Future interstate named I-87


By Corey Davis
Staff Writer

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A future interstate highway that will transform parts of U.S. 64 to connect manufacturers in North Carolina to the Port of Virginia still remains a long way off, but the proposed superhighway now has a future numerical designation.

North Carolina recently received approval from the American Association of State and Transportation Officials for the names of two new interstate route designations in Eastern North Carolina. Reports said officials approved an Interstate 87 designation for the U.S. 64 and U.S. 17 corridor from Raleigh to coastal Virginia via Rocky Mount, Williamston and Elizabeth City in Northeastern North Carolina.

In addition, there was approval of Interstate 42 for the U.S. 70 corridor between Interstate 40 and Morehead City. Gov. Pat McCrory said these connections are an integral part of a 25-year vision for North Carolina to improve the state’s infrastructure, expand economic opportunites and create jobs.

In 2015, officials said both houses of Congress passed federal transportation legislation authorizing a future Interstate designation for the full corridor between Raleigh and southeastern Virginia through Northeastern North Carolina. The corridor subsequently received the I-87 designation in May.

Theresa Pinto, president of the Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce, said with Rocky Mount in the section with Raleigh, it works in the city’s favor that Raleigh is preparing to erect I-87 signs along 12 miles of the highway between Knightdale and I-40. 

John Chaffee, president and chief executive officer of the NC East Alliance, an economic development agency for Eastern North Carolina, said the interim process involves getting new “Future Interstate 87” signs posted on qualifying segments of the existing roads, likely U.S. 64 between Rocky Mount and Williamston.

“The Nash-Edgecombe portion of the interstate does not appear to need as much work or investment to bring it to interstate standards,” Pinto said. “Currently, the future I-87 signs have been fabricated and we’re waiting for the 87 decals to be applied. The N.C. Department of Transportation will decide where the signs are to be placed. Initial estimates, which seem to be conservative, are that the cost to bring the entire corridor up to interstate standards would be approximately $1 billion.”

Chaffee said I-87 will connect Raleigh — and therefore Rocky Mount and Tarboro — to the major East Coast port in Norfolk, Va. and its associated posts, which handle 13 percent of all East Coast shipping traffic.

Norfolk is one of only two East Coast ports that is truly post-Panamax-ready, which is capable of handling the largest ships that can come through the new Panama Canal, Chaffee added.

“This will increase interest in industrial sites in Northeastern North Carolina for manufacturers and major distribution operations,” Chaffee said. “Many of our major existing employers already use the Port of Virginia, which will ease their access to the port and lower their costs over time.”

Joe Milazzo, executive director for Regional Transportation Alliance, said the I-87 authorization conveys to companies that the state has a plan to improve connections between two major metro areas with bipartisan support at all levels of government.

“It will provide every county along the corridor east of Nash County with its first direct access to the interstate system,” Milazzo said. “This is essential for maximizing economic growth opportunities for several of our economically distressed counties in Northeastern North Carolina.”

While action by Congress in designating the I-87 corridor has accelerated the process, Chaffee said there are some existing matters that must happen for the I-87 project to come into fruition. He added remaining issues include the possibilities of no new money coming to North Carolina to develop the future interstate, the current Strategic Transportation Investment isn’t likely to favor the improvements neccessary and the window of time to convert a future interstate to an actual interstate is usually 25 years.

“That’s an awful long time, which typically is the close-out date to complete all the work,” Chaffee said. “The possibility of getting an interstate shield disappears if all the required work is not complete. However, in this case, the special legislation actually exempts this project from that timeline requirement, which is both good and bad.”

Milazzo acknowledged there is still a lot of work to be done, which will require a very coordinated, regional effort to get funds appropriated to make improvements.

“Of course, we cannot complete all 200 miles immediately,” Milazzo said. “This effort has to be thought of as a gift that we will give to our children’s future prosperity. However, by locking the interstate authorization for the corridor, it provides the focus and clarity needed to advance improvements to this vital linkage between Raleigh, Northeastern North Carolina and coastal Virginia.”