Finally this fall, the state Department of Transportation will award a contract to build the East End Connector – a long-sought little freeway that will make big changes in the daily drive for truckers, travelers and commuters.
You’ll have to double-click the “enlarge” button on your Google map to find it. The planned road will bridge the gap between the Durham Freeway (N.C. 147) and U.S. 70 in East Durham, barely one mile apart.
But the East End Connector will reach out to drivers on other roads, too. It will provide the last stoplight-free link for a new north-south freeway through the center of the Triangle, running from Interstate 85 on the north side of Durham to Interstate 40 at Research Triangle Park.
To mark its significance and to simplify navigation instructions for everybody, DOT officials will propose a new name for the entire 8-mile drive between I-85 and I-40: Interstate 885.
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City planners had something like this in mind in the 1960s when they mapped out the Durham Freeway, which runs east and west through the south side of downtown. U.S. 70 also runs east and west before it curves north to join I-85.
The East End Connector became an official DOT project in the 1970s. But it was shelved during years of wrangling over competing Durham freeway priorities and hand-wringing over a state spending formula that always seemed to find other cities more deserving of big-project dollars.
The delays are over. DOT will open bids in October for a construction job estimated to cost $141 million and expected to take 4.5 years, with completion pegged for July 2019. With land, engineering and other expenses added in, the final tally for the East End Connector will run close to $200 million.
Although the roads being connected are just a mile apart, the project involves four miles of new construction, including car and railroad bridges and long, looping access ramps. The new freeway will have two lanes each way with room to add a third lane in the future.
I-885 is expected to draw thousands of cars and trucks that now clog downtown Durham streets or travel U.S. 15-501 on the city’s west side.
Durham Mayor Bill Bell says it will stimulate economic growth in northern Durham County.
“The primary reason we have focused on this road is to make a better connection from north of downtown to southern Durham, and to give northern Durham access to the airport a lot quicker than it is now,” Bell said. “It’s been a long time in the making, and I’ll be happy to see it built.”
Farther north up I-85 in Granville County, Butner Mayor Tom Lane will be happy, too. Nowadays, when he goes from Butner to Raleigh-Durham International Airport, he drives down the two-lane N.C. 50 and turns west on 540. Or he takes I-85 all the way to Durham and heads back toward the east on Miami Boulevard.
“Either way, it’s somewhat of a hassle,” Lane said. Commuters and businesses that supply Triangle companies will have an easier drive to RDU and RTP.
“We see it helping us with our industrial and commercial growth, having that connector,” said Lane, who has been Butner’s mayor since the town was incorporated in 2007. “A lot of companies scramble to get property close to the park because of transportation issues.”
Name will wait
DOT officials discussed an I-885 designation about 10 years ago, but they have not aired the idea recently. Signs for I-885 were included in DOT documents posted in August for contractors who will bid for the job.
Kevin Lacy, DOT’s chief traffic engineer, said it’s a tentative decision at this point. DOT will seek permission for the I-885 designation from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the Federal Highway Administration.
Lacy figures that approval is likely if state officials can show that the proposed 8-mile route is built to interstate standards – or at least very nearly so. It might be necessary to widen some of the shoulders on existing parts of N.C. 147 or U.S. 70, he said, or to request an exemption for a bridge that might not quite meet the specifications.
The regulatory agencies are not expected to decide about the I-885 name until shortly before the new road is finished in 2019, Lacy said. But if preliminary investigations show that approval is likely, the project contractor probably will be directed to go ahead and prepare the new red-and-blue I-885 shields. Either way, he said, the green overhead freeway signs will be built big enough to accommodate interstate shields in the future.
“Having one route name that goes from I-85 to I-40 will make it easier to navigate,” Lacy said. “Otherwise if you’re giving directions to somebody you’ll say, ‘Take U.S. 70 east and then take the East End Connector and then N.C. 147 south.’ It’ll be easier to say, ‘Take I-885 south.’”
Bell was a county commissioner when the East End Connector project was proposed in the 1970s, and he has held county or city office for all but a couple of years since then. He doesn’t care much about the name. He just wants to see the long-awaited freeway completed and open for traffic.
“I’m not hung up on what they call it,” Bell said.