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Have you driven on Interstate 87 yet?

The N.C. Department of Transportation has erected new signs for Interstate 87 on U.S. 64/264 between Raleigh and Wendell. I-87 will one day run from Raleigh to Hampton Roads, Va.
The N.C. Department of Transportation has erected new signs for Interstate 87 on U.S. 64/264 between Raleigh and Wendell. I-87 will one day run from Raleigh to Hampton Roads, Va. RTA

Drivers in the Triangle may notice some new interstate highway signs, after the N.C. Department of Transportation erected the familiar red and blue shields for Interstate 87 on the southeast corner of the Beltline and on U.S. 64/264 between Raleigh and Wendell.

I-87 will one day run from Raleigh to the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, following what are now U.S. 64 to Williamston and U.S. 17 from there past Elizabeth City to Chesapeake, Va. Upgrading the existing highways to interstate standards along the entire route could take a decade or more.

But the Beltline and U.S. 64/264 to the Wendell Boulevard exit already qualify for interstate status, so NCDOT erected the I-87 signs this week. Those routes had already been designated as Interstate 495, and NCDOT wanted to get the correct signs up, said spokesman Steve Abbott.

Bringing the rest of U.S. 64 up to interstate standards will mostly entail widening the shoulders. Generally, Abbott said, that work gets done whenever other construction projects take place along the route, and not as a specific project. In the meantime, the highway will be known as “Future I-87.”

Economic developers says the interstate designation helps attract businesses that prize good highway access. The Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group associated with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, has pressed for the interstate designation for years, even though U.S. 64 is already a limited-access highway.

“For someone on the outside, when they hear U.S. route they may have something like Capitol Boulevard in mind,” said Joe Milazzo II, the group’s executive director. “But when they hear interstate, they know what they getting.”

Milazzo notes that I-87 has become Wake County’s second long-distance or “primary interstate,” as opposed to “auxiliary interstates” such as I-440, I-540 and I-495. The I-495 designation on U.S. 64 will be superseded by I-87.

There’s already another Interstate 87, running from New York City north to the Canadian border. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which designates interstate highways, approved the duplicate numbering last year.

NCDOT had initially requested to call the highway Interstate 89, but there’s already one of those, too, in New Hampshire and Vermont. AASHTO spokesman Tony Dorsey said the organization’s route numbering committee decided that the new North Carolina highway has a better chance of one day connecting to I-87 in New York than to I-89 in New England, and decided the road between Raleigh and Virginia should be I-87.

“Unfortunately there is not another number to consider since all of the odd (north-south) numbers between 85 and 95 are taken,” Dorsey wrote in an email.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

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