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The Chaotic History of Greensboro's 'Death Valley'

For nearly half a century - the former junction of Interstate 40 and 85 in Greensboro was one of North Carolina's most notorious stretches of highway.  Whether it was from serious - at times deadly - accidents or sloggish traffic jams, Greensboro's 'Death Valley' was one of the most notorious stretches of highways within the Carolinas.

'Death Valley' is the name given to the roughly 2.5 miles of Interstate 40 that runs from the US 29 South/Business Interstate 85 (Exit interchange eastwards to the US 29 North/Henry Boulevard Interchange in Greensboro.  The first mention of 'Death Valley' in Greensboro is in a December 13, 1963, article by George Yow.  The article, which discussed the closing of an at-grade intersection with Patton Avenue after a gentleman died in a car wreck, featured a photo of a pin-marked map showing the locations of 154 wrecks, four deadly, along that stretch of highway in 1963. (1)  Within days, the nickname was mentioned in the editorials of both Greensboro newspapers and other newspapers throughout North Carolina.

The origins of Death Valley were from the numerous wrecks - many times serious if not fatal - along the stretch of Interstates 40 and 85 through Greensboro. (1)

Before The Interstates:

What is now Interstate 40 through Greensboro dates back to the mid-1950s. North Carolina began building a new highway along the Piedmont Crescent from Durham west to Greensboro, then southwest towards Charlotte via bypasses of Thomasville, Burlington, and Salisbury.  Known then as 'Superhighway 70' or as 'Superhighway 29-70,' the two or four-lane limited access highway stretched over 80 miles from Spencer to Hillsborough. 

'Superhighway 29-70' began construction around 1950 - with the first segment - a five-mile bypass of Lexington opening in 1951. (2)  During the first part of the decade, highway construction continued to head northeast toward Greensboro.  Meanwhile, the highway also pushed west from Hillsborough.  Finally, on October 8, 1955, the 'Superhighway 70' opened through Greensboro. (3)

The 'superhighway' did have exits but included numerous at-grades along its route.  East of Greensboro, the highway was built with only two lanes.  However, right-of-way was reserved, allowing the new roadway to later expand to four lanes. (2)

By the autumn of 1958, Death Valley had two new highways, Interstate 40 and 85. (4)

In 1958, an offshoot of the highway heading west towards Winston-Salem opened. The 'New 421' opened but with a new name, Interstate 40. 'Superhighway 29-70' also received a new name, Interstate 85. (4)  Their junction south of Downtown Greensboro, along with an immediate interchange with Randleman Road east of the junction, was a mix of narrow exits and merges from both the driver's left and right.  This setup would soon earn the infamous nickname "Death Valley."

"Death Valley" Earns Its Nickname:

On October 20, 1955 - less than two weeks after the new highway opened - four people died in a two-car collision at an at-grade crossing of 'Superhighway 29-70" and Pinecroft and Sumner School Roads just to the southwest of what would become known as Death Valley. (5)  The deadly accident would foreshadow the issues the new highway would face over the next several years.

This 1960 aerial image illustrates the substandard and dangerous features of Death Valley's early years. From left to right is a right in/right out intersection with Meadowview Road, another right in/right out with Broome Road, an at grade intersection with Patton Avenue and the original interchange with what is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. (Image Courtesty of: NCDOT Historical Aerial Imagery)

The combination of at-grade intersections and exits led to numerous wrecks on the new highway - many resulting in serious injuries or fatalities. Between what is now the Business 85 Junction and US 29/Henry Blvd interchange, there was an at-grade crossing at Patton Avenue and right in/right out (RIRO) at grade intersections with Meadowview and Broome Roads, respectively.  These tight exits and crossovers were extremely dangerous and were not to interstate standards.

In the years between 1962 and 1964, the number of wrecks and fatalities along the now-named Death Valley stretch through Greensboro steadily increased. According to the American Automobile Association, the 2.5 miles of Death Valley, between 1963 and early 1964, had a death rate of nine times the national average. (6)

Annual vehicle wrecks and fatalities through Greensboro's Death Valley from 1962 - 1964. (6)

The combination of these figures, growing traffic, and the necessity to upgrade the highway to Interstate standards led the North Carolina Division of Highways (NCDOH) to prioritize a complete overhaul of the roadway.  The state announced in late 1963 that it would begin a series of improvements that would bring the "superhighway" to Interstate standards.  The project started with the closure of the Patton Avenue at-grade intersection, a speed limit reduction to 45 miles per hour, and the installation of new advanced warning signs for all interchanges. (7)

Construction work on the Interstate 40/85 junction through Death Valley.  The ramp from Randleman Road onto the Interstates can be seen on the right.  This ramp was eliminated during construction - eliminating a very dangerous merge across multiple lanes of roadway. (8)

Eventually, NCDOH would solicit bids for the complete overhaul of the highway, widening the roadway to six lanes, rebuilding all interchanges, and constructing new bridges replacing the former dangerous at-grades.  Construction began in March of 1966 - two years later, the entire project would be complete for roughly $6 million. (9)

Above: A 1962 aerial image of the original design of the I-40/85 and Randleman Road interchanges in Death Valley. The close proximity of the two exits resulted in extremely dangerous merging.
Below: A 1977 aerial image of the redesigned interchanges.  Traffic to Randleman from I-40 East and I-85 North and from Randleman to I-40 West and I-85 South now had separate ramps eliminating some of the hazards through Death Valley.  (Images Courtesy: NCDOT Historical Aerial Imagery Index)

The Interstate 40 and 85 junction saw significant work.  In addition to adding a third lane in each direction, a key part of the reconstruction was the junction of the two interstates along with the interchange with Randleman Road.  Access to and from the Randleman Road Interchange was split between the two highways.  A unique center ramp was built for traffic from Interstate 40 East to Randleman and from Randleman to Interstate 85 South. This eliminated dangerous merges and weaves due to the close proximity of the two interchanges.

Safer But With More Traffic:

The upgrades to Interstate 40 and 85 through Greensboro did help to reduce fatalities - in the nine years between 1968 and 1977, 10 individuals lost their lives through Death Valley. (10) In contrast, in 1964 - 10 people perished along "Death Valley."  Further safety improvements occurred in 1979 when lights were installed along Interstate 85 from Interstate 40 eastwards towards Lee Street. (11)

While safety improvements were made, traffic volumes continued to increase. "Death Valley" was now known more for its traffic tie-ups than its death count.  Continued growth in North Carolina and the region resulted in the four-lane Interstate 40 and 85 around Greensboro becoming overwhelmed with traffic.  Lengthy traffic jams along highways and through "Death Valley" were regular occurrences, especially around peak holiday travel times.

Traffic relief through Greensboro and beyond would take decades to fix.  First, Interstate 40 and 85 east of Greensboro towards Hillsborough was in dire need of an expansion.  The former two-lane Superhighway 70 was widened to four lanes in the early 1960s - with completion in 1962.   Like the work done in Death Valley, this stretch of highway saw at-grade intersections eliminated and multiple interchanges rebuilt.  But by 1975, the highway was outdated and over-capacity.  Initially planned for six lanes, the widening project from Greensboro to Efland would be delayed twice due to lack of funds between 1982 and 1988.  In 1988, the state revised plans to accommodate eight lanes of traffic along the mile stretch.  (12)

Finally, in 1990, construction began.  Six years later, the widening of the highway finished.  After that, it was Interstate 40 west of Greensboro's turn to be widened. The widening of the highway from four to six or eight lanes towards Winston-Salem began in 1998 and finished by 2006. (13)

Meanwhile, decades-long plans to build an Outer Loop around Greensboro began to gain traction.  In 1997, construction of the Greensboro Urban Loop commenced with the top priority, a bypass of Death Valley.  The first significant portion of the loop to open - an Interstate 85 bypass of Death Valley - began welcoming traffic on February 21, 2004. (14)  The new six-lane to eight-lane 70-mile-per-hour freeway ushered thousands of motorists away from Death Valley and toward Charlotte, Raleigh, or Durham and beyond.

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