Editorial: Interstate 42 and You

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If you haven’t heard by now, most of Highway 70 east of Raleigh will be upgraded to freeway status and renamed Interstate 42 within the next decade or so. Freeways are the first step toward retrofitting a road to meet interstate standards – they have no stoplights,no intersections, no turn lanes, and speed limits bottoming out at 55. 

DOT and county materials recommending the project discuss future 42 in terms of moving our growing population back and forth from the Coast to the Piedmont and in terms of moving cargo between the Global TransPark in Kinston and the Port of Morehead City.

If you’re asking yourself, “How would they make room for a freeway on existing Highway 70 in Morehead?” you’ve asked a great question. 

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The Havelock Bypass, which is currently under construction, is the easternmost point of future I-42 — so far. No projects to add or upgrade any roadways to freeway status in Carteret County have been funded. 

But one major freeway project been proposed, planned and recommended by both the county and NCDOT. It’s not scheduled, and isn’t certain, but it would completely change transportation patterns in the county. 

The project is called the Northern Carteret Bypass, and it’s been in the works for a couple decades now. The idea is to connect the east end of the Havelock Bypass to the east end of the Beaufort Bypass by building a new freeway that circumvents all of Newport and Morehead City. 

Presumably, the new freeway would be considered part of Interstate 42. An interstate that leads straight to Eastern Carteret County. 

The Northern Carteret Bypass is seen in blue with a connector expressway in green. Its route is subject to change as the project develops – if it develops at all. (NCDOT)

The new road would include interchanges at Highway 101 near Harlowe, Laurel Road, and (potentially) a connector between it and Highway 70 near East Carteret Corner before meeting up with the Beaufort Bypass near Olga Road. 

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Concurrent recommendations include improving roads that would likely gain traffic from such a project, like Old Winberry Rd. in Newport. 

Remember, this hasn’t been funded yet, and the most recent plans I found date to 2014. Anything is subject to change.

Regardless, I want to explore the impacts of a potential Northern Carteret Bypass/Interstate-42, because it or something similar is likely to happen if the county continues to grow like it has been. Highways 70 and 101 just won’t be able to handle the traffic on their own. 

Timing

It’s highly unlikely anything will happen on this project until Interstate 42 between Raleigh and Havelock is nearing completion. 

All of 70 must be upgraded to freeway status before that can happen. So far, the New Bern Bypass, “The Stretch” between New Bern and Dover, the Goldsboro Bypass, the Clayton Bypass and that tiny bit of road near Smithfield are at freeway status. Two sections of highway are currently being worked on: Havelock Bypass and another section near Smithfield. 

Other bits and pieces of 70 will be upgraded over the next decade, concluding with a bypass around Kinston. Construction on that project isn’t expected to begin until 2029.

The most current map of Highway 70/Future I-42 projects, dated July 2019. Click for larger image. (NCDOT)

Official Discussion

DOT and County officials published a document on future transportation needs back in 2014. The Northern Carteret Bypass took up most of the space. Here’s a condensed version of that official discussion.

See the full document here

Justifications

NCDOT laid out several justifications (in bold) for recommending the Northern Carteret Bypass.

Highway 70 is the only major highway connecting Carteret to Craven and beyond, and the DOT expects traffic to rise about 30 percent by 2040.

We’ve all cursed summertime traffic in Morehead, right? DOT suggests that visitors to the eastern end of the county would choose the new bypass to avoid 35 mph zones, stoplights and daily residential traffic of 70 in Morehead. They’re probably correct. 

Highway 70 is inconsistent, ranging from two to five lanes throughout the county – a major frustration and safety issue for drivers. The only non-rural area of 70 that is still two lanes is the Morehead City bridge over the Newport River – but that’s about to change. Construction on a new two-lane bridge should begin in the next few years, followed by the demolition of the current bridge and construction of a second two-lane bridge. 

The bypass would provide alternate access to the Port and remove much of that traffic from Morehead. No more military convoys and mysterious industrial cargo rolling through town. 

People living in Eastern Carteret would have a larger, faster, safer evacuation route in the event of major storms. 

I know we haven’t really seen major issues with evacuations in the past, and a good number of us are still non-evacuators, but hurricanes aren’t going to stop hitting us, and climatologists are starting to agree that storms will only get worse. NOAA published a scientific explanation of future storm intensity just last month, and here’s some data in chart form.  

Human & Environmental Impacts

Remember that connector between the bypass and East Carteret corner I mentioned above? DOT says ECHS would possibly be impacted by the project, but no detail was given. 

Several potentially historic structures are dotted along the proposed route according to state and federal preservation agencies. 

The Croatan Forest would be heavily impacted as miles of land would have to be clear-cut. Several bodies of water would be crossed by the road, including Walker’s Millpond – a land trust conservation property. Wetlands are also in the path of the proposed freeway, as are other protected areas. 

I’m not going to go into them here, but potential impacts of other solutions to the Highway 70 problem should be considered to give context to the impacts above. 

Project Support

The 2014 county document on the Northern Carteret Bypass lists the following among project supporters: the county, Town of Newport, Down East Rural Planning Organization, Port of Morehead City and the public (based on public meetings/comment).

See a 2016 presentation by the Down East Rural Planning Organization here

The Bigger Picture

There’s much more to consider than the official items listed above. 

Would this project hurt Morehead City? Will enough vacationers who would have stopped for gas or groceries in Morehead migrate to the new route to hurt the city economically? 

Could this project build the economy in Eastern Carteret? Will land values rise with easier access from upstate? Will new businesses be needed to serve vacationers? Will easterners be more willing and able to take high-paying jobs at Cherry Point? 

Can the economic structure of Beaufort, Down East, Merrimon and other areas support a potential influx of tourists and second homeowners? Do we have a large enough population to staff a growing economy? Can we maintain costs of living so that those who work in the service industries can afford to live near their jobs? 

Will it encourage “regular” people – not just second homeowners or retirees – to move to Eastern Carteret? Specifically Down East and toward the north? The population in the east has shrunk while the population in the west has grown immensely. A smaller population means fewer county, state and federal dollars. It explains why there isn’t a doctor’s office beyond Beaufort, and only a single pharmacy Down East. It explains the lack of new or updated affordable housing. Could this bypass help mitigate those issues? Or would it make things better for the haves and worse for the have-nots?

What exactly would the impacts to East Carteret High School be? Are we talking noise issues, or are we talking some level of relocation, even downsizing? ECHS has a falling student population and empty classrooms already. Would officials see that as a justification to make big changes to the school? Or would they see potential growth, and improve the school to meet a future need?

What further impacts will we see to the history and culture of Eastern Carteret? A surge of preservation? Further deterioration? Can Beaufort maintain its historic district? Will the Core Sounder brogue be extinguished for good? 

Answers to these questions aren’t clear. If the road is never built, we don’t even have to consider them. Regardless, we should be prepared to answer these questions and work together to shape the futures of our communities.