An Extreme Definition of “Southern”

On January 6, 2010 · 3 Comments

An acquaintance of mine and I once got into a friendly discussion about what should count as a "southern" state within the United States. I thought, well, the list should start at least with the eleven that formed the Confederate States of America at the onset of the Civil War. From there we could talk about cultural affinities and migration patterns to perhaps expand that to border states and other areas.

Nothing doing, my friend from Mississippi argued. Many of those original Confederate states should be removed from the list entirely. Virginia, he proclaimed should be the first one struck from the tally. Virginia? Seriously? The capital of the Confederacy, the home of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the land of battlefields up one side and down the other? He was, of course, taking a playful swipe at my homeland and the evolving multicultural, multinational nature of Northern Virginia in particular.

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Then came a most audacious and extreme claim, one that I’d never heard before and hardly ever could imagine: "No true southern state has a toll road."

Now truth be told, a little alcohol may have been involved in this discussion and he wasn’t being serious. Mostly. But what an interesting claim to investigate I thought as I tucked that assertion away for future reference. That was many years ago and it finally crossed my mind again for some unknown reason. Today, however, I actually have the tools to determine if there is even the most remote grain of truth to that outlandish claim.

I started with the list of former Confederate States and consulted the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration website. The FHWA maintains a nice set of data related to toll facilities within the United States. It also presented my first challenge. What exactly is a toll road?

I decided to err on the side of inclusiveness by adding bridges, tunnels and ferries to the definition. I reasoned that vehicles could use each of these to cover geographic distances so they would be extensions of the "road" network. Perhaps ferries would present the weakest argument, but we can always regroup on that point later.

Many of the states in the old confederacy have toll roads even by the most explicit definition with no need to consider bridges, tunnels and ferries: Virginia; South Carolina; Florida; Texas; Georgia; Alabama; and Louisiana. None of these would be truly Southern if a toll road is the sole indicator. I know, that’s preposterous, but work with me. The others states were a little tougher to categorize.

I discovered a website I’d never seen before called Toll Roads News ("news on tolls roads, turnpikes toll bridges, toll tunnels & road pricing) which provided amazingly valuable information during my quest. I never would have imagined the existence of such a niche publication but it’s highly informative. Nearly every article features one or more maps! Twelve Mile Circle was thrilled. That, combined with the FHWA, rounded out the picture.

Another site I found was a little less useful perhaps but still very interesting: the Global Map of Tolls, Bridges and Tunnels from the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. You’ll need to have access to Google Earth to use it though.

North Carolina

The state operates a system of toll ferries providing access to the outer banks, the chain of barrier islands along North Carolina’s Atlantic coast.

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Tolls Here for Sure

Even without the ferries, genuine highway tolls are probably coming down the pike in several locations in the near future. The North Carolina Turnpike Authority recently broke ground on the Triangle Expressway in Wake and Durham Counties, and expects to complete it in 2011. Others are in the works.

Verdict: Southern today if ferries are ignored but expected to fall from the list soon.


There doesn’t appear to be a toll road in existence in Arkansas right now but a couple may be on the horizon. One has been proposed for the motorists traveling to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Another future one might be the Bella Vista Bypass Toll Road but the project is currently stalled due to funding issues.

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A Toll Road in Your Future?

Verdict: Southern for now, but its future status remains in question


Tennessee seems to have a complete dearth of toll roads but it does have the Cumberland City Ferry which charges a toll.

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Perhaps the Only Toll "Road" in Tennessee

There has also been talk of various toll road possibilities in Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis.

Verdict: Mostly Southern and likely to stay that way; truly Southern if they get rid of that ferry toll.


I could find only one reference to a possible toll road in Mississippi, the proposed Jackson Airport Parkway. It was derailed in September 2009 when loan financing fell through. This would have been Mississippi’s first toll road of the modern era.

Verdict: Truly Southern.

Maybe my tipsy friend from Mississippi was on to something, or maybe he was just a lucky guesser.

On January 6, 2010 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “An Extreme Definition of “Southern””

  1. Alger says:

    Vernacular regions are always a pain to define. When I was living in Upstate Illinois we defined the Midwest as the states touching Illinois (and when we thought of it, Ohio). Then I worked with some guys from Minot, ND, and they claimed they were Midwesterners too. Then I met some people from West Virginia, and they said they were Midwestern.
    Later I moved to downstate Illinois and discovered that they thought of themselves as Southern and people from Kentucky are emphatically NOT midwestern. Then I moved to Missouri, and that state is a region unto itself (St. Louis is Midwestern, KC is Western, the Ozarks are Southern…).
    When it comes to defining the South, well in North Carolina everything is defined by county and they don’t identify with any place more than 12 miles from home, in South Carolina they believe (fervently) that they are the Only True Southern State, and Florida wants to shuck all them rednecks and be California.
    The point is, I think, that toll roads are as good a guide as any. I tried for a while to define regions by how you “howdy” a passing car. It kind of worked.

  2. Interesting stuff – and just one more reminder of why I miss my home state of Tennessee.

  3. AF says:

    Where Missouri is concerned, I don’t agree entirely with the above poster. Downstate Illinois, first off, is not considered Southern. Southern Illinois, Southern Indiana, and the Ozarks in Missouri are a blend of Midwestern and Southern values, attitudes, and cultures. Once you get down into Arkansas, the Ozarks lose all of their Midwestern influence and identify decisively with the South. My dad is from Southwest Missouri, and my visits to Springfield and Joplin convinced me that most of Southern Missouri is distinctively too Midwestern to be grouped in with Kentucky or the South. Too many dialect, historical, and cultural disparities. Kansas City is a Midwestern city as well, as Midwestern as Des Moines and Omaha. The only parts of Missouri that would truly qualify as Southern is Southeastern and far South Central Missouri, on a line running approximately from West Plains to Poplar Bluff to Sikeston. Those areas have truly Southern speech patterns, culture, ways of thinking, etc., and are more like Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee than the southernmost parts of the Midwest.

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