Will 421 become a new interstate?

Feds approve looking into it in infrastructure bill

By EMILY WEAVER
Managing editor
Posted 12/3/21

A heavily traveled main thoroughfare through Dunn could become an interstate in the near future. Local officials are interested in the prospects the new route could bring.

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Will 421 become a new interstate?

Feds approve looking into it in infrastructure bill

Posted

A heavily traveled main thoroughfare through Dunn could become an interstate in the near future. Local officials are interested in the prospects the new route could bring.

The newly approved federal infrastructure bill designates a portion of U.S. Highway 421 as a “high priority corridor” envisioned as a future Interstate 685, connecting Interstates 40 and 85 with 95 through Lee and Harnett counties. Most of Highway 421 from the Interstate 85 exit near Greensboro to Sanford is a four-lane divided highway already established with on-and-off exit ramps.

But “... as you get closer to Sanford, you start getting into traffic lights,” said Andrew Barksdale, public relations officer with the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The highway becomes a tighter route through Harnett County, squeezing down to two lanes outside of Sanford and four lanes bordered with businesses in Dunn. The traffic lights, stop signs and abutting homes and shops would have to go for the highway to become an interstate, unless a bypass is established.

“This Interstate 685 was not on our radar until it was part of the infrastructure bill,” Barksdale said. “This is not something that DOT has been looking at and planning and developing for years.”

Because this concept is still new to transportation officials, the scope of work involved, estimated costs, plans for bypasses and timelines remain unknown.

“We’d have to do this one project at a time. This could take several years to complete,” Barksdale said. “It might be that the section of U.S. 421 just south of Greensboro could become eligible to have the interstate shields within the next few years, but to go all the way to Dunn there is going to have to be a lot more upgrades to 421 to make it meet interstate standards.”

The work to widen Interstate 95 through Dunn should be complete in four years. Turning 421 into an interstate will take longer than that.

“It’s way too early to know when this would start and finish,” Barksdale said. “It would definitely take several years to go all the way to Dunn as an interstate, but we would work with our metropolitan planning organizations, our transportation partners and elected officials about prioritizing some projects to help make this a reality.”

The bill’s language “will allow the North Carolina Department of Transportation to request a future interstate designation through the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials,” according to a release from NC Carolina Core. “If approved, NCDOT will then place signs notifying the public that I-685 is a future interstate corridor.”

“This is an important step in a lengthy process to secure a game-changing future interstate designation for Highway 421 in the Carolina Core, which will not only increase our economic competitiveness, but will further enhance safety and mobility throughout the region,” Michael Fox, president of Piedmont Triad Partnership told Carolina Core. “This has been a true collaborative effort with our partners from the local, state and federal levels all sharing in the vision for Future I-685 to better connect the region’s plentiful assets, including our megasites, labor markets and colleges and universities, among others.”

But the plan for Interstate 685 came as news to Dunn officials.

“That’s not something that we’ve ever worked on in the past,” said Dunn City Manager Steve Neuschafer. “They’ve kind of talked about it between Sanford and Greensboro, but certainly we’ll be interested in being a part of any conversations in the future about it.”

Creating a more direct route between the state’s third-largest city (Greensboro) and sixth-largest city (Fayetteville) by way of Broadway, Lillington, Erwin and Dunn, would put Harnett County in a gold mine for economic development.

“Anytime you add more available transportation routes to large cities ... it’s only going to increase the amount of commerce that can go in either direction,” Neuschafer said. “... That would be a great bonus for us.”

And the option of an interstate to Greensboro that avoids the congestion of Raleigh and Durham “would be fantastic,” he added.

But it won’t happen overnight.

“I think we’re several years away from an actual full-fledged Interstate 685 coming into Harnett County, but this infrastructure bill is a good step forward and I think lays the groundwork for future federal funding which would help accelerate it in our state transportation improvement plan,” Barksdale said.

It’s just not in any current plans. And no funds are earmarked for the project yet.

“NCDOT does not have any funding for it whatsoever, but thanks to this infrastructure bill and the language in it we think we would be eligible for some federal grants in the near future to help make this a reality,” Barksdale said.

State transportation officials are currently upgrading other U.S. routes in Eastern North Carolina into interstates.

“U.S. 70 is going to become Interstate 42 east of Raleigh. Parts of U.S. 64 is going to become Interstate 87 all the way to Elizabeth City. And, more recently, about 37 miles of U.S. 264 between Wilson and Greenville has just been approved, finally, to become Interstate 587,” Barksdale said.

A proposal for Interstate 685 could be submitted to federal transportation officials for approval as early as spring 2022.

Emily Weaver can be reached at eweaver@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2028.

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