SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — A commonly traveled highway across the state could soon be upgraded to interstate status, connecting major economic hubs. A movement has emerged in the Piedmont Triad region to designate Highway 421 between interstates 85 and 95, as future Interstate-685.
The road would start near Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point and run to I-95 in Dunn, near Fayetteville. Cape Fear officials are looking to expand the route from Dunn all the way to Wilmington.
In total, the interstate would be a little over 200 miles, with the Wilmington portion of 421 — which ends in Fort Fisher — comprising 85 miles.
The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s technical coordinating committee unanimously approved last week a resolution for NCDOT to explore I-685’s extension into Wilmington.
It will go before the WMPO board June 29 for approval. If passed, the board would forward the request to the North Carolina Department of Transportation and collaborate with other transportation planning organizations to pass similar resolutions of support.
“In addition, we would work with our local economic development partners and others in the area to seek their interest and support for this effort,” WMPO Director Mike Kozlosky explained.
Wilmington Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Natalie English supports the growth and development the interstate could potentially spur.
“Continued investments in our infrastructure improve the supply chain across the country, create jobs, and lower costs for North Carolinians and Americans across the country,” English said.
NC Ports moved 176,477 containers in fiscal year 2021 and volume is forecasted to grow 50% by 2026.
A representative from the NC Ports said since July 1 of last year, 124,300 trucks, not including vehicles belonging to tenants, traveled through its gates.
“The proposed improvements and potential interstate designation provides our port users (trucking community) with infrastructure enhancements and improved mobility,” NC Ports spokesperson Christina Hallingse said.
It also could compel manufacturers to relocate or set up shop along the route.
Already, the Piedmont Triad International Airport, The Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, Chatham Advanced Manufacturing Megasite and a handful of colleges and universities are located on the path of the future I-685.
Announced in the last six months, two major automotive manufacturers plan to invest nearly $6 billion in facilities located along the future I-685. VinFast, an automotive manufacturer of electric vehicles and parts, announced in March plans to construct its first North American factory at Chatham’s megasite.
Located at the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, Toyota aims to turn out enough lithium-ion batteries for up to 1.2 million vehicles per year, starting in 2025.
Seven counties in 685’s direct path — Harnett, Chatham, Alamance, Randolph, Lee, Sanford and Guilford — have unanimously passed resolutions endorsing the new interstate. The region’s transportation planning organizations have also backed the plan.
Collaboration on the local, state and federal level has been underway over the last three years, with support from state senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, signed into law by President Joe Biden in November, included language that could make the proposed I-685 a reality. The legislation labeled the 100-plus-mile stretch of 421 between 85 and 95 as a “high-priority corridor.”
The priority status sets the stage for the NCDOT to request a future interstate designation. It would do so through the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Several steps would need to happen for Highway 421 to reach interstate status, including widening the travel lanes and shoulders, according to the NCDOT. Other safety improvements may also be needed — guardrails, rumble strips, and additional clearance at bridges.
“This would also help with access to major urban centers, to our State Ports, and to Fort Bragg, which would aid greatly in national defense and during natural disaster response,” NCDOT spokesperson Jennifer Thompson said.
Kozlosky told the WMPO technical committee at a meeting last week it would provide an improved hurricane evacuation route for the region. Currently, I-74 and I-40 are the main routes.
“There is no timeline for a response or when something could come to fruition,” Kozlosky told Port City Daily. “To set expectations, and if approved and supported by NCDOT, this is the first step in what could be a long process that takes many years.”
An NCDOT spokesperson said since plans for the future interstate have not yet been approved, it’s too early to know how it would impact drivers and travel time.
Current WMPO data shows 8,876 vehicles travel daily on Highway 421 between the Isabel Holmes Bridge and I-140, just north of Sutton Lake Road.
Update: The article contains corrected shipping container numbers from what was originally reported. Port City Daily regrets the error.
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