Traffic

I-95 Slated for First-Ever Widening Project

Posted November 26, 2007 5:49 p.m. EST
Updated November 26, 2007 11:16 p.m. EST

— State transportation officials plan to double the size of Interstate 95 across the middle of North Carolina, although much of the project is unfunded.

The three-phase project would add two lanes in each direction – for a total of eight lanes – between Eastover in Cumberland County and the Interstate 40 interchange in Johnston County. The first phase, at a cost of $144 million, would add lanes between Eastover and N.C. Highway 82 between 2012 and 2015.

But the other two phases of the project aren't on any funding priority list.

The project would mark the first-ever widening to I-95. It and Interstate 85 are North Carolina's oldest and busiest interstates. They were designed more than a half-century ago to move military personnel and equipment in an emergency.

Now, they now carry millions of East Coast travelers and commercial trucks passing north and south through the state, as well as a steadily increasing number of commuters.

The state Department of Transportation estimates 53,000 vehicles a day traversed I-85 in North Carolina in 1996. That jumped to 69,000 last year. On I-95, traffic increased from 30,000 to 40,000 vehicles a day in the same time.

"No one ever believed that we would have this kind of traffic (and) congestion on our interstates," said Christie Barbee, treasurer of transportation advocacy group NC Go! and executive director of the Carolina Asphalt Paving Association. "We're definitely at a crisis point. We're not headed there – we're in the middle of it – and it's only going to get worse."

The section of I-95 that passes through Harnett County is the oldest part of the interstate in North Carolina, having been built nearly 50 years ago. It's been resurfaced a few times, but is basically the same road it was in the early 1960s, only it now carries 2007 traffic.

"I'm surprised it's not six lanes," Harnett County resident Danny Honeycutt said, noting the highway remains two lanes in each direction from South Carolina to Virginia. "It's the same road (it has always been). Like I say, between (Dunn) and Smithfield, especially during the holidays, it's usually backed up pretty tough."

A state DOT analysis shows the most overloaded sections of the interstates are on I-95 from Fayetteville to I-40 and on I-85 from Salisbury to Concord, where that road is also two lanes in each direction.

State Highway Administrator Bill Rosser said meeting the needs of these major highways requires years of planning and mountains of dollars.

"It's a major issue of handling traffic just to do maintenance work, let alone adding lanes or redo interchanges," Rosser said. "It's a challenge for us to manage those routes, (and) I think it's a challenge for our department to have the dollars."

In addition to the greater traffic volume, the tonnage of commercial freight traffic on I-95 and I-85 is increasing as well.

"It's carrying heavier loads than it was designed to carry, and in addition to that, it doesn't have enough capacity," Barbee said.

Over the next two years, the state will use about $21 million in federal highway money to raise bridges over I-95, resurface portions of the interstate and install traffic sensors and message boards to help travelers.