Building the road to prosperity in Eastern North Carolina

Investing now in the proposed interstates for the U.S. 70 corridor, U.S. 17 corridor and other roads would benefit not only those living in the eastern Coastal Plain but the entire state as well.

Today, most of North Carolina’s eastern counties continue to lack the modern transportation infrastructure needed to improve safety, maintain quality of life and support economic progress required in the 21st century. There are 32 counties east of Interstate 95. If we do not consider Interstate 40, 28 of these coastal counties, where nearly 1.3 million people live, have no interstate access whatsoever, even though North Carolina maintains over 1,300 miles of interstate routes throughout the rest of the state.

This lack of modern freeways continues despite residents having paid taxes into a highway system for more than five decades.

Business and government leaders have long recognized U.S. 17 through Eastern North Carolina as the major transportation artery that connects communities on a northerly and southerly route. Possibly upgrading U.S. 17 to an interstate has been considered since 1964. The road is essential to providing access to our beaches and is an important component of emergency egress routes from threatened coastal communities.

This road also serves the logistic needs of the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune. It speeds delivery of agricultural, forestry and other products to the state’s ports and other markets, and it supports economic development. In an easterly and westerly direction, U.S. 70 runs along the spine of North Carolina, connecting communities of the Neuse Basin from Morehead City to Raleigh and beyond. As with U.S. 17, U.S. 70 connects military installations and businesses along its way. This road also is an important route for emergency evacuation of communities subject to calamities and is now being considered for an upgrade into an interstate.

Both the U.S. 70 Corridor Commission and the U.S. 17 Association have conducted independent economic impact studies, and the findings are similar.

“While the cost of completing any of these [U.S. 17] improvement programs would be high, the cost to the region of not completing the needed improvements would be even higher, in terms of reduced safety, increased delay and travel time, missed economic opportunity, and clear financial benefit,” said the 2013 U.S. 17 study.

A similar warning was issued in the U.S. 70 2014 summary : “Not making the improvements along U.S. 70 will result in slower economic growth along the corridor in the order of 350 fewer jobs per year and $800 million less in Gross Regional Profit (GRP) and $610 million less in personal income between 2014 and 2040.” This U.S. 70 study anticipated benefits from the improved road with “a fully controlled access highway would give rise to significant travel efficiencies for existing business and residents. These include $56 million in business cost savings, $1.2 billion in GRP and over $900 million in additional personal income between 2014 and 2040. This translates into nearly 550 additional jobs on average per year along the corridor when compared to business as usual. Statewide, the investment is projected to lead to an average of an additional 1,150 jobs annually.”

The study concluded that upgrading U.S. 70 as an Interstate between Morehead City and I-95 “could translate into 600 to 1,350 additional jobs per year along U.S. 70.” Such improvements would go a long way to boost the slow economy that our eastern Coastal Plain has endured. Moreover, the increased revenues that these improvements generate would benefit the state coffers as well. Our neighbors in the Piedmont would benefit from improved revenues derived from the east as a result of these vital public work projects.

The advantages to communities with interstates are well-known. While the Research Triangle Park began in 1959, it was not until after interstate access some 10 years later did large companies start to develop there. Large-scale manufacturers and distribution centers seek locations near interstates to ease access of goods and services as well as to accommodate the commute of large workforces.

The eastern part of this state is ripe for such development as most counties have industrial parks ready for expansion. Likewise, better road access benefits military bases. Commercial and residential parcel freight is more expensive to those communities not within easy access of the federal interstate system as a result of added rural delivery surcharges. Accumulated accident data demonstrate that modern limited-access highways are safer than other roads. Census data show that poverty rates are lower in areas served by interstates and conversely per capita income rates are higher. Additionally, these modern freeways offer easier and faster access for the travelers they serve.

Nearly three decades ago, Gov. Jim Martin introduced a Strategic Highway Corridor for North Carolina that would have provided modern highways close to most residents. While progress has been made in road construction, the Strategic Highway Corridor has not been fully implemented. On the positive side, great swaths of both U.S. 17 and U.S. 70 have modern bypasses or are already limited access highways. Moreover, much of the planning is in place for completing freeway access along U.S. 70 and U.S. 17. However, there are many gaps in the freeway access needed to fully connect the littoral region. As long as these gaps continue, uninterrupted freeway access along the Eastern Seaboard in North Carolina is impossible. All that is needed is the determination to finish the upgrades to these roads and have them designate as interstates.

For the current youth in North Carolina, it is the best of times and the worst of times. For those in the Piedmont, the opportunity to have a rewarding career and to raise a family without having to move is great. For those in the Coastal Plain, opportunities in the private sector are comparatively scarce. Parents often see their children locating elsewhere to seek the American Dream. The younger generations, even with college degrees, find opportunity for placement in their trained profession scarce.

Even some of Eastern North Carolina’s older residents are compelled to relocate to where their children moved to offer support to their families. Unfortunately in the Coastal Plain, there is an ongoing diaspora on account of economic necessity. Approximately 13 percent of North Carolina’s population resides east of I-95 without the benefits that the interstate highway system provides.

An investment in roads in the east would greatly increase the Coastal Plain’s prosperity. Such prosperity would benefit the entire state’s coffers. Interest rates for road construction are at historic lows, and the opportunity to build them more economically is now. The time has come for a new Strategic Highway Corridor plan to be supported at Raleigh for the good of all of North Carolina.

Don Black of New Bern is a volunteer on the Super 70 Corridor Commission.