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Future I-87 to Link Norfolk, Raleigh Under Way in N.C.; Virginia Part Not Yet Planned

Tue February 06, 2024 - Southeast Edition

The future Interstate 87 would begin in Raleigh and travel eastward in the Tarheel State for approximately 103 mi. on what is now U.S. Highway 64, before hitting Williamston, and turning onto U.S. 17 for another 80 mi. through Elizabeth City.
Photo courtesy of NCDOT
The future Interstate 87 would begin in Raleigh and travel eastward in the Tarheel State for approximately 103 mi. on what is now U.S. Highway 64, before hitting Williamston, and turning onto U.S. 17 for another 80 mi. through Elizabeth City.

A new interstate stretching from Raleigh, N.C., to Norfolk, Va., is in the works, a project that will eventually make it easier to move people and goods from north to south.

The future Interstate 87 would begin in Raleigh and travel eastward in the Tarheel State for approximately 103 mi. on what is now U.S. Highway 64, before hitting Williamston, and turning onto U.S. 17 for another 80 mi. through Elizabeth City.

There, it will then join Interstates 64 and 464 to Norfolk.

Roadway Could Benefit Economies in Both States

Describing Hampton Roads as "the world's largest cul-de-sac," Bob McNab, an economics professor at Norfolk's Old Dominion University (ODU), told WVEC-TV for its Feb. 5 report that the new interstate would open a lot of doors.

While driving up to Richmond or the nation's capital from southeastern Virginia is easy if you avoid the traffic, he said going south is really difficult.

"Right now, it's very inefficient," he elaborated. "We're just literally bounded by our inability to move quickly to Raleigh, to Charlotte, and other metro areas."

To drive south to North Carolina, South Carolina or Georgia, Hampton Roads' motorists must head west. One of the main routes to do so is U.S. 58, which connects the Norfolk area to Interstates 95 and 85.

McNab said the limited route makes it difficult for people and businesses in the Southeast to take advantage of what Hampton Roads has to offer: beaches, music festivals, military bases and one of the country's most productive ports.

As director of ODU's Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy, he described the construction of I-87 as a likely "spark to the engine of the Hampton Roads economy."

"One way to think about it [is this]. When we talk about lifting growth in Hampton Roads, we want to diversify the economic base of the region away from the federal government," McNab said in speaking with WVEC-TV in Norfolk. "Retaining our role in national security [is important], but also sparking innovation and entrepreneurship."

He added that building the new interstate would not only make it easier to move goods and people in and out of Hampton Roads, but it would also kickstart development in areas like Elizabeth City to the south that possess untapped potential.

"There's a vast tract of undeveloped land that can not only be built for housing but also spark what? It can spark entrepreneurship, it can attract firms to the area," McNab said.

As an example, he cited the construction of I-85 through South Carolina in the 1990s.

"It was mostly rural farmland along I-85 and when BMW first built its plant in Spartanburg, everybody goes 'Why are they building it there? Nobody cares. It's not gonna work, there's not enough workers,'" McNab explained. "And what happened is it sparked innovation and entrepreneurship along that highway corridor."

To see if I-87 could do the same, he said it is easy to look at commuting patterns in the Norfolk area that already exist.

Many of the drivers come from North Carolina to work in Hampton Roads, a signal that there are people from there who are available and willing to work within Southeast Virginia's economy.

"Nobody says, 'No, don't build it.' Everybody says, 'Build it.' It's just a question of when and how much," McNab added.

I-87 Work Ongoing in N.C., While No Real Progress Seen in Va.

So, where does the new freeway project currently stand?

After the federal government approved the interstate designation in 2016, North Carolina kickstarted its construction of the 180 mi. for which that state is responsible.

"We've been planning for it [and] we have some funds for it, but it will take several years to accomplish this task," Andrew Barksdale, a spokesperson of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) told the Norfolk TV station. "Like a lot of things, it doesn't mean that the federal government just said, ‘Here you go. Here's a blank check, [so] go ahead and start building.'"

He said the route will cover three highway divisions and 10 counties in his state, adding that the first 10 mi. east of Raleigh is now marked as I-87.

"Another chunk of it is already like an interstate, but we still have to make upgrades," Barksdale noted.

He explained that the finished project would not only boost growth and the economy in Eastern North Carolina but improve the corridor's safety.

"In Virginia and North Carolina, we have threats of hurricanes from time to time and people have to evacuate," Barksdale said. "Having upgraded interstates with fully controlled access will improve our evacuation routes."

Despite the progress in North Carolina, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has not taken similar steps to begin the roughly 30 mi. of interstate that it would need to build.

In a statement to WVEC-TV, the transportation agency said the project is not currently programmed in its six-year improvement plan, nor is it in the "fiscally constrained" Long Range Transportation Plan for the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO).

A spokesperson of VDOT told the TV station, "Only very early preliminary exploratory discussions have taken place at the state and regional department of transportation levels between North Carolina and Virginia, along with the [HRTPO] staff, to discuss feasibility and potential options for interstate extension."

The department also said it would be "premature for VDOT to take an official stance."

"We've been arguing for the last three years the state's been running a significant budget surplus; it's time to start investing in infrastructure," McNab said. "It's a question of priorities and Gov. [Glenn] Youngkin has recognized that Virginia has a transportation problem."

In North Carolina, Barksdale said with the progress already made, it could be another 20 years before the interstate is finished — even with the two states working together.

"Virginia needs to do [its] part," he explained. "Both states are having to prioritize where to spend transportation dollars, and there's a lot of highway safety improvements that are needed all across our state."

McNab said despite I-87's high price tag of roughly $1 billion, the project is not a gamble.

"If you look at the returns to the Hampton Roads economy, [and] the Virginia economy, it is as close to a no-brainer as we could say exists in economic development," he noted. "That's why North Carolina is investing in I-87, so Virginia has to pick up the pace."

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