The urban loop is a tweak to the Interstate Highway System, which itself is perhaps the most important component of the nation’s infrastructure, envisioned as far back as 1916 and finally built by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. Interstate 85 claimed its original route along the southeast edge of Greensboro in 1960, with Interstate 40’s southern parabola coming on around the same time.

By then the project’s first urban loop — the 695 Beltway around Baltimore — was already open to traffic.

The urban loop is both a concession to the reality of urban traffic and a solution to it. The freeways allow vehicles — trucks, mostly — to pass by without getting caught in high-density traffic. At the same time, a loop pulls traffic from its interior, easing congestion on a city’s arterial flow.

And with the cars come economic activity. A loop creates points of ingress to the city, with exits populated by gas stations and convenience stores, strip malls, hotels and motels. Residences go up, first townhomes and condos, and then full-fledged commuter neighborhoods strengthened by proximity to the highway.

A complaint with urban loops is that they encourage sprawl and car travel, dilute municipal services and create further insularity among communities. But in Greensboro, where all of those things already exist, the loop may have the effect of reining in the city.

From the bird’s eye, the map of Greensboro looks like a turtle that’s been squashed under the wheels of a tractor-trailer on the highway. A barrier of lakes to the north screens the city from Summerfield and Browns Summit. Piedmont Triad International Airport defines the west end while growth to the south and southwest is blocked by Pleasant Garden, Jamestown and High Point. Only the northeast corner of the city has enough undeveloped and unincorporated land for growth. There are more creeks than roads out this way, in the acute angle formed by Highway 29 and Wendover Avenue, and the Cone Boulevard extension will run right through the heart of it on its way to the loop.

Greensboro’s partially constructed loop already shaves 20 minutes or so off the drive from the airport to the southern reaches of the city. Truckers taking Interstate 85 can now route around the city instead of driving through it. When complete, it will create a route through the north from the airport with spokes at Battleground, Lawndale and Elm leading to downtown, and give residents of those longstanding neighborhoods easy access to the highway.

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Most of it is already done.

About 25 miles of the 40-mile lasso that will encircle Greensboro has already been constructed, reclaimed or re-routed since City Manager James Townsend hired a street engineer named Willard Babcock to deal with the huge influx of cars on city streets in 1953.

Babcock’s plan, adopted by city council in 1954, overlaid a set of concentric circles — loops — around the city that included the one now formed by Cone and Benjamin. The Babcock plan gave us Wendover Avenue and elevated Holden Road from a country lane into a main artery on the west side and anticipated the urban loop, which came to be known as Painter Boulevard, decades before it seemed necessary. The plan also laid out a blueprint for the city’s development that would serve the next 50 years.

The state got serious about the urban loop for its third largest city around 1989, finally approving a plan in 1995 and finishing construction on the first segment, a two-mile stretch connecting Wendover with 40/85 in the west, by 2002.

Today the the loop begins — or ends — at Bryan Boulevard at the northern end of the airport, with a southerly stretch that includes a rare highway stop sign before entrance to Interstate 73, one of the newer roads in the system that will eventually run from Myrtle Beach through West Virginia but which for now is confined to a stretch from Greensboro to Randleman.

Here, 73 crosses the westernmost edges of Friendly Avenue and Market Street and then cuts across Interstate 40 through the Adams Farm area. This piece of 40 along the south side of the city was briefly renamed Business 40 and the interstate rerouted. But after complaints about confusion from drivers, the state got permission from the feds to change it back.

Now 73 merges with Interstate 85 where the loop continues its counterclockwise roll, along the southern border of Greensboro and deep into the rural space of Pleasant Garden before turning north through McLeansville. Here, after 24 miles of loop, proper signage for Interstate 840 marks the last few miles, which dump off into a very easterly part of Wendover Avenue, just a quarter turn from the planned Cone Boulevard interchange.

Gov. Bev Perdue gave the final go-ahead for Greensboro’s urban loop in 2011, releasing the state highway funds necessary to complete the northern stretch. The four segments begin at the airport, then cut across Battleground, Lawndale, North Elm Street and Yanceyville, connecting with Highway 29 and that final northeastern stretch.

You can see the T-shaped risers coming up on the North Battleground and Lawndale in the northwest.

In the relatively uncharted territory of the northeast, the westbound lanes already announce themselves above the tree line out by Rankin Mill Road and Hines Chapel Road, two of the three that define the wide open space that includes the White Street Landfill where, on a clear day, you can see the cranes off in the distance from the top of the tallest mound.

The roads don’t always connect out here; some of it is the city and some isn’t. Wide patches of clear-cut rubble stand among trailer parks and small urban farming operations. One fenced-in yard holds about a dozen sheep. Campgrounds of concrete and rebar and fresh-turned dirt bloom in the spaces between cable cuts and homesteads while, just a couple of miles and what seems like a world away, the city sleeps.

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