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All Freeway Politics is Local - Interstate 85 through Northeast Georgia

It is often said that all politics is local. This adage is also true with highways. In the days of the Auto Trails, local communities would send delegations to various road conferences with efforts to route the highway through their town. During the Interstate era, routings of many freeway segments were adjusted closer to or further away from towns and cities depending on various political maneuverings.  When it came to Interstate 85 in northeast Georgia - a late decision to adjust I-85's routing to the south had leaders in Gainesville and Toccoa crying foul.

What was at issue was the routing of Interstate 85 from Suwanee northeast to the South Carolina state line.  At first, three different routes were considered: 1) An 'Upper Route' running northeast from Suwanee to Gainsville and then running south of US 23 towards Toccoa before a turn east to the River and South Carolina. 2) A 'Middle Route' that brought I-85 closer to Carnesville and Lavonia. 3) Finally, a 'Lower Route' that shot east to Athens and then followed US 29 to Hartwell and South Carolina.

The three different possible routes of Interstate 85 in northeast Georgia. (1)

The 'Lower Route' was dropped from consideration due to length, cost, and the route not fully utilizing the Northeast Freeway which, at the time, was completed to near Suwanee. Georgia's Highway Department, under the control of Governor Marvin Griffin, chose the northern option. The state's initial Upper Route decision is found on some late 1950s road atlases.

In 1957 - Georgia was tentatively planning on the 'Upper Route' for Interstate 85. It is the I-85-2 in green on the map above. (2)  Route locations that were already submitted and approved are in red.  In December 1958, Georgia would submit the Upper Route to the US Bureau of Public Roads.  Two months later, they withdrew their submission to reconsider the 'Middle Route' option.

But politics and elections can change things. In 1958, Georgia elected a new Governor - Earnest Vandiver. That decision would be where the controversy begins.  In February 1959, Georgia's Highway Department withdrew the 'Upper Route' as the planned route for Interstate 85. (3) This withdrawal allowed for reconsidering the 'Middle Route.'  The Middle Route would run through Franklin County near Livonia, the hometown of newly-elected Governor Vandiver.

Gainesville and Toccoa officials immediately protested and pointed to the political machinations of Vandiver's gubernatorial power. Vandiver did admit that he was involved in the decision to withdraw and consider the middle route due to costing less and a more direct route to South Carolina. (4)

With uncertainty on what route Interstate 85 would take through northeast Georgia, South Carolina held off on projects.  Though the US 123 freeway bypass in Upstate South Carolina was not part of the Interstate system, South Carolina held off on any work on the highway until the crossing point between the two states was agreed upon. (5)

That agreement occurred in April 1959.  The two states agreed on a point about 1/2 mile north of the Georgia Highway 59 bridge over the Tugaloo River. (6)  This agreement allowed South Carolina to begin work on the upgraded US 123 (on hold since 1956) and Interstate 85 south and west of Greenville.  Interstate 85 in South Carolina would be fully completed by 1965.

After the Tugaloo River crossing site was agreed upon, South Carolina was able to begin planning Interstate 85 south and west of Greenville. (7)

Meanwhile, in Georgia, the fingerpointing on who was to blame over Interstate 85's routing continued. The Vandiver administration pushed back against critics who said the move to the middle route was a political decision to benefit Vandiver personally. In November 1959, Vandiver would share a letter from a former Georgia state highway engineer, J.G. Nixon, who claimed that in 1957 he was ordered to "stick with the Upper Route despite the fact that it was 'not economically sound.'" (8) Nixon would be dismissed from his job with the state highway department later that same year.  Nixon also claimed that he had been studying the different routes through northeast Georgia since 1950 and had ruled out the Upper Route due to cost, terrain, and length. (8)  Further, the Vandiver administration was quick to point out that Gainesville was the home of former Highway Board member John Quillian, who was in favor of the Gainesville option (8)

Toccoa and Gainesville officials disagreed and stated that the Middle Route proposed by Vandiver was not the same as the route Nixon studied. They pointed out that the Middle Route in Nixon's letter was 66 miles versus the 67.7 miles in Vandiver's route. (9)

1962 Rand McNally map of Georgia showing the Middle Route for Interstate 85 with the highway open between Carnesville and Lavonia.  (Tom Marney)

A public hearing on the Middle Route took place in Jefferson in November 1959. Although Upper Route proponents pointed to prior recommendations of that route based on a greater amount of population served and that it was the previously agreed upon alignment, the Middle Route ultimately prevailed. (10) In April 1960, the US Bureau of Public Roads formally approved Vandiver's Middle Route. (11) Construction on the first segment of Interstate 85 in northeast Georgia began near Lavonia in March 1961. (12)  Interstate 85 from Suwanee to South Carolina was completed by 1965.

Interstate 85 today near Lavonia.

Ultimately, Gainesville would still get an Interstate. In August 1961, Georgia announced plans to build a four-lane Interstate spur from Suwanee to Gainesville following much of the former Upper Route. (x) The highway opened in 1969, but the Interstate designation (Interstate 985) did not occur until 1984.

So, what really happened in Georgia highway politics in the late 1950s? Did Vandiver order changes to the route for personal gain? Or was the Griffin administration ignoring the recommendations of their own highway department's engineers?  The full truth may never be known, but the one certainty is highways and politics will always be intertwined.

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