North Carolina has been awarded $147 million in federal funding to help complete the upgrade of U.S. 70 between Interstate 40 and Morehead City to freeway status and to widen 25 miles of Interstate 95.
The U.S. 70 upgrade will clear the way for the highway to eventually become Interstate 42, and bringing it up to freeway status will be the culmination of a decades-long effort to develop the highway, which serves as an evacuation route during severe storms.
The two remaining gaps of U.S. 70 to be converted to freeway status are from the U.S. 70 Bypass east of Selma to Pondfield Road west of Goldsboro, and from U.S. 70 from the proposed West Thurman Road/East Thurman Road interchange to the Havelock Bypass east of Goldsboro.
The state Department of Transportation applied for the grant through the Infrastructure For Rebuilding America program.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., announced the funding on Tuesday.
Along with the road work, the grant will help the state to install 300 miles of trunk fiber optic cable along both highways to expand access to broadband and telecommunication.
"It will take us many years to complete this upgrading of U.S. 70," said state Department of Transportation spokesman Andrew Barksdale. "We have to close all of the at-grade intersections and replace them with freeway interchanges that have overpasses, ramps and loops.
"So, intersections with traffic signals and side streets that now allow traffic to enter and leave U.S. 70 will have to be closed, and traffic rerouted to interchanges with overpasses and ramps."
Interchanges are much safer, and they reduce crashes caused by motorists pulling out onto a highway or crossing several lanes of high-speed traffic to go in the other direction, Barksdale said.
The highway improvements and fiber optics will help drive economic development across eastern North Carolina, said Gus Tulloss of Rocky Mount, who represents Division 4 on the state Transportation Board.
Division 4 includes Wayne County.
All industries are interested in interstate access, Tulloss said.
Tulloss said that he expects I-42 will open up the Morehead City Port area similar to what I-40 did for the port at Wilmington.
The U.S. 70 improvements will enhance mobility and safety as well, he said.
"It is going to be great for us in Wayne County," he said. "They are trying to prioritize it (grant) now where best to put the money that is going to allocated to those areas.
"But it is certainly going to be a great enhancement, and it certainly is going to accelerate the project."
Tulloss said he also likes the idea that work will be done on I-95. It will be a wonderful safety enhancement, he said.
Tulloss said that Transportation Secretary Jim Trogden and Gov. Roy Cooper want the highway projects on the books done.
"They don't want anything that has been paid for sitting on the shelf for the next four or five years," he said.
The IT enhancements in the project include installation of fiber optic trunk line and microcell towers and message signs with real-time information on driving conditions, including time to port, flooding and nearby accidents.
It also provides support for connected/autonomous vehicle technology including Phase 1 technologies that are moving into new vehicles (2018 to 2020).
Fiber offers opportunities for schools, police, emergency response, economic development and state DOT revenue opportunities.
The communications coverage provided with U.S. 70 and I-95 could easily be extended to include the southern portion of U.S. 117 between I-40 and U.S. 70, according to a press release from Burr and Tillis.
Collectively, by wiring this "triangle" near the center of I-95 as it traverses the state, the DOT has redundant capability and the ability to manage that capacity in real time using the IT enhancements as it responds to crash and natural hazard events, according to the release.
"These projects will modernize our roads and decrease congestion in areas that have become overburdened by traffic and delays," Burr said. "They will also improve our emergency preparedness in the event of a natural disaster and will establish reliable access to four vital military bases.
The work and development will help boost economic growth in local communities, he said.
The decision to provide resources for the work is great news that will produce long-lasting benefits in eastern North Carolina, Tillis said.
"These improvements will result in reduced traffic congestion, improved access to military bases, and increased investments in our state's economy," he said.
I-95 and U.S. 70/Future I-42 are important connections for the movement of commerce and military transportation, Cooper said.
"Better transportation and communications networks will improve North Carolinians' access to jobs, educational opportunities and health care, and give our military and businesses greater access to our bases and port," he said.
They also serve as key evacuation routes for eastern North Carolina and nearby states in cases of hurricanes and other natural disasters, he said.
The project will allow miles of fiber cable network to bring broadband and telecommunication service to many communities in eastern North Carolina, he said.
It also will create interstate links between four military bases -- Fort Bragg, Seymour Johnson, Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point, Cooper said.
The I-95 project would widen the highway to eight lanes from I-95 Business (exit 56) to Long Branch Road (exit 71) from U.S. 301 (exit 22) to I-95 Business (exit 40).
Interchange improvements would be made at:
* Bud Hawkins Road (exit 70).
* Long Branch Road (exit 71).
* Pope Road (exit 72).
* U.S. 421 (exit 73).
* Jonesboro Road (exit 75).
* Hodges Chapel Road (exit 77).
The IT enhancements include installation of a fiber optic trunk line and microcell towers along the full 181-mile length of I-95 from the South Carolina border to the Virginia border.