Flashback Friday: I-10 and Tallahassee – a long road to today

I-10 through Tallahassee today By Michael Rivera – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31897767

Folks from the peninsula or west Florida who travel I-10 to get to/from Tallahassee may not be aware of the complicated history of building the Interstate through Leon County and how the city was the last major one in Florida (except Fort Myers) to be linked to the Interstate system despite being the state capital and home to many of the state’s best and brightest.

The first expressways in Florida weren’t interstates. In fact, the Interstate Highway system didn’t come to Florida until the early 1960’s. Even then the stretches of urban roads built in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Jacksonville didn’t connect to anything until the large stretches of rural interstate were completed in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Jacksonville and Miami had to take matters into their own hands to build urban freeways and both did a remarkable job of designing and ultimately building roads financed with local and state money. For example, the Palmetto Expressway was built by Dade County with some state help in the late 1950’s. At the time I-95 didn’t exist, and the Palmetto cut through dairy farms until hitting some urbanized areas near its termination in Kendall. Today, the Palmetto carries more cars than any Interstate in Florida outside of south Florida metroplex.

At the same time I-10 a rode that would connect much of the traditional part of Florida, from Jacksonville to Pensacola and beyond to Pacific Coast. The route of I-10 was contentious. Should the Interstate tug near to the resort towns of Panama City and Fort Walton Beach (this was pre-Destin) or give as direct a route as possible between Jacksonville and Tallahassee and then Tallahassee and Pensacola? Did having a direct route mean I-10 should dip into Tallahassee as an urban expressway, stay north of town and use a spur to connect the center of the city (as was being done in Pensacola with I-110) or just stay north or south of town.

Several proposals were laid out for where I-10 should track around 1963.

  • North of Tallahassee cutting through Lake Jackson
  • South of Lake Jackson but north of town (the route that was adopted)
  • More or less along US 90 into the center of town then moving back north along what ended up being the current route
  • Along the railroad tracks south of the Capitol and staying south through Blounstown
  • Along the current route of Orange Avenue staying south until the town of Ebro about 25 miles north/northwest of Panama City. This route would have also been easier to manage lang acquisition for as much of the land between Leon and Walton counties on this route was owned by the St Joe Company and political heavyweight Ed Ball.

By 1970, I-10 had been finished from the Alabama state line to DeFuniak Springs and from Live Oak to Jacksonville but the stretch between Walton County and the Suwanee River remained missing. It wasn’t until 1978 that the missing link was finally completed. While some in Tallahassee had continued to want a route that dipped into town or an expressway spur route, most residents just wanted an interstate link to the rest of the country regardless of where it was located.  Political fights also pitted coastal areas against the northern towns on US 90, something that still persists today as links from the Interstate southward to the popular resort areas in Okaloosa, Walton and Bay counties continues to require expenditures on state roads that may not have been needed has I-10 taken a more southerly course.

I-10 remained two lanes in each direction from just west of Jacksonville to the Alabama state line until recently. Unlike I-75 and I-95 which carry lots of traffic (for example every county on I-95 between Jacksonville and Miami has at least 100,000 residents. Every country long I-75 from Gainesville to Miami has at least 100,000 residents), I-10 cuts mostly through rural counties with populations under 100,000. Beginning in 2003 and continuing through today I-10 was/is being expanded to six lanes in each direction through most Escambia County. The interstate was also expanded to three lanes in each direction for seven miles in Leon County (between the Thomasville Road/Capital Circle E exit and Capital Circle NW exit) in the late 2000’s. But the route is still largely rural and traffic remains light in many areas.

More details on the political fights around I-10 can be found at AA Roads (which is also a SUPER cool site).

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