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Allegheny County Belt Route System

For travelers in and around Pittsburgh and Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, there are only two main Interstate highways linking the various parts of the region. The Penn-Lincoln Parkway East (I-376) and West (I-279) is the major east-west route. I-279, affectionately but not officially called "the Parkway North," runs from downtown Pittsburgh north to meet with I-79. I-79 stays far enough west of Pittsburgh to be of minimal use for commuters other than those living near it; it just goes straight north-south so it's not of much use as a beltway. The Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76) could be useful as the northeastern section of a beltway, but it's a toll road, and its limited access points limits its value to most small towns it passes.

In lieu of an Interstate beltway, the Belt Route plan was constructed to relieve the congestion on the highways mentioned above by providing a series of marked alternate routes. Five color-coded loops surround Pittsburgh and link various towns, highways, and important sites such as the two airports. (A sixth loop was added in 1995, the Purple Belt. It is part of the Pittsburgh Wayfinder System.)

The colors of the Belt Route system are ordered like the rainbow. The outermost belt is Red (33.5mi), followed by Orange (91.7mi), Yellow (77.6mi), Green (38.6mi), Blue (38.1mi), and Purple (2.03mi). So if you happen to cross one, you have some idea of how close you are to downtown Pittsburgh, or whether you are traveling toward or away from downtown.

The Red Belt and Orange Belt do not form complete loops because they meet the outside edge of Allegheny County. The Green Belt is also an open ended path since the Blue and Yellow Belts pass so close to each other as they trace around the southwestern part of Allegheny County.

Because this region is so hilly and cut by rivers, the roadways tend to twist and turn, following the ridges and valleys. Navigation can be tricky, especially when compared to towns which are laid out in a rigid grid system. Street systems in those towns are more forgiving if you miss a turn -- in Pittsburgh if you miss a turn, you may end up far from where you expected. (And we all know, no one likes to just turn around.)

The Belt Route system gives travelers a headstart on finding shortcuts and backroads. The signage is rather complete and well-maintained, so it's OK to rely on the system to get you where you planned to go.

The Allegheny County Belt System was developed in the late 1940s by Joseph White, an engineer with the Allegheny County Department of Public Works. By adding signage to existing state and municipal roads, drivers were given alternate routes thoughout the county which did not lead to downtown Pittsburgh's congested Golden Triangle.

From late 1951 to early 1952, the signs were posted throughout the finalized belt routes, starting with the Orange route, then Blue, Yellow, Red and Green. The Red Belt was seen as the most scenic route since it traced an arc across the northern section of the county, well away from any developed areas. Even today, travelers circumnavigating the Orange Belt (almost a complete circle) tend to alternate between open farmlands on the hilltops, then snaking through forested ravines and stream valleys.

Unlike many other cities, Pittsburgh does not have an actual beltway, in the sense of a highway which rings around the urban area, diverting traffic from the city. The Belt Routes predate the Interstate Highway System as well as the Penn Lincoln Parkways. When Interstate highways were built locally, they were laid out in more of a spoke configuration that tends to make all of those highways go through downtown Pittsburgh. With traffic continuing to build over the years, the Belt Route alternatives have continued to be a far-sighted solution.

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Last modified: 30-Nov-1998