Study Currituck route, but NC costs should decide I-87


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Because new highways bring new traffic, and new traffic can bring economic benefits like new jobs and more tax base, there’s always plenty of interest — often competing interest — about where they should go.

It’s not surprising then that Currituck County officials have asked the N.C. Department of Transportation to study a proposed new roadway linking U.S. Highway 17 with northern Currituck as a potential route for another proposed highway: the $1 billion Raleigh-to-Norfolk Interstate 87.

Nor is it surprising that Pasquotank County officials and some in neighboring Camden County would express concern about Currituck’s request.

I-87, if the money is ever found to build it, has the potential to open northeastern North Carolina to a whole new world of commercial development, particularly from businesses that use the Port of Virginia and need easy access to an interstate highway. Consequently, the stakes are high when it comes to deciding where the interstate highway will go.

Currituck, which, if the current path for I-87 in North Carolina is followed, is not in line to directly benefit from the new interstate highway. The route, according to the federal legislation authorizing its construction, has the Raleigh-to-Norfolk highway generally following the path of two existing roadways: U.S. Highway 64 and U.S. Highway 17. U.S. 17, the only piece of the proposed highway in our area, crosses Chowan, Perquimans, Pasquotank and Camden counties before crossing into Chesapeake, Virginia. The route doesn’t cross Currituck, however.

In its future road-building plans, NCDOT does plan to build what would be a connector route from U.S. 17 in northern Camden to N.C. Highway 168 in northern Currituck. And it’s that roadway that Currituck officials believe DOT should consider as a route for I-87 once it enters Camden and heads for the Virginia state line.

Last week, Currituck County Manager Dan Scanlon acknowledged the county made the request of NCDOT, believing the connector has much better potential to be brought up to interstate standards than the roadway generally being considered right now — U.S. 17 through northern Camden into Chesapeake.

Scanlon also noted that the city of Chesapeake and other planning authorities in Virginia currently don’t have any plans to bring U.S. 17 up to interstate standards in that state. He said if North Carolina’s and Virginia’s priorities for I-87 remain unaligned, why shouldn’t the route for I-87 pass through Currituck. At least that way, the interstate could link to Virginia Highway 168, which does seem a priority since it feeds into Interstates 64 and 464.

Of course, having I-87 pass through the northwest end of the county could give Currituck a major economic boost. Currituck is developing what’s known as the Moyock Mega-Site, a project in the exact area where I-87 would pass that, if successful, would bring millions of dollars in new residential and commercial investment to the county.

NCDOT officials are taking Currituck’s request seriously. The agency has drawn a proposed route for I-87 that starts just north of Dismal Swamp State Park off U.S. 17 in Camden and extends northeast into northern Currituck. The route passes northwest of Moyock before crossing into Virginia and linking with Va. 168. Moreover, an NCDOT official told Camden commissioners recently that Virginia’s transportation secretary has expressed interest in the Currituck option for the route. That’s probably the case because having North Carolina’s part of the Raleigh-to-Norfolk route end in northwest Currituck would likely result in Virginia spending less to bring up its part of the route to interstate standards.  

Currituck’s interest in rerouting I-87 has raised the hackles of some Pasquotank and Camden officials. Pasquotank Commissioner Jeff Dixon in fact said recently that officials in Pasquotank are “dead set” against rerouting I-87 through Currituck. He expects both county and Elizabeth City officials to adopt resolutions asking NCDOT to stick to the route outlined in the federal law authorizing the highway. In other words, U.S. Highways 64 and 17.

Wayne Harris, the economic development director for Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County, noted several potential drawbacks to the Currituck route. For one, it would be illegal under the current federal legislation authorizing the route, he said. But even if Congress did change the law to allow the Currituck route, it would make a project already estimated to cost $1 billion in North Carolina alone, even costlier — potentially tens of millions of dollars costlier, Harris said. It also could add to the timeline for completing the I-87 project, he said. 

Dixon and Harris’ apprehension about the Currituck route for I-87 is understandable. They worry that a project that’s still unfunded could be delayed or even fall off appropriators’ radar if too many obstacles like extra cost and construction time are thrown in its path. It’s also likely that Pasquotank officials are concerned that if I-87 does pass through Currituck, it will be that county — and its mega-site project — that reaps most of the immediate economic benefits since it’s closest in the path to the Port of Virginia.

Which county benefits the most shouldn’t be the deciding factor in which route I-87 takes into Virginia, however. Cost to North Carolina taxpayers, impacts on communities and impacts on the environment should decide the route. Those costs and impacts will be determined, we’re sure, through many studies conducted by NCDOT and other entities. We would urge NCDOT to study the cost of the Currituck route, along with its other options, and report its findings.

We’d also urge North Carolina elected officials to do some more talking with their counterparts in Virginia about Virginia spending its fair share on upgrading U.S. 17 to interstate standards. While North Carolina’s costs for I-87 are expected to be much greater since much of the proposed interstate will cross the Tar Heel state, both states will benefit from having this new highway link two of their major metropolitan centers. North Carolina shouldn’t have to bear extra costs just to save Virginia money.