Interstate 85 across north Georgia was constructed between September 1951 and December 1979.13 The section from LaGrange (Exit 13) to Grantville (Exit 35) opened on November 22, 1977.14
Planning for a new superhighway that would later become Interstate 85 through northeast Georgia outlined several possible routes per a state highway department report issued in July 1945. They included four alignments:15
- Buford to Gainesville to Toccoa
- Lawrenceville to Commerce to Lavonia
- Lawrenceville to Winder to Athens
- Stone Mountain to Monroe to Athens
The northerly alignment was the favored route by 1954. Referred to as the “upper route,” it paralleled the U.S. 23 corridor northeast to Buford, Gainesville and Cornelia and U.S. 123 to within ten miles of Toccoa. Officials from South Carolina concurred with the alignment according to reports, with overall benefits cited including the new Lake Lanier and economic prospects for growing Gainesville. This route was submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads in a February 1958 recommendation.15
Changes to Interstate 85 through northeastern Georgia followed in 1959 when Ernest Vandiver took the office of Georgia Governor. The Lavonia native advocated for a southward shift of I-85 along a course between Commerce and Lavonia, stating that it was a wiser choice versus having the freeway “meander through the mountains.” He subsequently withdrew the recommendation for the Gainesville route by July 1959, leading to the state highway department submitting the new “middle route.” The new alignment was touted to cost less to construct, provide a more direct route, and still serve the Gainesville and Athens areas peripherally.15
Interstate 85 projected along the “upper route” through northeast Georgia in 1960.
Some controversy ensued, with Vandiver referencing manipulations by the previous administration of Governor Marvin Griffin to endorse the upper route. There was also suggestions that Vandiver pushed for a more southerly route to include his home county of Franklin versus a route near Talmo, Maysville and Martin. A public hearing for the route was conducted on November 10, 1959, with the Commerce to Lavonia corridor laid out. Opposition was apparently muted and months later the decision was sealed.15
Construction eventually opened 67 miles of Interstate 85 between Suwanee and the South Carolina state line on November 5, 1965. This was the first Interstate segment to link Atlanta with an adjoining state. Associated work built the I-85 Connector, which opened in October 1969 as Georgia 365.15 This was redesignated as Interstate 985 in 1984.
Though northeastern Atlanta, a relocation of Interstate 85 north from the Northeast Expressway between Interstate 75 (Downtown Connector) and Buford Highway was approved by AASHTO on April 19, 1996. The old alignment was redesignated as Georgia 13. The “Freeing the Freeways” mega-project in the Atlanta metropolitan area included several projects involving I-85, with completion in 1987 and 1988:11
- The 1.6-mile overlap between Interstates 85 & 285 by Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) was reconstructed to split each route into separate roadways with 16 overall lanes.
- Eight lane expansion of I-85 between Peachtree City and the southwest junction with I-285, a distance of 16.2 miles.
- Upgrading the cloverleaf interchange with Interstate 285 to the northeast of Atlanta into the multi-level Tom Moreland Interchange, locally known as “Spaghetti Junction”.
- Rebuilding the Downtown Connector with I-75 to widen the freeway and reconfigure the Capitol Hill Interchange with I-20.
Interstate 285 curves southeast from Doraville through “Spaghetti Junction” with Interstate 85. Photo taken July 2, 2017.
The first section of Interstate 85 to be awarded for a construction contract in South Carolina under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was the bridge over the Broad River in Cherokee County on September 21, 1956.6 Construction underway in 1959 involved upgrading U.S. 29 from the Anderson County line north to North Carolina state border at Grover. The initial stretch opened in Spartanburg County.16 A 14-mile section in Anderson County, opened in August 1964, was the last within the Palmetto State completed. Building the I-85 in S.C. cost over $61 million.17
Increasing traffic counts up to 47,600 vehicles per day (vpd) and the substandard design of Interstate 85 through Spartanburg, which was originally built as a bypass for U.S. 29 in the 1950s, led to proposed improvements in 1983. Upgrades for I-85 were previously approved by the Federal Highway Administration in 1977. The South Carolina Department of Highways and Public Transportation plan involved improving a 9.6-mile section of I-85, between South Carolina 129 and U.S. 221, that included expansion to six overall lanes and elimination of the Hearon Circle interchange. Estimated to cost $25-million and take four years, the project included the relocation of several businesses and one residence while widening the roadway using the existing median.18
While upgrading the existing freeway was discussed, two potential realignments for Interstate 85 were also under study in 1983. One option involved building a new roadway on the south side of the existing route while reducing the number of interchanges to two. The second option focused on a new alignment, 1.5 miles to the north, with a limited number of interchanges. The south option was abandoned due to costs and the needed severe dislocation of developed property. Benefits of the north bypass favored reduced congestion and costs estimates just four million dollars higher than widening the existing road ($53 million).19
The Spartanburg City Council opposed any relocation, citing economic impacts for having I-85 rerouted further from the city. A study contracted by the council with an engineer and planning firm presented three options to provide better access between the city and Interstate 85. They included improvements to interchanges at Hearon Circle and I-585 & U.S. 176 (Pine Street), a $10-million new access route through the campus of Wofford College and a $4-million half cloverleaf interchange between U.S. 176 (Pine Street) and McCravy Drive. The consultants also suggested that the old route of I-85 be renumbered as Interstate 285 to remain within the system.20
The Federal Highway Administration approved plans for relocating Interstate 85 on December 7, 1983. The alignment included five interchanges, with U.S. 176 connecting the freeway with Interstate 585. An issue that arose was the connectivity of I-585 with Interstate 85, as the relocation would disconnect it from the Interstate highway system. Herman Snyder, chief engineer for the South Carolina Highway Department in 1983, advocated for keeping the old alignment of I-85 in the system. He cited “The 585 system must connect with the interstate, either by a connector route or directly, or it will have to be taken out of the interstate system.”21
Construction finally broke ground on the new northern alignment for Interstate 85 in April 1988. Discussion however continued involving the number of the old route toward Spartanburg, with the state Highway Department formally requesting the designation of Interstate 285 in a February 5 letter to the Federal Highway Department.22 Section 139 of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 specified that Interstate construction funds were made available on a costs to complete basis. Since I-85 was deemed woefully substandard by Spartanburg, it was considered incomplete. Section 139 called for relocation of an Interstate, and so the I-85 designation was reassigned to the new bypass, enabling 90% in federal funding.23 Proposals for I-285 were ultimately dropped and the route of I-585 unchanged.
Split into five phases totaling $96 million, work on the new I-85 progressed through July 1994, with the bulk of the concrete roadway laid. The road was slated to open in November 1994,25 but delays due to frequent heavy rainfall pushed completion back to December 1994.24 Heavy rains throughout summer and fall 1994 combined with logistical problems related to congestion on the old I-85 further delayed completion until April 1995. Final costs were expected to top out around $122 million due to inflation and revision of the route from four to six lanes.25
AASHTO approved the relocation of I-85 on April 22, 1995, with the former route redesignated as Business Loop I-85. Relocated I-85 finally opened after additional further delay on August 31, 1995 without fanfare or a formal ceremony. Final construction at the end of the project continued until November 1995.10
Renumbering of the Business Loop I-85 freeway in Spartanburg County was suggested by the Spartanburg Hospitality Association in April 2000. The association approached Spartanburg Area Transportation Study (SPATS) seeking support to have the business route renumbered as Interstate 685. SCDOT estimated that $150 million in improvements were needed to bring the route up to interstate standards. This included adding proper distancing of ramps and frontage roads, extending acceleration and deceleration lanes and improving ramp radii. SCDOT added further that these changes would likely cause more damages to area businesses than benefits due to the need for land acquisition. Ultimately, in an effort to bring more motorists onto the business route, sign changes were made at each end referencing it as a “Freeway Loop.”28
A $70 million project completed in 2003 widened Interstate 85 to six lanes from Exit 19 / U.S. 76 northward to Exit 34 at Greenville. Eleven of the 15 miles expanded saw the 36 foot median replaced with a concrete barrier. The remaining four miles retained a grassy median with guardrail protection. Traffic counts along this stretch ranged from 38,500 to 44,300 vehicles per day (vpd), with 35% of this volume comprised of trucks. SCDOT justified this project based upon 20 year traffic count projections that forecast 85,900 vpd using this same section of I-85. Additionally, various overpasses along the corridor were replaced or otherwise altered to increase the overall height to at least 16 feet.2
A seven mile segment of Interstate 85 opened to traffic on September 7, 1971 between the east end of the Oxford bypass and Henderson. Work continued to December 1971 on the freeway leading south 12.5 miles to the Neuse River. Upon completion, all of I-85 between Durham and Petersburg, Virginia was open to traffic.26
The final contract for constructing Interstate 85 across North Carolina was approved on May 14, 1982. The $8.5-million bid involved paving the freeway from Main Street (old U.S. 311) in Archdale northward to the pre-existing section of I-85 south of Greensboro. Work ran in tandem with paving operations from Lexington north to Thomasville and Archdale. Completion occurred on October 15, 1983.27
Interstate 85 widens to eight lanes where it overlaps with Interstate 40 between Greensboro and Durham in North Carolina. A realignment of I-85 to bypass Greensboro shifted the freeway from a shared alignment with I-40 through Greensboro to a February 22, 2004 opened4 route to the south and east of the city. The new freeway varies between six and eight lanes from near milepost 120 of the original I-85 to the east end of the Interstate 840 interchange. The highway was constructed as part of the overall planned Greensboro Beltway, a circumferential highway looping south from Joseph M. Bryan Boulevard near Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTI) to Painter Boulevard (I-73) and east to Interstate 785 & 840 at U.S. 70 (Burlington Road). AASHTO approved of the I-85 relocation on May 14, 2004.
Three lanes of Interstate 85 turn east onto the bypass of Greensboro while three lanes wind northward onto Business Loop I-85 toward Downtown. A directional ramp follows onto Interstate 73 north to the airport and I-40 west. Photo taken June 1, 2012.
The $160 million3 relocation of Interstate 85 was developed as a solution for the overwhelming and often congested “Death Valley” interchange where Interstates 40 and 85 previously came together. The nickname stemmed from a history of fatal accidents associated with the interchange. The wye interchange included a left-hand ramp for I-85 south, narrowing travel lanes and a weaving traffic pattern with the adjacent Randleman Road exit. NCDOT estimated 120,000 vehicles per day (vpd) traveled through Death Valley until the new bypass opened.
Old Interstate 85 through Greensboro was redesignated as an extension of Business Loop I-85 north from High Point. Exit numbers along the former I-85 were renumbered to reflect the business loop mile markers northward from Lexington. The portion east from Death Valley doubles as both Interstate 40 and Business Loop Interstate 85 to the merge with I-85 north.
Original plans shifted Interstate 40 onto the southern portion of the beltway upon its completion. This occurred when the southwestern beltway opened on February 21, 2008 and lasted for a period of seven months, before NCDOT shifted I-40 back to its in-city routing. Interstate 73 and a relocated U.S. 421 follow the southwestern beltway (Painter Boulevard) from I-85 north to I-40 today.
Within the Durham metropolitan area, major reconstruction was completed along Interstate 85 that transformed the aged four-lane highway and associated parkwayesque landscape into a modern eight-lane urban freeway. Begun in 1999, this expansion project altered the highway untouched by redesign in 30 years. The construction involved widening I-85 between Exits 173 and 179 to eight lanes, the rebuilding of shoulder less bridges, the replacement of shoulder mounted guide signs with overhead assemblies, installation of variable message signs, and the placement of brick sound barriers among other safety improvements. The most impressive section of new construction resulted in 12 lanes for Interstate 85 near the Duke and Gregson Street exits with the inclusion of two lane collector distributor roadways. The $175 million reconstruction was divided into three stages to be completed on the following time-line:1
- Midland Terrace near U.S. 70 west to Camden Avenue by Fall 2004
- Camden Avenue west to Broad Street by Winter 2005
- Broad Street west to U.S. 15-501 by Winter 2007.
Work on the project continued until February 2008, with a final price tag of $210 million.7
Other portions of Interstate 85 in North Carolina underwent modernization and expansion as part of the I-85 Corridor Improvement Project. $201.5-million in road work focused on I-85 through Davidson and Rowan Counties between October 2010 and May 2013. This project followed widening of 8.3-miles of freeway between the U.S. 29 / NC 49 Connector (Exit 42) and Concord Mills Boulevard (Exit 49). That construction increased I-85 to eight overall lanes with a 22 foot median between Exit 42 and I-485, and seven lanes between I-485 and Exit 49. A left-hand on-ramp from the U.S. 29 / NC 49 connector was relocated to merge on the right as well. Construction was underway between December 2, 2002 and May 27, 2005.
Further north, the structurally deficient crossing of the Yadkin River was replaced as part of the I-85 Corridor Improvement Project. Work broke ground September 29, 2010 on a $136-million job to realign I-85 onto a new set of bridges east of the original Yadkin River spans. Widening to eight lanes of 3.5 miles of freeway was included in the work, which also reconfigured the two wye interchanges with U.S. 29 & 70 and NC 150 to separate local traffic movements from I-85 with a new service road and six-ramp parclo interchange. The new northbound bridge opened in May 2012, followed by completion of the southbound bridge in March 2013.