our bipartisan legislation designates the historic Route 66 highway - the Mother Road to Arizonans - as a historic trail, honoring our state's history and strengthening our economy,” said Sen. Sinema.

“Generations of Americans have driven the 2,400 mile road from Illinois to California along Route 66, weaving through the Mojave Desert on their way to the iconic End of the Trail sign at the Santa Monica Pier,” said Sen. Padilla. “I am proud to join my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in an effort to solidify Route 66’s place as a National Historic Trail, preserving the integrity of the trail and honoring its legacy as the Mother Road for American automobiles.”

“Route 66 has a long and proud history in the state of Missouri and serves as a physical embodiment of America’s desire for westward expansion,” said Sen. Schmitt. “Route 66 has not only connected big cities to small towns, but has connected communities and people for generations. I’m proud to join this important piece of legislation which rightfully underscores the importance Route 66 represents not just to Missouri, but to America as a whole.”

“Route 66 played an important role in Arizona’s history and its legacy remains central to the character of towns like Winslow, Flagstaff, and Kingman. Designating the Route 66 Historic Trail will support small businesses and spur economic development in rural communities along more than 350 miles of Arizona’s Route 66,” said Sen. Kelly.

Route 66 isn't really a highway anymore, per se. It was de-listed as a national highway nearly 40 years ago and today physically exists as a number of other roads, highways, and interstates since renamed, repaved, replaced, and repurposed. But it also exists metaphysically, as one might argue, not so much as a road but as a destination, as a muse for writers to wax poetic about the soul of the nation or for artists to capture broad expanses and quirky figures, and a reminder of how integral automobile travel has become to the American mindset. It has transcended its original function to become a symbol of a great many things, leading to the ongoing attempts to declare the Mother Road as the first National Historic Trail with automotive origins.

While the National Trails System Act of 1968 aimed to create a network of trails like the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail "to provide for the ever-increasing outdoor recreation needs of an expanding population," it also provided for similar historic trails that would identify and protect historic routes of travel as well as the remnants and artifacts along those trails. It took another decade for Congress to designate the first four National Historic Trails - among them the Oregon Trail and the Iditarod - and 15 more have followed in the years since. The National Park Service manages most of the National Historic Trails, but the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service administer or co-administer a handful of the trails.

Designation doesn't necessarily lead to federal improvements or restoration of the trails, but it does come with some material benefits. Consistent signage along the length of the trail is one such benefit, along with documentation of the trail's route in the Federal Register and other government publications. The Act establishing the National Historic Trails system does give Congress power to acquire land up to a quarter of a mile on either side of the trail to protect the integrity of the trail, though that power has rarely been used. More importantly, designation opens up trails to funding opportunities, either through a line item in the budget of the federal agency that administers the trail or by giving weight and standing to the volunteer organizations and non-profits that Congress recognizes for developing and maintaining the trails.

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