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Closing the Gap - How Interstate 77 in North Carolina and Virginia Came To Be

Interstate 77 through the Virginias and Carolinas was not an original Interstate Highway proposal.  In 1957, Interstate 77 was born as an over 400-mile southwards extension of a previously approved Cleveland to Canton, Ohio Interstate.  The new road would extend through four states before terminating at Interstate 85 near Charlotte, North Carolina.  This extension would bring an additional north-south highway connecting the industrial Midwest to the South.   During the early planning stages of Interstate 77 from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, North Carolina and Virginia had different plans routing the Interstate that took over five years to settle.

While the new Ohio to Charlotte Interstate would follow the WV Turnpike to its terminus at US 460 near Princeton, its route through the remainder of West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina was uncertain.  The route south from Princeton into Virginia and to Interstate 81 near Wytheville consisted of two options.  An eastern option that would turn east along US 460 at the WV Turnpike terminus in Princeton, cross into Virginia at Glen Lyn, turn south at Pearisburg, and roughly follow Virginia Route 100 south to Interstate 81 near Dublin.  From here, Interstate 77 would continue southwest on Interstate 81 before leaving the highway near Fort Chiswell heading due south towards North Carolina.

The Western Route basically took Interstate 77 directly south into Virginia near Bluefield, following US 21 and 52 past Bastain, Bland, before meeting Interstate 81 in Wytheville.  77 then would run east along Interstate 81 North to a point near Fort Chiswell before turning south towards North Carolina.

Virginia Map showing possible alignments for Interstate 77.  There was also an option to route Interstate 64 further south through Lynchburg. (1)

South of Interstate 81, both options would head south to Woodlawn near Hillsville.  Here, the western alignment would bear to the southwest towards Pipers Gap, Galax, crossing into North Carolina near Low Gap.  

The Eastern Option continued the Interstate south paralleling US 52 to Fancy Gap and descending the Blue Ridge to the state line at a point northwest of Mount Airy, NC.

In late 1960, the Virginia Department of Highways selected the western options for both segments north and south of Interstate 81.

When the Canton-to-North Carolina Interstate was approved in 1957, a "tentative" (2) routing for the highway had its southern terminus northeast of Charlotte near Salisbury.   This led to battles between different factions that wanted the new Interstate closer to their cities or even extend it. 

"Tentative" routing of I-77
terminating northeast of  
Charlotte. (5) 
Early battles were over where Interstate 77 would be routed and even where it would connect to the already approved Interstate 85.  Groups from Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point all wished to have the new Interstate benefit their communities.  Greensboro and High Point lobbied to have the road further east between Winston-Salem and Greensboro and connect to Interstate 85 near High Point. (2)  The Triad cities believed that this change would bring the most benefit, and offer the best connections to the existing highway system. (2)

Another group wished to have the highway follow US 52 from Mount Airy to Lexington.  Charlotte interests argued that a route that ran due south would be the most direct and cost-effective.  A wild card was that Greensboro and other Triad communities also lobbied for the new Interstate to continue further to the south and east to Wilmington. (3)
 
Highway officials, led by Director of Highways Bill Babcock, quickly stopped any extension talk by reminding boosters that the highway must remain within the 431-mile allocation between four states, and it must be routed to Charlotte. (3)

With this in mind, North Carolina would narrow Interstate 77's future route through Elkin and Statesville.  And in August 1959, the State Highway Commission approved Interstate 77's route from Interstate 85 west of the Statesville Road Interchange in Charlotte northwards to a point east of Elkin.  The route north of Elkin to the Virginia state line remained under study. (4)

Interstate 77's routing North of Elkin would be in doubt for over five years.

How Interstate 77 would run North of Elkin and into Virginia would be the highway's sticking point for the next five years.

The gap between Virginia's I-77 
and North Carolina's I-77 would 
take over five years to resolve. (9)  
North of Elkin, North Carolina considered three options.   Each option would carry the Interstate over the Blue Ridge at different locations.  The first would parallel US 21 as much as possible and traverse the mountains at Roaring Gap.  A second option would continue north Elkin towards Dobson before turning northwest towards Low Gap.  This route would cross into Virginia near NC 89 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The final easternmost option would parallel US 601 west of Dobson and continue northwards and climb the mountain in Virginia to Fancy Gap. (6)  

The Roaring Gap option would be eliminated - leaving the western Low Gap route vs. the eastern route towards Fancy Gap. (7)   Again, local community and business leaders lobbied for their preferred route.   Leaders from Allegany, Ashe, and Watauga Counties argued that the Low Gap route would serve the most local traffic and provide economic benefits to those counties.   Leaders from Mount Airy and the Triad preferred the eastern route, arguing that it was the most direct and gave better north-south access to greater amounts of the population. (7)

In 1960, the North Carolina Highway Commission approved the eastern route that would take Interstate 77 closer to Mount Airy and onto Fancy Gap.   As a compromise, the Commission agreed to a study of an East-West Corridor that would connect the western communities directly to the Interstate. (8)  This would result in the upgraded US 421 highway from Boone to Interstate 77 and eastwards to Winston-Salem.

Going into 1961, North Carolina had their I-77 route set, and Virginia did as well.  One sticking point - a twelve-mile gap on where the Interstate would cross the state line.

Virginia looked at the costs.  The cost to complete the western Low Gap route in Virginia was estimated to be $9 million less than the eastern Fancy Gap route.  Conversely, the western Low Gap route for North Carolina was about $4.5 million and 2.3 miles longer than their approved eastern route. (9)

The impasse would continue for another five years.  Meanwhile, North Carolina had begun to construct sections of the Interstate south of Elkin.   They would also apply for and receive approval for a two-mile spur south of I-77's terminus at I-85 into Charlotte.  Later in 1968, Interstate 77 received an authorized extension to Columbia, South Carolina. (10)

Finally, in 1965, Virginia agreed to follow the eastern route.  Though it did cost more, officials from both states agreed that the eastern route would give "superior traffic service." (11)  North Carolina would also authorize a request for federal funding to build a spur from Interstate 77 to Mount Airy.  This spur would eventually become part of Interstate 74.  Over the next decade, North Carolina would continue constructing Interstate 77 northwards towards the state line.  

By 1976, I-77 was complete from Charlotte northward to Dobson.   Just in time for the July 4th holiday on July 1, 1977, over 30 miles of Interstate 77 was opened between the two states stretching from Dobson across the state line and up the Blue Ridge to Fancy Gap. (12)  

Over the next eighteen months, Virginia would complete Interstate 77 northwards to Interstate 81 in Fort Chiswell - finally completing the connection in 1978. (13)

Interstate 77 would be completed to Interstate 20 in Columbia by 1988.  Finally, in 1995, Interstate 77 would be completed to Interstate 26 southeast of Columbia, ending over three decades of construction.

Sources & Links:
  1. Johnson, Bill. "Ambitious Va. Highway Program Aims For Vast Network By 1975." Newport News Daily Press. 14A.  December 11, 1960.
  2. "New Highway Route Battle On Today." The Charlotte News. 1B.  January 6, 1958.
  3.  Jenkins, Jay. "Highway Chief Says Charlotte Will Get Ohio Superhighway." Charlotte Observer. 4A.  November 27, 1957.
  4. Gardner, John. "Superhighway's Route Approved." Charlotte Observer. 1B. August 5, 1959.
  5. American Automobile Association. "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways as of June, 1958."
  6. Munn, Porter. "Speakers Give Views On Super-Road Route." Charlotte Observer. 1B. January 7, 1958.
  7. "Decision Delayed On Interstate 77." The Charlotte News. 5A. August 26, 1960.
  8. "Fancy Gap Makes Case." The High Point Enterprise. 4A. October 7, 1960.
  9. "2 States Can't Make Road's Ends Meet." Charlotte Observer. 11C. February 24, 1961.
  10. Roberson, Michael. "I-77" NCRoads.com Annex.
  11. Shires, Michael A. "Agreement Finally Reached On I-77 Routing." The Charlotte News. 4B. May 10, 1965.
  12. "Fancy Gap of I-77 Opens." Danville Register. 3A. July 2, 1977.
  13. Roberson, Michael. "I-77." Virginia Highways Page.


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