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Interstate talks shift into fast lane

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Traffic on US-264 seen from an overpass on Sept. 26, 2016. (Joe Pellegrino/The Daily Reflector)

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Shannon Keith

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Local officials are “delighted” that talks of designating U.S. 264 as a future interstate have shifted into the fast lane.

Last week, U.S. Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and U.S. Reps. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat, and Walter B. Jones Jr., a Republican, introduced the Eastern North Carolina Gateway Act of 2016. The bipartisan legislation aims to improve eastern North Carolina’s highway system by designating portions of U.S. 264 as an interstate highway and create interstate access along U.S. 13 and N.C. 11.

“As the heart and hub of eastern North Carolina, Greenville daily experiences commuting traffic of approximately 30,000 vehicles,” City Manager Barbara Lipscomb said. “This new interstate designation for the Eastern Gateway Corridor will ultimately lead to additional road improvements to support our local commuters and lead to additional economic development opportunities for the community. ... We are delighted that our congressional representatives found this to be an important project to support."

If approved, the request would be the third interstate designation obtained in eastern North Carolina this year. North Carolina gained two future interstate designations: I-42 for the U.S. 70 corridor between I-40 and Morehead City and I-87 for U.S. 64/17 between Raleigh and the Virginia state line. The new interstate would begin where the future I-87 splits from U.S. 264 in Zebulon and ends in Greenville.

Receiving future interstate designation opens new possibilities when marketing Greenville and Pitt County to companies looking for new locations, Mayor Allen Thomas said.

“Bringing good jobs into the area ... it all begins with our infrastructure,” Thomas said. “This is a big part of that strategy.”

Thomas said local officials have been lobbying for the interstate designation for more than two years with state and federal legislators and officials. Earlier this month, state transportation officials submitted an application to the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to request the designation for U.S. 264, which received support from Gov. Pat McCrory.

“This is the result of a lot of hard work on the local, state and federal levels," Thomas said. "It is awesome that this legislation has the bi-partisan support of all of our representatives in Washington, D.C.

“This is good government,” Thomas said. “It makes the good of the whole community a priority.”

For a highway to be designated an interstate, it must meet certain construction requirements that include:

* A minimum design speed of 70 mph, with 50-60 mph acceptable in rolling terrain;

* A minimum of at least two lanes in each direction;

* A minimum lane width of 12 feet, which is the standard for most U.S. and state highways;

* A minimum outside paved shoulder width of 10 feet and inside shoulder width of 4 feet;

* A minimum median width of 36 feet in rural areas and 10 feet in urban or mountainous areas.

Roger Johnson, Greenville’s economic development manager, said U.S. 264 already is within 90 percent of interstate specifications.

“The roads almost are built to interstate standards,” Johnson said. “There are sections where some lanes will need to be widened, but U.S. 264 almost meets the federal standards now.”

Greenville is the 10th-largest city in North Carolina and the largest city in the state without an interstate highway. Receiving the interstate designation will help Greenville recruit new business and industries to the area, Johnson said.

“When a company is looking for potential sites to locate, one of the most important factors is interstate accessibility,” Johnson said. “Cities that don’t have an interstate often are crossed off the list immediately. This puts us back on those lists and allows us to compete for these jobs and industries.

“Those of us that live in the area know that U.S. 264 has good roads and that you can travel 70 mph on most of it,” Johnson said. “However, these businesses all over the country don’t know that. This designation now will let them know that we have the infrastructure they require.”

Contact Shannon Keith at skeith@reflector.com and 329-9575.

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