Interstate 74 is to follow the US 74/76 Whiteville Bypass freeway that starts at the US 74/US 76 interchange east of town for 9 miles. The interstate is then to follow an upgraded US 74/76 expressway for about 14 more miles until near the current NC 211 interchange. The route Interstate I-74 then is to take between US 74/76 into South Carolina is still not settled and has been the subject of many different proposals since first proposed in 1997. NCDOT has produced two different 'official' routes, the currently favored proposal has been languishing since a feasibility study about the route was released in December 2005.1
A. THE ORIGINAL I-74 PROPOSAL
The first option studied by NCDOT since the 1990's, originally listed as late as the 2006-2012 STIP as Project R-3436, would have built a new 31 mile freeway from US 74/76 near Whiteville to US 17 at the South Carolina border. This project was later listed simply as a 'Feasibility Study Reevaluation in Progress' after a new routing proposal from NC's Governor Easley in 2003 (see part B below).2 With the release of the feasibility study reeevaluation in August 2005 this older proposal is now seen simply as a basis of comparison to tout the merits of the proposal discussed in section B. This was actually not the first reevaluation of this route. In 2000, citing concerns that the planned I-74 routing through Brunswick County could be environmentally damaging, NCDOT undertook another feasibility study on the possibility of upgrading US 74-76 to interstate standards from Whiteville to the future US 17 bypass west of Wilmington (which NCDOT announced in Sept. 2002 would also designated as Interstate 140).3 The study was completed in the Fall of 2001 and indicated it would be possible, at a cost $4 million a mile, to upgrade the 40 miles of US 74-76 to an Interstate.1 The 2009-2015 STIP listed this as Project Number R-4462, unfunded, with an estimated construction cost of $160 million and a start date after 2015.4 The new 2011-2015 revised STIP has no entry, implying no construction until after 2023.5 Part of this route, the 8 mile long US 74-76 Whiteville Bypass, is already close to interstate standards already and has a 70 mph speed limit. NCDOT has put up Future I-74 Corridor signs along the bypass, like the one below (photo courtesy of Adam Prince). Some officials in Wilmington used this study as a basis to call for the ending of I-74 in that city (See E below).6
B. A NEW PROPOSED ROUTE FOR I-74
On May 5, 2003 NC Governor Mike Easley announced, as part of his 'Strategic Transportation Plan' for SE North Carolina, a new proposed routing for I-74 east of Whiteville, shown in map at the top of the page. I-74 would not go to Wilmington, nor directly to SC, but would instead travel east along US 74-76 to near Bolton and from there would roughly parallel NC 211 to US 17 near Shallotte. I-74 would then follow US 17 south to a few miles north of the SC border where it will jog slightly west and then south on a new highway that would connect with an extension of South Carolinas' Carolina Bays Parkway to Myrtle Beach (currently SC 31).7 This route was referred to as Project R-3436 in the 2009-2015 STIP, but was listed for 'planning and environmental study' by the NC Turnpike Authority.8 (To see a more detailed version of the map of this proposed routing created by the NCDOT Statewide Planning Branch for the Strategic Highway Corridors project, go to the NCDOT site).)9 NCDOT had previously announced helping SC study extending the Parkway (which is currently 20 miles long with 6 lanes running from SC 9 to US 501) northward from SC 9 to the NC border.10,11 SCDOT was encouraged to petition the FHWA to have the Parkway be designated I-74.12 The Governor's proposal directed NCDOT to work with the FHWA to get approval for the proposed routes. If approved, funding would be sought from Congress to help pay for them. It was never clear how soon construction along the proposed route(s), if approved, would begin, but it would not be for 20 to 30 years under the current highway funding mechanisms.
NCDOT began studying the new proposal by holding public hearings on the NC 211 routing in late 2003. The 2012-2018 STIP lists the project to build an interchange along US 74-76 at NC 211 (Project R-61).(15) The NC 211 interchange may now be east of where I-74 leaves US 74-76. Construction of this interchange, along with one at US 74 and NC 242 (see I-74 Segment 17), began in 2010.16 A workshop was held by NCDOT at the Bolton Town Hall on July 10, 2006 to provide information to interested citizens.17 The SAFETEA-LU transportation law has moneys earmarked for both these projects. In August 2005 an NCDOT financed feasibility study of the I-74 route in this area was completed. The study was publicly released in December 2005, the cost pegged for the preferred alternative, a 64 mile stretch mostly involving new freeway construction from Whiteville to the South Carolina border using the NC 211 corridor and US 17, and the Carolina Bays Parkway Extension (see I-74 Segment 19) was $641 million.18
Under the Easley proposal this segment of I-74 would would have been broken up 3 ways, with approximate mileage (some figures taken from the I-74 Feasibility Study and NCDOT Strategic Corridors website) being:
A more extensive description of each section can be found at NCDOT's I-74 Study Site.
Nothing eventually became of the Easley proposals and it appears the ideas are off the table under the new McCrory administration. While no funds have been allocated to upgrade US 74/76 to a freeway east of Whiteville, NCDOT has undertaken one project, and plans additional ones, to upgade at-grade intersections along the route to interchanges, similar to what has been occurring to the east (see I-74 Segment 17). Starting in 2010 an interchange was built to replace the at-grade intersection with NC 211. When I-74 mile markers were put up along US 74/76 in 2012 continuing on east to Delco, (mile 270), the NC 211 exit was given the number 258. Here's a photo of the exit number applied to the NC 211 exit, roughly where the proposed I-74 will leave US 74/76:
Photo of NC 211 exit, east of US 74/76 Whiteville Bypass, with I-74 exit number.
The newly approved 2016-2025 State TIP has a a project to upgrade the US 74/76 intersection with Hallsdale Road to an interchange starting in 2020. This will push the limited access portion of the Whiteville Bypass east by about 3 miles.19
Exit sign at the NC 130 interchange on US 17 near Shallotte which, under some alternative corridors for the proposed routing above, will be an exit off of I-74. Photo courtesy of Adam Prince.
C. I-20 IN NORTH CAROLINA?
As part of Gov. Easley's 2003 proposal (see text and map link above), US 74-76 from Whiteville to Wilmington would be upgraded to an interstate, and be designated as part of an extension of I-20 from Florence, SC to the Wilmington Outer Loop (I-140) (As of now there is no proposal for I-20 to take over I-140's route to I-40, I-20 may continue, however along US 74-76 to downtown Wilmington as shown on a Strategic Highway Corridors map of the area). I-20 would total about 60 miles in NC and I-74 and I-20 would be routed together for 22 miles from just west of Whiteville to near Bolton. There does not appear to be much support for this plan in South Carolina, however. On March 22, 2004 Rep. Mike McIntyre held a series of "I-74/I-20 Rallies" in his district, which includes Wilmington, to help jump start lobbying efforts for building I-20. According to an article written that covered the event, the I-20 proposal was losing steam due to SC's determined efforts to get funds for I-73, a road that would parallel much of the proposed I-20 routing. An SCDOT spokesman is quoted in the same article as confirming I-73 is the top priority and saying "(t)here are no plans or thoughts of the I-20 extension."13 NCDOT at the SCDOT I-73 Summit in February 2005 gave in on having I-20 be part of the discussions about final routing for I-73 and I-74, allowing for an agreement on border routings to occur, see I-74 Segment 19 and I-73 Segment13.14 Though some officials were still optimistic at the time.17 The SAFETEA-LU transportation act signed by President Bush in August 2005 contained $5 million for NC to study extending the I-20 route to Wilmington. SC did not request similar moneys, however. The subsequent Perdue administration which held office from 2009 to early 2013 showed little enthusiasm for this proposal. There has been no word as to what the new McCrory administration thinks. Thus, as it looks now, I-20 will not be routed east of Florence any time soon.
D. YET ANOTHER I-74 ROUTING PROPOSAL?
According to a March 10, 2005 article in the Whiteville (NC) News Reporter, at a fundraising dinner for Congressman Mike McIntyre on March 7, NCDOT officials released a map showing I-74 routed through Columbus County on a new route from US 74 east of Chadbourn to US 17 roughly following the paths of NC 410 and 130 and crossing US 701 halfway between Whiteville and Tabor City.19 This never appeared on the NCDOT website. It is unclear whether this was new route was a fallback option in case the NC 211 route proves unfeasible. A subsequent article a week later in the same paper about progress on the NC 211 corridor study implies this was the case.20 Both older proposals (the original roughly following NC 904 and the suggested NC 211 route) traverse swamp lands for most of their paths, the NC 410/130 route has fewer wetlands to go through. The Nature Conservancy, which oversees much of the Green Swamp through which NC 211, and the proposed I-74, traverses came out publicly against the route soon after the proposal was announced.21 They held had discussions with NCDOT about possibly putting I-74 on a new alignment away from NC 211, which was reflected in the subsequent I-74 feasibility study discussed above.22 There has been no subsequent news on this proposal through 2012.
E. BUILD I-74 AS A TOLL ROAD?
A November 16, 2005 report in the Wilmington Star-News indicated that Brunswick County officials approached the North Carolina Turnpike Authority about financing the proposed 44.8 mile I-74 segment from US 74/76 in Bolton to the SC Border as a toll highway during a meeting earlier in the month. The officials, seeing both the $550 million projected cost from feasilibity studies and that NCDOT may not build the road with current revenues for another 20-30 years, have suggested building it as a toll road to speed up construction.23 At its June 14, 2006 meeting the Turnpike Authority Board agreed to study building I-74 as a toll road but only the Brunswick County portion that will parallel US 17. They do not believe traffic counts along the NC 211 corridor portion would be high enough to make tolling that part feasible. A preliminary feasibility study put the cost of building the toll road 22 miles from US 17 in Supply to the SC border at $340 million.24 The consultants final report in June 2007 indicated that tolls would only cover 42% of the cost and would not be worth building if the other connecting routes were not built first. Substantial money would be required from the state legislature which would compete with money needed for the nearby proposed Cape Fear Skyway where tolls would cover only 55% of the cost.25 NCDOT, however, released an updated Brunswick County transportation plan in July 2008 which not only still included the proposed toll road it bowed to local officials wishes to keep I-74 on a seperate alignment and extended it all the way from Shallote to the SC border. They also wanted a connector route built between I-74 and I-140 and to upgrade US 17 to an expressway.26 The exits along the proposed toll road would be for NC 211, the I-74/I-140 connector, Royal Oak Road, NC 130, NC 904 and Hickman Road.27
F. END I-74 IN WILMINGTON INSTEAD?
Business and political leaders in the Wilmington area saw the designation of I-140 in 2002 and NCDOT's US 74-76 feasibility study (discussed above) as incentives to build Interstate 74 along US74/76 and end it at I-140, west of the city. "It's an excellent hook to pull I-74 east" according to a statement at the time by Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC).3,4 With the proposed I-20 extension to Wilmington still only in the study phase, US 74-76 planned to be upgraded to interstate standards, and the apparent high costs (over $500 million) of routing an interstate through wetlands, there may be renewed support to having I-74 simply end at the port city. NCDOT seemingly doesn't rule this out in that the Feb. 2005 agreement with SCDOT has that state willing to build an extension of the Carolina Bays Parkway to the NC state line 'to connect with either I-74 or a spur of I-74.'(20) NCDOT's Strategic Highway Corridors plan released in 2004 indicated that US 17 south of Wilmington to SC would be upgraded to a freeway (though recent reports have NCDOT suggesting cost considerations may mean it would be upgraded slowly over several decades, with stoplights being planned for some intersections in the interim). This freeway could conceivably be an I-74 spur (or could simply be an extension of I-140, but plans are now to route that from US 17 east onto the proposed Cape Fear Skyway). It is unknown though when work on upgrading US 17 is planned. NCDOT seemed to be hedging its bets towards a Wilmington terminus in the summer of 2012 when they replaced US 74 mile markers from NC 41 near Lumberton east to Delco to I-74 mileposts (the last being at mile 270). The mile markers run about 12 miles further east than where I-74 would turn south under its current routing proposal. The mile markers are the cheapest available, coming without I-74 shields, probably in case they need to be taken down again.28 Only time will tell whether this foretells a true shift in I-74's official route.
Tour I-74's possible route along US 74/76 in Brunswick and Columbus Counties in This Video courtesy of J. Austin Carter, from January 2013.
Comment: Given the news that the latest proposal to toll I-74 in Brunswick County is economically unfeasible, probably no longer how long it is, and that a route through the Green Swamp would be environmentally and economically costly, might it make more sense to fund the upgrading of US 74-76 to interstate standards and route I-74 along it in its entirety to end at Wilmington then perhaps extend the proposed toll road further north paralleling US 17 to tie into I-140 when it's completed? The toll road could be an I-74 spur route.
If anyone has any other photos or information to share about or near this segment, feel free to E-mail me