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To The Shore! - North Carolina's Struggle to Build Interstate 40 to the Atlantic Coast

One of North Carolina's most interesting highway stories of the Interstate Era was the extension of Interstate 40 to the Atlantic Coast.   From the first seeds that were planted in 1963 to the eventual completion of the highway on June 28, 1990, creating a high-speed Interstate route to the coast would go from a nearly 20 year oversight to a top statewide priority.  The Interstate 40 saga, however, would place the state's two port cities -- Morehead City and Wilmington -- into a decade long competition in which only one city could win.  The extension of Interstate 40 would ultimately be the start of an aggressive road building campaign within the state that still continues today.
During the formation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1940s and 1950s, North Carolina sat on the sidelines.  When the original state Interstate proposals were being made in 1945, the State Highway Commission would omit Raleigh as one of the cities served.  Despite numerous outcries against the decision by local Raleigh leaders and businessmen, the plan remained the same and Raleigh was one of only six state capitals not served by proposed system. (1)  When the Interstate System was eventually approved in 1956, North Carolina again watched from the stands as neighboring states including Virginia and South Carolina added new mileage in addition to loops and spurs serving various cities. (1)  North Carolina did not request, and consequentially did not receive any loop or spur routes in the 1956 plan.  (1)
The state's lack of interest came from focus on other projects including improving the secondary road system.  Vance Baise, the state's highway engineer, commented about the state's position on the proposed Interstate System in 1947, "...we certainly do not feel justified in improving any part of the system [with state funds] except as traffic needs require." (1)  North Carolina would originally be allotted 714 miles of Interstate in 1956 (I-26, 40, 85, and 95) and would gain another 62 miles a year later with the creation of I-77. (1)  By 1959, five sections of North Carolina's Interstate Highway System were open to traffic (2).  By 1963, many pieces of I-40, 85 and 95 were open, under construction or being planned.
Interstate 40 was officially created in 1956 and officially numerated in 1957.  The Interstate would enter North Carolina from Tennessee south towards Waynesville and then turn west roughly following US 70 from Asheville to Morganton to Hickory to Statesville.  From Statesville, I-40 ran northeast to Winston-Salem and finally terminating at Interstate 85 in Greensboro.   The first section of Interstate 40 to open was the first half of the East-West Expressway in Winston-Salem in 1958.  (1)  Five years later, I-40 was completed from Old Fort east to Hildebran (west of Hickory), Conover to Statesville, and Farmington to the route's terminus in Greensboro.  Construction also was beginning in areas west of Asheville.
 Raleigh News & Observer - courtesy Brian LeBlanc
In 1963, North Carolina made one of their first attempts to extend the Interstate System within the state.  The state petitioned for two extensions: One, a route from Durham via Raleigh to Morehead City, and the second, a route from Charlotte to Wilmington. (1)  It appears that the Durham-Raleigh-Morehead City route evolved from another and possibly earlier -- maybe as early as 1959 -- Interstate request to connect Raleigh to Interstate 85. (See image at right)  The proposal actually consisted of three spur routes: 1) From I-85 through Central Durham to Research Triangle Park (RTP) This spur was of two segments, the Durham East-West Freeway and the Research Triangle Park North-South Freeway  2) RTP to the Raleigh Beltline and 3) A route connecting "Spur 1" to Interstate 85 along the eastern edge of Durham. (3)  What is interesting is that although the three spur routes were not approved, two of the three ("Spur 1" is the predecessor of the NC 147 Durham Freeway, "Spur 2" is actually I-40 eastwards from NC 147 and Wade Ave. Extension) were eventually built, and "Spur 3" became the much embattled and now under construction "East End Connector".  Both of the proposed 1963 extensions did not gain approval and were shelved.  However, the dust on either idea would not settle for long.
By 1968, Interstate 40 would have two new sections of highway open to traffic.  Both were in the western part of the state, one on the south side of Asheville, the other a bypass of Canton.  At the same time construction was underway to connect Statesville to Winston-Salem, around Asheville and from Cove Creek north to the Tennessee line.  It was also in 1968 when the state  would again petition for additional Interstate mileage, and this time they would be successful.  That December, the state would be granted two Interstate extensions.  The first was nine miles of Interstate 77 from Charlotte to the South Carolina State Line.  This was part of I-77's overall extension to Columbia, SC.  The second was a 49 mile Interstate extension from Durham to I-95 in Smithfield via Raleigh. (1)  This would become part of an I-40 extension, and throughout the early to mid-1970s this route was shown on numerous maps.  (See Below)

With the 1968 extensions in place, the state was very aggressive in making Interstate requests in 1970.  The state would request routes for eleven new corridors totaling an estimated 673.9 miles. (4)  Three of the requests would involve Morehead City and Wilmington.   Two of the three corridor requests ended in Wilmington.  The most lengthy was a 245.4 mile corridor from Asheville to Wilmington via Charlotte.  This route would basically follow US 74.  The second Wilmington corridor request ran 159 miles southeast from Greensboro.  This proposal essentially followed modern US 421.  The Morehead City route branched from the Greensboro to Wilmington route around Clinton and ran 85 miles east.  This corridor followed mostly NC 24.  But like 1963 all eleven were denied; however, some and parts of these requests would evolve and resurface as other approved corridors that are now either open or under construction Interstate Highways today.

After the 1970 refusals, talk turned to extending I-40 beyond Interstate 95 eastwards to the Atlantic Coast.  In various transportation forums, it is believed that early proposals were to extend I-40 to Morehead City via the US 70 corridor.  This would include the US 70 freeway from Dover (east of Kinston) to New Bern in Craven County which opened around 1980.  This seems to be confirmed in that during the first term of Governor Jim Hunt's administration (1977-81) the Governor led the way to moving and also extending I-40 in a more southeastern direction to Wilmington. (1)  Also during the 1970's, North Carolina continued to work on the completion of the legacy I-40 corridor while working on the 1968 extension.  Early in the decade, Statesville and Winston-Salem would be connected.  In 1976, a missing 14 mile section in Hickory opened.  The final area of I-40 would be the Old Fort and Swannanoa corridor.  First, the 1950s era US 70 climb of Black Mountain and Point Lookout was upgraded to Interstate standards in 1974.  The final piece of the original I-40 was placed in 1979 when a segment from Black Mountain to Swannanoa was opened.  At the same time, work began and was completed on the first segments of the 1968 extension, oddly the I-40 extention would also include the general routing of "Spur 2" of the 1959 proposals.  Interstate 40 would be built and open by 1973 from RTP to the Raleigh Beltline.

Building Interstate 40 from I-85 to RTP would take more time to complete.  When the state made their 1968 proposal for the extension, the request was to route Interstate 40 over I-85 to NC 147 - then called the Durham East-West Freeway and the Research Triangle Park North-South Freeway - then along current I-40 towards Raleigh.  In May 1969, not long after the December approval, the FHWA suggested to NCDOT that changes would be needed to the East-West Freeway in Durham. (5)  The suggestion was to eliminate some ramps or interchanges and to add additional lanes to handle city and Interstate traffic.  As a result, NCDOT decided to do an entire corridor study.  The study was released in August of 1970 with five additional possible corridors for the extended Interstate 40.
The six alternatives were:
  • Alternative 1: Leaves Interstate 85 between NC 86 (Exit 165) and US 70 (Exit 170) running in a south then east arc to present day I-40 at NC 147 (Exit 283).
  • Alternative 2: Leaves Interstate 85 between NC 86 (Exit 165) and US 70 (Exit 170) but heads east along the southern city limits of Durham to NC 147 near Ellis Road (Exit 8).
  • Alternative 3: The original I-40 proposal following I-85 North to NC 147 (Exit 172) and following NC 147 to present day I-40 with eliminated interchanges and extra lanes.
  • Alternative 4: Follows I-85 North to the US 70 Bypass (Exit 178), heads southeast on US 70 to the US 70 Business split, then over the (still unbuilt) US 70 Connector to NC 147.
  • Alternative 5: Follows I-85 North to NC 147, then south on the US 15/501 bypass to the Business split, then turning east along the southern city limits of Durham to NC 147 near Ellis Road (Exit 8).
  • Alternative 6: Would be similar to Alternative 1 but would cut through Duke Forest; the state quickly dropped this alternative prior to the August 1970 publication.
The 1970 Corridor Study for Interstate 40 between Interstate 85 and RTP.  Click for large pdf.
In January 1971, NCDOT selected Alternative 1 as their preferred corridor. (6)  In August 1973, a Draft Environmental Impact Statement was released.  Alternative 1 is not the same route that I-40 follows from I-85 to NC 147 today.  The 1970 route is further to the north and east than current I-40.  It is not known when and what caused the changes to Interstate 40's eventual alignment.  Two speculative concerns are the alternative's proximity to Duke Forest and historical structures along Old NC 10 in University.  The first segment of I-40 from I-85 to RTP opened in 1985 and the entire corridor was completed by the fall of 1988.

The Saga of the last 120 miles:

Also in 1971, officials in Southeastern NC from Benson to Wilmington began to lobby hard against the idea of extending the Interstate along US 70 to Morehead City.  Politicians and other influential individual and groups aggressively began to campaign for I-40 to meet I-95 as far south from Smithfield as possible. (9)  Those wanting a more southeasterly routing of I-40 stated that US 70 was already four lanes from Raleigh to Smithfield, the US 64 and 264 freeways were being built and that gave Raleigh a connection to Interstate 95, and that the closer to Benson the highway was the better positive impact to the Port of Wilmington. (9)  The consensus at the time was if an extension of Interstate 40 towards Wilmington was chosen, it should follow US 421. (9)  In the 1960s and 70s, US 421 was in many places being upgraded to four lanes - albeit not a freeway.  In addition, a US 421 freeway bypass of Clinton was nearing completion and could easily be a part of Interstate 40. (9)

By the Spring of 1978, it was generally known that the state's Transportation Board would make the decision to extend Interstate 40 to Wilmington when they met in Tarboro that April. (7, 10)  However, the decision was made to have Interstate 40 parallel US 117 as a new highway versus the preferred to most groups US 421 alignment.   The US 421 alignment was also considered a significantly cheaper option at $60 million from I-95 to Wilmington vs. the expected $147 million cost for the eventual US 117 alignment. (10)  The board's decision went against the recommendation from a study done by highway consultant William S. Pollard.  Pollard said that the overall decision was "a coin-flip". (10)  Supporters of the US 421 alignment were concerned that the decision to follow US 117 would delay the highway for 20 to 25 years.  (11)
In response to the necessity of building Interstate 40 to the coast, the entire decade of the 1980s were devoted to completing the remainder of the highway to Wilmington.  However, it wasn't without obstacles.  Later in 1978, US Representative Charlie Rose was able to add the Interstate 40 extension to the list of highways eligible for funding from an annual $125 million federal discretionary fund.  (12)  In October 1980, the first contract for Interstate 40 was awarded for over 16 miles of highway near Rocky Point.  The first obstacle appeared in 1981 when the Reagan administration threatened to repeal the transportation discretionary fund.  Despite a one year reprieve, the fund was eliminated by Congress in 1982. (12) As a result of various budget concerns, the state pushed back the completion date of I-40 to 1990 and there was also talk that the highway would originally be built with just two lanes.  (13)

During the next two years (1983-84), Interstate 40 funding was a political battle not only in Washington but in Raleigh as well.  Southeastern NC legislators would battle for funding with Governor Jim Hunt.  US Senator John East would battle against his colleague Jesse Helms for federal funding and saving the discretionary fund.  Hunt, who had called attempts to divert nearly all of new federal gas tax money to complete Interstate 40 as "selfish" (12), would announce five weeks prior to his bitter November 1984 election battle with Helms that he had located an additional $16.7 million to pave another 12 miles of I-40.  Hunt would lose to Helms and Jim Martin who called the completion of Interstate 40 as "the missing link" would win election as the new state governor.  Martin would vow to complete 40 within four to five years. (12)

And during the Martin administration, the dominoes to a completed I-40 would fall.  Beginning with the completion of the southern half of the Raleigh Beltline in 1985 to the uncovering of a "Barstow, Calif 2,554" sign in Wilmington on June 28, 1990 (1), an Interstate highway to the coast would finally become a reality.
Obviously, the completion of Interstate 40 to Wilmington gave North Carolina its first and currently only major east-west Interstate Corridor, but its completion and more importantly the state's aggressive approach and dedication towards completing the route in the 1980s served as the backbone to the state's enormous road building growth during and since that time.  First, the state's very aggressive request for new corridors in 1970 was a complete contrast to its passive approach only 20 years earlier.  This style continues today.  As of October 31, 2002, the state had completed nearly an additional 300 miles from their 1968 allotment. (8)  This number will continue to grow as various Interstate projects are added and completed within the state.
The priority of completing I-40 was not without its drawbacks.  Some very needed improvements to I-40 itself were delayed because of funding shifts in the Wilmington push.  Two of which were the widening of I-40/85 from Greensboro to Hillsborough (constructed and completed in the 1990s) and the construction and completion of a new southern route of I-40 around Winston-Salem in 1993. (1)  The change of planning for all related I-40 projects would not have been possible without the creation of the state's Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).  The TIP was a seven year long range planning tool first published in October 1973.  (1)  The creation of this program would greatly focus the state on future road priorities and in the 1980s, Interstate 40 certainly benefited from it.

Near the end of I-40's construction, the State Assembly tackled the persistent problem of inadequate funding of the DOT.  In 1989, they passed legislation that created the Highway Trust Fund.  The trust fund, which was created to push an even more aggressive highway construction approach that was evident throughout the 1990s and beyond 2000, was created to advance the construction and upgrade of highways throughout the state, specifically creating an "Intrastate Highway System" designed to put 90% of the state's population within ten miles of a four-lane highway and of an urban loop and connector system of several of the state's major cities.  (1) 
The story of Interstate 40 and the push of an Interstate route to the North Carolina Coast travels nearly sixty years.  The need for this highway would help to shape a drastic change in the state's approach to and outlook of its highway system.  When it was completed in 1990, Interstate 40 helped to revolutionize and modernize North Carolina's highways.


  • (1) Turner, Walter R.  Paving Tobacco Road: A Century of Progress by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2003. 60-63, 66, 83, 85, 88, 91, 109.
  • (2) North Carolina State Highway Commission. "Governor's Message." 1959 Official Highway Map.
  • (3) LeBlanc, Brian. "I-40." Wake County Roads. (January 11, 2006).
  • (4) Oglesby, Scott. "Interstate System Add Requests: March 1970." 3 Digit Interstates. (January 12, 2006)
  • (5) North Carolina Department of Transportation.  Summary Report: I-40, Corridor Study from West of Durham to the Research Triangle Park. August 27, 1970. 3.
  • (6) North Carolina Department of Transportation.  Draft Environmental Statement Administrative Action for Interstate Route 40... August 29, 1973. 4.
  • (7) North Carolina Department of Transportation. "Interstate 40 Fact Sheet." 2006.
  • (8) Federal Highway Administration. "RouteLog and Finder List - Table 3: Interstate Routes in Each of the 50 States..." October 31, 2002.
  • (9) "Tremendous Boost - That's How Sampson Officials See New Interstate Highway." Wilmington Morning Star 6 Mar. 1971: 11. Print. 
  • (10) Dexter, Jim. "I-40 BOT Votes to Extend Highway to Benson, Backs Leg to City." Wilmington Morning Star 22 Apr. 1978: 1-A. Print. 
  • (11) Dexter, Jim. "4-lane Road Delay in Sight." Wilmington Morning Star 19 Apr. 1978: 1-A. Print. 
  • (12) "Interstate 40: 47 years in the making." Wilmington Morning Star 29 Jun. 1990: 1-A, 17-A. Print.
  • (13) Meyer, John. "I-40 extension is slow but sure." Wilmington Morning Star 11 Oct. 1982. 1-D. Print.
  • Mike Tantillo


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