Biden infrastructure push raises hopes for northeast N.C. growth

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The northeastern corner of our state is mostly unfamiliar territory to folks who live in urban areas like Raleigh and Charlotte. Not completely, because the Outer Banks are there, and so folks have vacationed at Nags Head and Ocracoke.

But aside from the beaches, the northeast is a remote place for folks who live west of I-95. It hasn’t had a lot of development. But that could change if Interstate 87 gets built faster, and there is hope that with all the focus on infrastructure now, this could happen.

I talked about the region last week with Mike Ervin, executive director of the Albemarle Commission, a regional planning and economic development agency. He has a unique perspective because he grew up there. Old-timers in Edenton will remember him as a member of championship high school football teams in the 1960s, before he lettered at ECU.

The 10 counties served by his commission are Hyde, Washington, Tyrrell and Dare – mostly on the south side of the Albemarle Sound  – and Chowan, Perquimans, Pasquotank, Camden, Currituck and Gates on the north side, on up to the Virginia line. Currituck, Dare and Hyde barrier islands also make up the Outer Banks, framing the eastern boundary of the region. Its 3,300-square-miles of land – not including the sounds and rivers – are populated by only 175,000 people. The town of Cary in Wake County has nearly that many residents in 54 square miles.

“If you go back to early times, the 1600s, 1700s, even the 1800s, part of the issue is our terrain,” said Ervin, who ran the Edenton Historical Commission before taking his current job. “We’re swamp land.”

“Slowly, the time has taken place where we’ve started being able to build on some of that swamp land.”

But the region was also transportation-challenged, defined by its rivers and wetlands, and roads and bridges needed to be built to get around, the Dismal Swamp Canal notwithstanding.

Transportation is still a big preoccupation, not just in the Albemarle region but throughout Eastern North Carolina, and a lot of the focus is on future Interstate 87. The road would travel along U.S. 64 from Raleigh east to Williamston, a small Martin County town on the banks of the Roanoke River, and then along all of U.S. 17 from Williamston northeast up into the Albemarle region to Virginia. With  $1 billion in improvements, that would be your new Interstate 87 from the Raleigh Beltline to Hampton Roads.

Basically, the road is there. But you can’t just plant I-87 signs. It has to be upgraded to interstate standards. That means interchanges and service roads, because you can’t have stoplights on an interstate. It means widening medians and shoulders and rebuilding pavement.

Until recently, progress on this has been slow because road-building money has been tight.

People on the east side of Raleigh have seen some of the signs of the road.  More than three years ago, part of the Beltline and the stretch of U.S. 64/264 to Wendell got I-87 signs because they already met interstate standards. That amounted to little more than a curiosity in Raleigh but in Eastern North Carolina, this was a big deal. Momentum.

There are a lot of conversations around I-87.  To get a sense of the discussions, watch a video of a work session in January involving engineers from the NC Department of Transportation, representatives of organizations like the NCEast Alliance, Highway 17/64 Association, the Regional Transportation Alliance, ECU and state and local politicians.

Lately, there is fresh optimism, stirred up by the Biden administration’s focus on infrastructure.  Ervin said he was on a call last week with North Carolina legislators and county commissioners, with the goal of getting information to federal transportation officials. And the NC Department of Transportation has submitted an Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant application for federal funding to accelerate the project.

“So we are closer to moving forward than we have been for the last three or four years, obviously,” said Ervin.

When U.S. 17 becomes Interstate 87 in the northeast, some interesting things will happen. On the other side of the state line, in Chesapeake, Va., U.S. 17 turns into a big, limited-access highway. (Assuming they hook up 87 with 17 in Virginia; a 2018 study also looked at hooking up with NC 168, which turns into the Chesapeake Expressway.) Basically, a manufacturer in Elizabeth City will be able to send a truck to the Norfolk port pretty easily.

Another thing that will happen is the workforce will likely expand. Interstates go in both directions. The Albemarle region has only around 80,000 people working in the 10 counties.  But the potential workforce, as Ervin says, is really much larger. Nearly 2 million people live in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area.

With I-87, many of them would be a relatively short commute to companies setting up shop south of the border. Reminds me of Fort Mill, SC off I-77, less than 20 miles from downtown Charlotte.

Then there is the visibility that I-87 would bring. When companies are looking at possible locations, particularly for manufacturing and warehouses, they often filter out places without interstates.  (In fact, much of Eastern North Carolina east of I-95 doesn’t have access to an interstate, which is why getting U.S. 70 upgraded to Interstate 42 from Raleigh to Morehead City is so important.)

So if you just think about Northeastern North Carolina as an underdeveloped, rural, remote corner of the state, you are missing the point. It is potentially an economically important exurb of Norfolk that happens to be in North Carolina, thanks to some royal mapmaking 350 years ago. Every evening, Ervin watches two TV newscasts, the one from Greenville, one from Norfolk.

The pandemic has, in the short term, created interest in the Albemarle real estate market. A story in the Daily Advance of Elizabeth City last week described houses selling as fast as they are listed, closing prices jumping, and interest from all over the country. The region’s East Coast location between New York and Florida and affordable prices are making it a draw for folks who can now work anywhere, remotely.

That puts more pressure on local officials to come up with better broadband. This, too, may depend on infrastructure plans being formulated in Washington. The telecoms have gotten some aid committed by the Federal Communications Commission, but not the massive program required to wire the country.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a spreadsheet that I compiled of all the big economic development announcements, around 250 of them, out of the governor’s office the last five years.  I was interested in seeing where the companies were going, companies that were eligible for the big Job Development Incentive Grants and One North Carolina programs. I counted the JDIG/OneNC projects in the U.S. 17 corridor from Williamston to Virginia, through six counties. There were five projects in five years.

Some interchanges, some asphalt and some right-of-way acquisition can help change the economic trajectory of this region.

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