Home Local News Highway 220 and the I-73/I-74 Corridor Project: A Work Long in Progress

Highway 220 and the I-73/I-74 Corridor Project: A Work Long in Progress

An aerial view of the current construction on Highway 220 between Rockingham and Ellerbe.
Photo submitted by Richard Ozzy Graham, Barnhill Contracting.

RICHMOND COUNTY – The US 220 Highway expansion project has been underway for far longer than most would realize.  More notably, the original proposal can be traced as far back as 1978.    

The “official” origins and “progress” of what would eventually become the I-73/74 project were solidified in 1991.  Authorized by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of that year, Interstate 73 was established as a north-south high priority corridor that would eventually provide a virtually uninterrupted connection between Detroit, Mich., and Charleston, S.C.

However, complications became readily apparent.  Several U.S. routes were already being considered through North Carolina, but no consensus had been reached as to which constituted the best way to proceed.

A route through High Point, N.C., had been approved in May of 1993, only to be upended by “Job Link,” a coalition of business leaders from northern North Carolina and southern Virginia who preferred a connection between Roanoke and Greensboro. 

Garnering support from John Warner, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation, this plan was adopted in April of 1995, but was also joined by a “sister plan” proposed by Senator Lauch Faircloth to allow for two interstate roadways (I-73 and I-74) through North Carolina.

Another issue was the federal laws that govern the ways in which roadways cross state lines.  States have to agree as to where the crossing point will be located, but this proved to be a bit more complicated than expected. 

Both Carolinas had originally selected a route running south from Rockingham, but South Carolina lacked sufficient funds to follow up on this.  Thus, North Carolina was allotted the benefit – and responsibility – of an east-west I-74 route along the border, with the “original” I-73 path moving directly into South Carolina from Rockingham.

The first section of Interstate 73 was established in May of 1997 with a 12.6 mile run from Candor, N.C. to Ulah, N.C.  This is when the ubiquitous signage designating the “Future Interstate 73” path was placed along U.S. 220 from I-40 in Greensboro, N.C. south to Rockingham. 

It was not to be until 2008 that the 17-mile section from Candor to Ellerbe was completed.  Even at this juncture, however, because NCDOT had failed to properly apply for interstate designation, signage along the new stretch continued as “Future Interstate 73” until federal approval was granted in 2010.

By the latter months of 2012, I-73/74 from Ellerbe to Greensboro had become a de facto interstate; there are no stoplights between Greene Street in Rockingham all the way to Greensboro.

After multiple issues in the Asheboro area were resolved, US 220/I-73/I-74 has now reached the point of “near completion.”   An eight-mile section in Asheboro, and the remaining parts of the “Future I-73” 104 miles, were ultimately marked as Interstate 73 by December of 2013.

However, these final stages of updated signage do not include the U.S. 74 West Rockingham Bypass.  This 10-mile part of the “corridor” has yet to be connected to the I-73 segment, and thus the reason for the current work that remains between Rockingham and Ellerbe. 

While all right-of-way purchases have been completed along the proposed route and construction south of Ellerbe commenced in March of 2014, delays of various types (primarily funding priorities) have caused the scheduled completion date to be moved back from April of 2018 to 2027.

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Designated as part of the I-73/74 Corridor Project, the 9.4 miles of four-lane roadway between Ellerbe and Rockingham have been continually reworked since 2012.  But, as of July this year, the North Carolina Department of Transportation declared that Interstate 73 now officially begins south of Ellerbe (in concurrency with I-74 and U.S. 220).

The U.S. 220 Expansion Project entails renovation and/or replacement of 3.7 miles of roadway.  Improvements include a new alignment and upgrade to interstate standards.  Some aspects of the construction include 1.67 million cubic yards of regular excavation, three double-span bridges, 14,900 square feet of temporary shoring, 42,700 feet of storm drain pipe and a sound wall.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation awarded the contract for this particular part of the project to English Construction.  A third-generation, family-owned business headquartered in Lynchburg, Va., English Construction has operated since 1909.  Its projects have included roads, bridges, power plants, water and waste facilities, factories, historic renovations and institutional structures.

It is significant to note that, while other states have suffered a litany of obstacles in relation to the I-73/74 Project, North Carolina has encountered little resistance or difficulty in this regard. 

Conflicting political or public positions concerning routes, environmental impacts and costs of construction have seemingly plagued every state through which the interstate runs between Michigan and South Carolina.  But surprising degrees of unity and consensus characterized the state’s procedures associated with each phase of this monumental undertaking. 

One reason for this good fortune was the work of G.R. Kindley.  No “history” of the I-73/74/220 project would be complete without paying homage to him.  It was Kindley who, after serving for over 16 years (1993 – 2009) as the Division 8 Representative on the North Carolina Board of Transportation, was perhaps the most instrumental person in ensuring that Richmond County and the surrounding areas would benefit from this monumental enhancement of local infrastructure. 

“Highways don’t just drop out of the sky,” Kindley famously quipped, and were it not for the aggressive promotion by “Mr. I-73” of the new Interstate 73 coming through Richmond County, it probably would have never materialized in this manner.

Kindley essentially shepherded his ideas from county to county throughout North Carolina, and made four separate trips to Washington, D.C., in pursuit of this objective. 

As chairman of the I-73/I-74 National Corridor Association and then the I-73/74 Association – North Carolina, Kindley, along with James Armstrong, one-time city planner for Rockingham and the secretary for the Association, ensured that his state would do its part. As of 2014, North Carolina was the only state between Michigan and South Carolina to have finished sections of I-73.  

The main section of I-73/74 in Richmond County is known as the Western Rockingham Bypass (officially named the G.R. Kindley Freeway Bypass) and will eventually interchange with the U.S. 220 segment.  All work is done in phases and is subject to the provision of adequate funding at each interval, but once completed, the entire project (for this area) will connect the present I-73/74 bypass of Ellerbe to U.S. 74 west of Rockingham.  From this point the route proceeds eastward (along the G.R. Kindley Freeway) and will enter South Carolina near N.C. Route 38. 

However, this part of the plan awaits funding ($212 million), and the final South Carolina I-73 connection to the Grand Strand area on the coast is still under discussion.  Present funding is only existent to complete the current work on U.S. 220 (access roads being constructed for the interchange area).  The total estimated cost of the I-73/74 corridor through North Carolina is $2.2 billion.

The benefits to Richmond County and the surrounding areas are significant.  Increased traffic flow brings business in the way of more tourists passing through and greater enticement for industries to locate here. 

Once completed, I-73 will be North Carolina’s second longest Interstate highway, totaling approximately 300 miles, trailing only I-40’s 420 miles, but ahead of I-85’s 233 miles.

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