Three future interstate highways will further streamline existing eastern North Carolina corridors and will continue spurring economic development and population growth in the region during the next several decades, according to developers and transportation officials. These routes are future Interstate 87 between Raleigh and Norfolk, future I-587 between Zebulon and Greenville and future I-42 between Raleigh and Morehead City.

There are no accurate projections of when these highways will become fully completed interstates, since they are funded and scheduled for construction or improvement in sections that compete for priority, officials said. However, simply the promise of relatively continual upgrading of these routes to interstate standards over time is enough to quicken the pulse of economic development efforts in the counties and regions through which they pass. What are now rural, largely agricultural areas of eastern North Carolina will inevitably become better connected to highway networks, seaport facilities and rail terminals serving prosperous population centers throughout the eastern United States and beyond.

In some areas, like North Carolina’s Crystal Coast — accessible by U.S. 70/Future I-42 — population will almost surely increase and generate a wave of related economic investment along with growth management challenges. In others, vitality-sapping population declines over recent decades will hopefully be diminished through the creation of many new jobs in advanced manufacturing, food processing, logistics and other infrastructure-dependent enterprises feeding off the new future interstates.

“Ninety percent of all new job creation takes place along these type corridors,” said Christian Lockamy, a former Greenville economic developer who is now director of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Economic Development Authority. “All three of these future eastern North Carolina interstate thruways have driven a lot of looks at our region from companies we’ve been working to attract. As a result, businesses and industrial parks are increasing significantly along the routes.”

Norfolk to Raleigh

Future I-87 from Raleigh to Norfolk will be the longest of the three routes at about 213 miles. The 180-mile North Carolina portion will follow present U.S. 64 east from Raleigh through Rocky Mount to Williamston, where it will turn toward the north and follow present U.S. 17 past Edenton and Elizabeth City to the state line. In Virginia, future I-87 will join interstates 64 and 464 in the vicinity of Norfolk and the Port of Virginia.

Even though it’s widely estimated that future I-87 could take as long as 30 years to be brought to full interstate status, the existing multi-lane roadway from Raleigh to Norfolk is already a big selling point.

“We’re blessed to have future I-87, in addition to I-95, as a conduit to get our clients’ products to the end user quickly, efficiently and when the customer wants them,” said Norris Tolson, president of the Rocky Mount-based Carolinas Gateway Partnership, an economic development group that focuses on Nash and Edgecombe counties. “Even now on present U.S. 64 and U.S. 17, the Norfolk port is within a two-hour drive from Rocky Mount, while the ports at Morehead City and Wilmington are both only two hours and fifteen minutes away. That makes the Rocky Mount area a great logistical hub — especially when you add in the new CCX intermodal rail terminal here that will become operational in January 2021.”

“As future I-87 is upgraded to full interstate status in the coming years, Nash and Edgecombe counties can only become even more attractive as an advanced manufacturing, food processing and logistics center,” Tolson said.

To cite just one example of what is happening already, Triangle Tyre selected Edgecombe County in 2018 for its first U.S. manufacturing facility. The Chinese tire manufacturing company will create 800 jobs and is investing nearly $580 million at a 1,449-acre advanced manufacturing megasite site located near Tarboro and just off future I-87. The project will contribute an estimated $2.4 billion to North Carolina’s economy.

When future I-87 was signed into law and announced at the end of 2015, initial preliminary estimates were that the total cost of the route would be around $1 billion. But according to more recent information released by the N.C. Department of Transportation, estimates now range from $1.7 billion to nearly $2 billion. Approximate calculations of the cost of improvements to the section between Raleigh and Williamston range from $845 million to $1 billion. The preliminary estimates for upgrading the portion from Williamston to the Virginia border vary from $850 million to $945 million. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the federal government pays 90 percent of the cost of interstate construction.

The only portion of I-87 now finished and in operation as a completed interstate is a 13-mile stretch in eastern Wake County between Raleigh and Wendell. (That makes I-87 the nation’s shortest current interstate highway.) Around three miles coincides with the Raleigh beltline (I-440), while the next 10 miles is known as the Knightdale Bypass, which extends as far as Wendell.

According to the DOT, improvements to bring future I-87 from Wendell eastward to Zebulon up to interstate standards, mostly through widening outside lane shoulders and upgrading some interchanges, are scheduled to begin in 2026. There is no firm timetable for how long that overall process may take.

Although no design work has yet been done on future I-87 east of the Wake-Nash county line, there is still a lot of work to be done to bring the roadway up to interstate standards. Existing paved shoulders will need to be widened, some bridges will have to be replaced and some interchanges will have to be improved to meet modern requirements — lengthening on-ramp lanes, for example. Certain segments on present U.S. 17 that still have intersecting side roads and driveways, traffic lights and other characteristics will have to be re-engineered or bypassed entirely. Some stretches of U.S. 17/Future I-87 around Windsor, Edenton and Elizabeth City, however, already meet most interstate standards.

“I’ve been working on I-87 for 15 years, and I always tell people we shouldn’t be amazed at how long interstate highways take to complete, but rather that they get built at all,” laughed Joe Milazzo with the Regional Transportation Alliance in Raleigh. “But bit by bit, they do get built. And those red, white and blue signs — even the ones that say ‘future’ — are remarkable things, providing not only branding but focus for advocacy by local leaders and developers.

“Interstates won’t ‘make’ a region by themselves, since land, workforce and other infrastructure are also vital, but they do provide the opportunity to at least participate in the broader economic development game,” Milazzo said.

Greenville spur

Future I-587, announced by the North Carolina Department of Transportation in late 2016, will run from future I-87 at Zebulon east to Greenville along an upgraded U.S. 264. Once future I-87 was approved and announced, officials and economic developers from the Greenville area lobbied the state and federal agencies for a spur route on behalf of the city. This rural freeway joins Raleigh to both Wilson and Greenville, as well as overlaying I-795 between I-95 and its continuation south to Goldsboro.

There is now a funded contract for two separate projects in Greene and Pitt counties related to upgrading U.S. 264 to interstate standards, according to Cadmus Capehart, Division Construction Engineer for North Carolina DOT’s Division 2. Both involve widening outside lane shoulders from four to 10 feet, as required for interstate highways, and both will take place in conjunction with a process of rehabilitating the pavement through strengthening and resurfacing. These two projects, totaling approximately $22.5 million, should be complete in late 2020 or early 2021.

These improvements will still not bring Pitt and Greene counties totally up to interstate standards because there will still have to be more work in the future on bridges to bring them into compliance with vertical clearance and required length of on and off ramps. Altogether, it’s estimated that $100 million will eventually be needed to bring the entire route from Zebulon to Greenville up to interstate standards.

“Greenville was the largest city in North Carolina without an interstate connection until I-587 was approved,” said Vann Rogerson, interim director and CEO of the N.C. East Alliance. “Now, though, Pitt County can be presented to potential clients as well situated for going back up toward Raleigh, up Interstate 95 and up toward the Port of Virginia via the connection near Bethel with I-87.”

“Now it’s vital that we stay behind future I-587 and the other future interstates in the region to make sure they — and our local economy — remain competitive as far as the process of setting funding priorities is concerned,” he added.

Economic catalyst

U.S. 70, the existing four-lane highway between the Raleigh area and Morehead City, is also undergoing upgrading and will eventually become I-42. The future interstate basically follows the U.S. 70 corridor in a southeasterly direction, connecting Garner, Clayton, Smithfield, Selma, Goldsboro, Kinston, New Bern and Havelock with Morehead City and its state port facilities. I-42 will actually terminate near the Carteret County line in the vicinity of Newport and will not enter Morehead City, although some congestion-clearing bridge construction near the port itself is part of the long-range transportation plan in the city.

Cutting travel time between Raleigh and the Morehead City-Beaufort area from three hours to a little more than two, the 137-mile roadway will function as a less congested hurricane evacuation route. It will become an improved freight-hauling corridor and will connect Seymour Johnson Air Force base and Cherry Point Marine Air Station, as well as Kinston’s Global TransPark, to the interstate highway system.

Several new U.S. 70/Future I-42 segments are already complete, including the bypass around the north side of Goldsboro, but others will not materialize until after at least another decade of work.

A 32-mile stretch of the highway between Dover, east of Kinston, and New Bern is undergoing widening of the outer lane shoulders to bring the route up to interstate standards, along with strengthening and resurfacing of the pavement. This project began in 2019 and will continue through 2020.

Beginning at the southern end of the Neuse and Trent River bridges in New Bern, a 4.5 mile stretch of now-congested roadway in the vicinity of the New Bern airport will soon be under construction to eliminate five traffic-signal intersections through the construction of elevated interchanges. This work, locally known as the “James City Project,” is set to begin in March of 2021, with completion planned for late 2023.

Future I-42 will follow a new bypass just begun around the west side of Havelock in Craven County, with completion scheduled for early 2024. Stoplights in Havelock and the resulting traffic backups have long been a source of frustration for travelers in this area.

“Within five years, there will be no stoplights at all between Dover just outside Kinston and the Carteret County line,” said Carteret County Economic Development Director Don Kirkman.

The last major piece leading to completion of future I-42 will be the bypass looping around the south side of Kinston. A small piece of this project is scheduled to begin in 2026, but construction will not begin on the larger portion of the route until 2029.

“It’s going to take us a while to get there, but I-42 will obviously be a game changer for Carteret County,” said Kirkman. “But beyond that, I think this entire corridor is going to be transformational — a huge economic catalyst for all of central eastern North Carolina.”

Contact Bobby Burns at baburns@reflector.com and 329.9572.