Interstate 97: Why it Exists and How to Remove It

I am not a fan of I-97; the number, not the road itself. The road itself is a short but important connection between Baltimore and Annapolis, MD, but it exists as only a 17 mile freeway, shorter than most three digit interstates. In fact, it is by far the shortest primary interstate highway, that is, one with only two digits in its numbering, and while I-87 in North Carolina (sadly) exists; it is planned to connect to Norfolk, VA, along a corridor longer than 100 miles in length. 

That numbering will almost certainly be an entire blog of its own, but today we're going to explore how I-97 came into being as the short connector route that it is today, and how it could be incorporated into a much longer route. 

A state-named Northbound I-97 Mile Marker. Famartin, Wikipedia Commons - 2018.

I propose five alternatives in renumbering, although I'm certain none will be acted upon, it's been a fun exercise for road enthusiasts to fix issues with the Interstate Highway System, such as I-238, with their own alternatives.

Interstate 97 is not only an intrastate Interstate, meaning it exists solely within one state, in this case Maryland; it actually is the only intra-county primary Interstate, as it lies within Anne Arundel County for its 17 mile journey between I-695 south of Baltimore, and the unsigned I-595 as part of US-50/301 at Parole. One of my biggest pet peeves of the Interstate Highway System is that I-595 is actually longer than I-97, meaning the shorter corridor got a primary Interstate Highway designation, and the other one can't even get a sign stating it even exists. But it is only thanks to I-97 that I-595 exists in the first place.

The corridor that would eventually become I-97 was proposed to be upgraded to freeway standards originally in 1956 as the Arundel Expressway, which would ultimately run about two miles east but only connect to Pasadena, MD as MD-10.

In the original Interstate Highway Act of 1956, there was no funding for a Baltimore-Annapolis corridor, and the further Federal Aid Highway Act of 1968 proved unsuccessful as well at obtaining funds for the route. However, Maryland still had many miles of unbuilt freeways in the downtown Baltimore area, such as I-70 and I-170, that were being cancelled due to freeway revolts, and thus were able to use funding from these cancelled projects to divert to what would eventually become I-97. 

In 1979, the first plans for the road, and the number, would come into fruition. Instead of taking the Arundel Expy route, the road would mostly parallel MD-3 and MD-178. The original plan was to have present-day 97 continue along the US-50/301 corridor along what would eventually become I-595, in addition to a spur route between I-97 and the Severn River to be known as I-197. This is why I-595 ends right before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge today.

Even with the incorporation of US-50/301 into the route, I-97 would still be only about 32 miles long, still only about half as long as the next shortest primary routes, the Western I-86 (which shouldn't exist); and I-19, which could also be incorporated into I-17, although it is more famous for its metric signage.

Another unbuilt freeway would've replaced MD-3 and created a shortcut for drivers between I-695 and I-495 to be known as I-297. I've always found this collection of interstates to be especially confusing, so I've mapped them below:



In blue is the present-day 97, which would have continued west on I-595 in red. The remainder of the red road would have been Interstate 197.

This plan was approved, and then rejected by AASHTO in 1981. In 1982, AASHTO approved a different numbering for the east-west portion of this triangle...I-68. The number was free at the time, as the National Freeway had yet to be built. So what become one incredibly short primary Interstates could have been replaced by two incredibly short primary Interstates! 

This approval was also ultimately rejected though, but still became part of the Interstate Highway System as the unsigned I-595, and Interstate 297 was of course never built. After the numberings on all roads were established, I-97 would open in all its 17-mile glory in 1991. 

So just as I-68 had been renumbered to I-595, and this freed up the number for a much longer road, I am in the believe that 97 should have the same fate. While I don't advocate for the expansion of the Interstate System, there are a few proposals to build a road east of I-95, and thanks to Bud Shuster, that designation would be forced to use I-101 to have a unique number, but 97 could also be recycled as well. The fact that its north end is the Baltimore Beltway, and thus could accommodate an extension of another road quite easily, I propose five alternative numberings, listed in order from what I believe to be least useful to most useful. Each of these corridors could be built for the cost of the signs, as no pavement or reconstruction would be required for them to come to fruition. 

5) I-83

Had the freeway revolts of Baltimore never occurred, it's possible this road could've already had the I-83 designation, as itself is a fairly short Interstate highway, but its current end in downtown Baltimore makes it difficult to apply to I-97.  And remember, we are not building any more freeways.

But, we could use I-695. If 83 were applied to the Baltimore Beltway instead of into Downtown, it would quite easy to remove 97 via this method. But the freeway within the beltway, known as the Jones Falls Expy, would either lose its Interstate status, or require a new designation, such as I-183, that could cause more confusion. 

An extension of I-83 in blue with a hypothetical I-183 in orange.

I originally advocated for this strategy, but I've found there's a few other methods that would make more sense than an 83 extension. Nonetheless, 83 keeps the cardinality of the road, and even lets this highway remain a "primary" road, and frees up I-97 for use elsewhere!

4) I-795

If you wanted to extend a freeway to remove I-97, but wanted to do so with less moving parts, I-795 is a spur route from I-695, and thus could easily be extended along the beltway and routed onto the current 97 alignment without much in the way of trouble. 

A 795 extension would be quite easy to pull off.

This would be the second example (after I-271/480) where two 3-digit highways share pavement, but there's also no rule against this sort of concurrency, so it would be feasible. However, drivers used to the 97 numbering may become confused to find that a relatively short road west of Baltimore now has the same number, so the designation is not without its faults. 

3) I-395

This idea only makes sense if the current I-395 is removed or downgraded, but the current spur from I-95 essentially acts as glorified entrance ramps, as it is just over a mile in length. That being said, the 395 designation does end near Camden Yards, where the Orioles play, and helps connect Downtown Baltimore to I-95, so it's not as though this road is useless.

Still, if the designation ever did open up, it would be wiser to use it for I-97 than what it is used for currently, and most likely would not cause much in the way of confusion for motorists. 

2) I-70

A possible southeasterly extension of I-70.

Interstate 70 currently ends in a park-and-ride, as the Baltimore extension was never built, something that seems a bit strange, especially for an X0 route (Interstates ending in zeros are typically the longest routes; I-70 being the 5th longest Interstate). This would route I-70 along its current interchange with I-695 to I-97 and ultimately replace the road. While its cardinality would be East-West for this North-South route, it would be an extremely painless conversion otherwise. The remaining mile or so of present-day I-70 could be dropped, or given the I-170 designation if you absolutely had to. 

This is a shorter distance to add signs than a southward 795 extension would be, and also avoids having two different 3-digit interstates (695 and 795) use the same road. 

1) I-595

This, to me, is the most logical renumbering for the road. I-97 is the only primary Interstate which does not connect to another primary Interstate, and functions more as a spur route from the Baltimore Beltway anyway. It also helps that the current 595 is unsigned, and thus moving or extending the designation would not cause any confusion. You simply put up NEW 595/OLD 97 signs for awhile, and eventually all is right with the world of eastern Maryland's freeways. 

I-595 could be done one of two ways; a northward extension of the road which would leave the old I-197 route no longer part of the Interstate System, or applying 595 to the 97 corridor, and renumbering I-595 as I-995. 

You're probably thinking, "why not just change I-97 to I-995?". I apply the same logic that INDOT used when numbering I-865. I-665 was available, but in the event of an emergency, INDOT found that six-sixty-five might be confusing to panicked motorists attempting to explain to a dispatcher where they are. Nine-ninety-five might have the same result, so to apply that designation to a road which would never have 995 signs in the first place makes the most sense. 

As always, it's been fun going over the history of this numbering and how we can "fix" what's wrong with it. That being said, the 97 numbering, while short, fits in the grid system of the Interstate highway, is not duplicated, and at this precise moment, no other corridor is gunning for the 97 designation, so among issues with the Interstate Highway System today, it's far from the most urgent. *Looks disapprovingly at North Carolina*

Thanks as always for reading!

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