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Atlanta Expressway System

By the mid-1940s tens of thousands of commuters were driving to downtown Atlanta on two-lane city streets—a system wholly unsuited for large volumes of automobiles.

Long before President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act, Atlanta leaders knew the city needed an expressway system for workers living in the suburbs to reach downtown. In 1944 the Atlanta City Council commissioned H. W. Lochner Company of Chicago to study Atlanta traffic patterns and make recommendations for road construction that would begin when the war ended. “There is every indication that Atlanta is approaching a period of great growth and prosperity,” Lochner wrote. “Improved highway and transit facilities are essential if the community is to capitalize on its natural assets. Failure to take prompt action would not only retard growth, but add to the overall cost of the capital improvements required.”

In January 1946 Lochner proposed an expressway system that would eventually become the Downtown Connector, Northeast and Northwest Expressways, the Airport Expressway, and Interstate 20 through the city.

“In Atlanta (highways) should be constructed below surface grade, in general, on broad rights-of-way with side slopes landscaped with the flowering trees and bushes for which the city is noted,” Lochner wrote. Most Atlantans had never seen a “limited access” highway built below grade with entrance and exit ramps and bridges.

On July 30, 1948, the State Highway Department opened bids for the first section, 1.3 miles from 16th Street south through The Varsity parking lot alongside the Georgia Tech campus, past North Avenue to Merrits Avenue, between Spring and Williams streets. MacDougald Construction Company submitted the lowest of six bids, $1.3 million, and in April 1949 MacDougald, by then a Yancey customer for four decades, began excavating some 365,000 cubic yards of material. Henry Newton Company of Decatur subcontracted with MacDougald for five bridges.

MacDougald won a second contract in November 1949 for the section from 16th Street north to Brookwood Station, about 1.6 miles with two bridges. Frank Nichols, whose father preceded him as president of MacDougald, remembers stories of building Atlanta’s first sections of expressway. “There was a major rock cut there at North Avenue and The Varsity, and another one at Brookwood,” he says. “Georgia granite is harder than just about any rock in the country, and it’s very abrasive on the equipment.”

MacDougald later won the contract for a section of the expressway south of downtown and ran into a different challenge near Sylvan Road—a spring pouring out so much water they had to install a well point system to keep the area dry.

“Contractors have to be quick on their feet,” Frank says. “Quick to modify when they run into challenges. You can’t be stagnant. With major grading projects, lot of things are hidden. You try to find the rock before you bid so there are no surprises.”

Wright Contracting Co. of Columbus used Cat dozers and other equipment to grade a section of the Northwest Expressway from Howell Mill Road to Moores Mill Road, and to prepare sites for six bridges and underpasses from Howell Mill to West Paces Ferry Road.

North of the Wright project, Ed Smith and Sons of Atlanta completed grading on 1.5 miles to a point near Nancy Creek with Cat dozers and DW21 scrapers. Three cuts were more than 50 percent rock that required extensive blasting, including one cut that generated 312,000 cubic yards of rock.

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Post-War Boom 1948 - 1959
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