Trait Thompson, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, is now a member of the Route 66 Centennial Commission. Nominated by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the bureaucrat joins representatives from Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and his home state whom The Swamp has tasked to “study and recommend in a report to Congress activities that would be fitting and proper to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Mother Road of the United States, Route 66, in 2026.”
The iconic arterial — memorialized in song, movies, photographs, a television show, museums, gift shops, etc. — is central to America’s identity, and revered all over the world. (In 2011, Slovakia changed the name of “regional road I/66” to Route 66.) Why does Washington need to inject itself into the centennial?
However disappointing, the commission’s existence is far from surprising. In states red and blue, government is heavily involved in tourism-promotion, and D.C.’s coffers are regularly tapped for porkola.
In 1990, the Route 66 Study Act authorized an analysis of “methods to commemorate the nationally significant highway.” Nine years later, the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act ordered the Department of the Interior to facilitate “the development of guidelines and a program of technical assistance and grants that will set priorities for the preservation of the Route 66 corridor.”
Reauthorized in 2009, the legislation kept subsidies flowing for another decade. No such renewal found success in 2019, although in January, the Oklahoma Route 66 Association breathlessly announced that the National Park Service’s “Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program 2023 cost-share grant season has opened.” (Future largesse is “subject to revision or cancellation … based on annual congressional or programmatic appropriations and priorities.”)
The money well’s open faucet would not have shocked U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a true fiscal conservative who waged a lonely crusade against subsidies to Route 66. Much to the ire of more than a few of his constituents, the late physician recognized that the federal government could no longer shower checks on every interest group. In a 2013 report, he lamented: “Instead of addressing the urgent needs of our premier parks and memorials, Congress has instead focused on establishing new parks and diverting funds to local sites that are not even part of any national park.” With the federal government $32.6 trillion in debt — not counting the tens of trillions needed to pay for unfunded “entitlements” — Coburn’s criticism is as relevant as ever.
Read the backgrounds of the men and women who serve on the Route 66 Centennial Commission, and you’ll quickly note that the group is rather thin on private-sector experience. That’s hardly encouraging, and something tells SPPI that commissioners will recommend taxpayer expenditures for “activities that would be fitting and proper” to honor the anniversary.
Given the vast number of history-preserving businesses and nonprofits along the Mother Road, the best mechanism to pull off a fabulous centennial celebration is a decentralized, voluntary, skin-in-the-game effort — one that keeps government as far away as possible. Route 66 is too serious a matter to entrust to politicians and bureaucrats.