Anyone who grew up traveling U.S. 117 between Goldsboro and Wilson can recall how plodding a journey that could be — especially along the stretch between Pikeville and Wilson.
There were few places to safely pass the school buses, farm equipment and slow drivers that slowed traffic.
Everything changed when a four-laned U.S. 117, later designated as Interstate 795, was completed, even though it did not seem the case at first. Initially, some people questioned the need for the road based on what at the time was light traffic.
Now, according to state Department of Transportation figures, approximately 19,000 vehicles use the road daily.
It is a mix of local commuters and through traffic including long-distance trucks, said Pikeville Town Administrator Lisa Pate and Fremont Town Administrator Barbara Aycock.
They agree that the road, which was constructed over the course of five major projects between 2000 and 2006, has had a major effect on the area.
“It has had a great impact, I think,” Pate said. “But I know it is used a lot as a commuter. I know it used to be when we were located on (U.S. 117), it would take anywhere from 17 to 20 minutes to get to downtown Goldsboro. Now, you can get on (I-795) and get off at Cherry Hospital (at the Ash Street exit), and I can be downtown in about seven minutes.
“So, I know that it is used for commuting, but I believe that when I am on the highway myself, I see a lot of out-of-state vehicles. So, I also know that it is used as a major thoroughfare.”
Pate has been working to attract new businesses to Pikeville since voters approved beer and liquor sales in the November election.
However, before the businesses were willing to talk, they wanted a traffic count, Pate said.
At Pate’s request, the DOT conducted a traffic count on Pikeville-Princeton Road near I-795 and on the side leading into Big Daddy’s Road and on the northbound and southbound lanes of I-795 at the Pikeville exit at Pikeville-Princeton Road.
“Through the course of three days, I think it was, they computed it for a 24-hour period. We had 27,117 cars come through Pikeville on (I-795) and/or Pikeville-Princeton Road. That is what they (companies) required. They wanted at least 26,000, and I had 27,000.”
The breakdown was 19,532 vehicles on I-795 and 7,335 on Pikeville-Princeton Road.
What people forget is that the county’s three largest schools are near Pikeville — Charles B. Aycock High School, Norwayne Middle School and Northwest Elementary School, she said.
“So from 7 o’clock to 10 minutes to 8 in the morning when school takes in, it is major traffic here in town,” Pate said. “That is why I wanted the count. That (19,532) is typically what goes through Pikeville in a 24-hour period. So yes, I do think that (I-795) has had a very large impact on Pikeville.
“What I would like to see is more businesses out toward (I-795) so people have a place to stop, and that gives Pikeville a much larger income base.”
Pate said she is hopeful the traffic numbers will give her the leverage to talk with companies about coming to Pikeville.
The road has taken traffic off of U.S.117 that years ago would have come through town, Pate said.
“I have lived here all my life, and the only way that we could get from Pikeville and Fremont to Goldsboro was (U.S.117),” she said. “You can just about go down (U.S. 117) now and almost get there (Goldsboro) timewise as fast, just because you don’t have the traffic you used to have on there. That is a personal experience.”
Another advantage to I-795 is that it has the higher speed limits of I-95 without all of the I-95 traffic, at least for now, Pate said.
Both Pate and Aycock said they would like to see exits at Pikeville and Fremont developed to help spur growth for both towns.
Also, they agree that the development of the Carolina Connector intermodal rail terminal near Rocky Mount could contribute to area growth and traffic on I-795.
“It is a busy highway through there now,” Aycock said. “We have some property for sale there on (I-795). ElectriCities is working with the owners to put that property out for some kind of development.”
The Wayne County Development Alliance is also involved, she said.
“I feel like if Fremont can get that developed, it will bring more traffic up through this area and also help create jobs, too,” Aycock said. “It is an ideal location for commuters to make a pull-off and, if it is a gas station, get gas easily and get right back on (I-795). The traffic is there if we can just get that property developed.
“You think about where (I-795) is here at Fremont. There is no other gas station or place to eat until you get way up to Wilson. There is no place else to eat unless you go to Hardee’s inside of Pikeville, until you get to Goldsboro. There is really nowhere else get off the highway.”
It would be a win-win for the developer and for Fremont, she said.
“I think that it has had a gigantic impact,” said Gus Tulloss of Rocky Mount who represents Division 4, which includes Wayne County on the state transportation board. “It is sort of hard to believe that it is there — it was the dream of (former Wayne County Commissioner) Andy Anderson and (former Congressman) Martin Lancaster, the vision that they had.”
Also, former state transportation secretary Gene Conti talked about how Anderson and Lancaster stayed on him all of the time about the need for the highway, Tulloss said.
People traveling south take I-795 to get to U.S. 70 to get to Goldsboro or Kinston, Tulloss said.
“All of these things feed off of each other,” he said. “If we get it (I-795) open to I-40 (in Sampson County), it will be a freeway out there. I think finishing that 795 down to I-40 will be just as wonderful.”
Mark Pope, Wayne County Development Alliance president, sees I-795 as an important piece of the “Quad East” concept of tying Wayne, Wilson, Lenoir and Pitt counties together by looking at the U.S. 70 corridor, which is the future I-42, over to N.C. 11 and down U.S. 264, which is also a future interstate.
“When you open up an interstate, it does bring traffic through your community,” Pope said. “That is always a positive. It opens up for potential areas that we could recruit businesses and industry, retail and commercial.”
“Quad East” creates an opportunity for new businesses and industries, as well as existing ones, to grow because they see that they can safely move product and people on a four-lane, controlled-access highway, he said. That makes it easier on truck traffic, too, Pope said.
It also increases the demographics and labor pool for other communities, thereby making it easier and safer for people to get to the jobs, he said.
“We have that wheel and now we are getting all of the spokes in place to really make what Raleigh has as a 440 interstate loop — now we’ve got an interstate loop when we finish that connects four communities by interstates,” Pope said. “The nucleus in the middle, with the infrastructure that we would have, makes it more attractive to grow eastern North Carolina.
“I just think it makes our community and all eastern North Carolina more attractive.”