Fact Friday #20 - Which Came First?


*Photo Credit: Buzzfeed.com

Happy Friday everyone! Which Came First? I-77 or I-85? Now, I realize this is a question that many of you may not have even thought to ask. But you can’t live in or around “the 704” and not know that I-77 and I-85 are our two cornerstones for major interstate traffic.

In my post entitled, “Charlotte in the Civil Rights Era,” I mentioned Tom Hanchett, soon-to-be retired historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, would be giving a talk – called “From Segregation to Salad-Bowl Suburbs” – on October 21 at the Levine Museum. Well, I was able to attend and it was awesome, just like I knew it would be. (Side note: I purchased his book at the event and got him to sign it for me!) One of the things Tom touched on was how in the 1870’s the city limits were pretty much inside what is now the I-277 loop (i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Wards). Obviously, I-277 wasn’t there at the time, so that got me wondering when it was constructed, along with the other major interstate arteries. With the exception of I-485, they’ve all been here as long as I can remember. But of course, I’m only 35 years old.

As I began to research this, I quickly learned that there’s a method to the madness of interstate numbering. Its all based on what is officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, which essentially broke ground in the early 1950’s after Congress authorized spending. In addition to standards governing speed, number of lanes, and other safety aspects, the system established how interstates were to be numbered:

  • Routes with odd numbers run north-south.
  • Routes with even numbers run east-west.
  • For north-south routes, the lowest numbers are in the west.
  • For east-west routes, the lowest numbers are in the south.

As we know, I-77 and I-85 both run north-south. But which one came first? One might assume that the interstates are numbered in sequence by creation, making I-77 naturally older than I-85. But it doesn’t work that way. In fact, I-85 was finished and accessible in Charlotte in 1958. Construction didn’t begin on I-77 until the 1960’s and one of the last two portions of the interstate to open to traffic was the stretch from Cornelius to Charlotte in 1975.

If its not due to age, why then, does I-85 have a higher number than I-77? It has to due with its geo-location. According to the numbering system, as highlighted above, the farther east a north-south interstate is located, the higher the number it must have. So when I-77 was created, it had to have a number lower than 85 because it was to be farther east than the preexisting I-85. 

And what about the two beltways, I-277 and I-485? When were they introduced and what’s the story behind their numbering?

The two sections of the I-277 beltway, Brookshire Freeway and John Belk Freeway (both named after former Charlotte mayors), date back to 1981 and 1988, respectively. Official planning for what would become the I-485 loop began in 1975 with completion [FINALLY!] of the last segment occurring this past June.

As for their numbering, “When an interstate hits a major urban area, beltways around the city carry a three-digit number. These routes are designated with the number of the main route and an even-numbered prefix. To prevent duplication within a state, prefixes go up. For example, if I-80 runs through three cities in a state, routes around those cities would be I-280, I-480 and I-680. This system is not carried across state lines, so several cities in different states can have a beltway called I-280.”

Map showing the regional routes of I-77, I-85, I-277, and I-485.

Photo Credit: Myself via. Google Maps.

Based on this, its pretty obvious how I-277 got its number. It creates a loop with I-77 and was the first beltway created on the I-77 corridor. I-485 technically loops both I-77 and I-85, so it’s numbering could have gone either way. Preference must have been given to I-85 due to its age and to prevent confusion with U.S. Route/Highway 377 in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. To highlight the beltways around I-85, I-285 aka “The Perimeter” is in Atlanta and I-185 and I-385 create a loop around Greenville, SC (although, NC will have its own I-285 at some point).

Until next week!

Chris.

Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!