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Driving Through the Former Colonies

In 1776, 13 British colonies strung along the Atlantic coast of North America declared themselves to be the United States of America, free and independent of Britain. So, after 233 years, how’s it going for them?

One way to find out would be to drive through the former colonies. Interstate highway 95 provides the most direct route, if not necessarily the most picturesque. Beginning in the little town of Houlton, Maine on the border with the Canadian Province of New Brunswick, I-95 runs 3,000 kilometers south to Florida (which in those days was still a Spanish colony), eventually ending in Miami. As Maine in 1776 was still part of Massachusetts, today’s journey embraces 15 states rather than 13.

This colonial corridor totals just under a million square kilometers with a population of 110 million, about the same size as Japan. Its gross domestic product (GDP) of $4.7 trillion is a bit smaller than Japan’s, but nearly twice as large as the mother country it spurned so long ago.

En route, you will pass 46 seaports including Boston, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Newport News, Charleston, Jacksonville and, ultimately, Miami. Some 35,000 kilometers of railroad tracks will parallel or cross your route, while overhead planes will seek out the 103 airports in the corridor.

I-95 by-passes most big cities except New York, which it cuts across before vaulting the Hudson River on the double-decker, 14-lane George Washington Bridge, the fourth longest suspension bridge in the United States, and one of the world’s busiest used by more than 100 million vehicles a year.

You will not often be alone in your journey. It’s estimated that at peak periods nearly 700,000 other people will be traveling somewhere on I-95 in 300,000 different cars and trucks. Some places, as in northern Maine, you’ll have the highway pretty much to yourself. Other places, such as the infamous Beltway that carries I-95 around Washington, you’ll slow to a crawl as local commuters clog what was supposed to be a highway for long-distance travel.

Indeed, the whole interstate highway system came into being in large measure because, in 1919, an impatient Army captain named Dwight D. Eisenhower chafed at how long it took to cross the country in a military convoy using existing state roads. Thirty-seven years later, as president of the United States, he recalled the high-speed German autobahns he had traveled as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and resolved that the United States would build a comparable national highway network.

To blunt opposition from towns and cities who worried (correctly as it turned out) that the highways would siphon commerce away from them, and landowners who didn’t want their fields paved over, Mr. Eisenhower cleverly described the vast network as necessary to the national defense, capable of moving military supplies and troops in case of a foreign invasion, as well as facilitating private and commercial transportation. It apparently worked as, so far, the only foreign invasion has been Canadian tourists who use I-95 and its western counterparts to winter in Florida and Arizona.