Accessing Downtown Raleigh Part 1: I-87 – New Bern Connector

Access from Eastern Wake County to Downtown Raleigh is lacking. The addition of a 1 mile connector arterial from the current interchange of I-87 and I-440 to New Bern Ave could go a long way in connecting the East.

Raleigh sits roughly 30 miles in between I-85 and I-95, two key North-South Interstate corridors. I-40 also snakes through the region as it begins it’s journey from the NC Coast over to California. Sitting between these major corridors but not directly on them, gives the city the access it needs but also keeps traffic volumes relatively low.

Closer to town, Raleigh is encircled by a roughly 25 mile “Beltline”. About two thirds of the Beltline is I-440. The other third is I-40. The closest the Beltline gets to downtown is roughly a mile to the South and 3 miles to the North. There are currently no limited access facilities inside of the Beltline.

Downtown Raleigh from I-40 at Wilmington St (GOOGLE)

I-540 / NC 540 TOLL is the outer Beltline which when completed will be a 70 mile Perimeter around Raleigh. Currently around 45 miles are complete. Another 15 miles are under construction with the completion of the final section scheduled for 2029.

Access to I-95 is provided to the East by I-87 / US 64 (Future I-87), US 264 (Future I-587), US 70 (Future I-42), and I-40. Access to I-85 is provided by I-40 and the Durham Freeway NC 147 (Future I-885).

Raleigh Area Limited Access Facilities

Roads shown above in light grey are future limited access facilities that are either unbuilt or planned conversions. They include the East End Connector (Durham, I-885), US-70 in Durham, and US 1 in North Raleigh. There are currently no plans to upgrade any facilities within the Beltline.

As I mentioned, there are no limited access facilities within the Beltline, which can cause some difficulties accessing downtown. The major routes to and from I-440 / I-40 to Downtown are: Wade Ave, Glenwood Ave / US 70, Capital Blvd / US 1, New Bern Ave, Hammond Rd, and S Saunders St / US 70 / US 401.

As you approach the Raleigh area on I-87 Southbound, you catch a couple of skyline glimpses as you pass I-540 in Knightdale. I-87 was constructed in the early 2000s as a reliever for New Bern Ave as it goes through Knightdale. It has quickly turned into a primary route to and from I-95 and the Northeast carrying close to 100,000 vehciles per day.

As you travel on I-87, it may appear that you are heading for a collision course with Downtown. But as you approach the Beltline you’re left with two choices. I-440 East which is signed for Wake Forest. Or I-440 West which is signed for Durham and Benson. Where’d Raleigh go?! Which way is best to Downtown?!

I-87 at I-440 (GOOGLE)

If you’re using GPS, you’ll likely be presented with three routes: I-440 West to Capital Blvd, I-40 West to S Saunders St, and New Bern Ave. Under typical conditions, all three routes take 11 minutes from the I-87 / I-440 Interchange to the Statehouse Square in Downtown Raleigh. I’m not sure what factors went into Google Maps algorithm, but I-440 West to Capital Blvd is the preferred route. For what it’s worth, that is also my route of choice.

Choices to Downtown (GOOGLE)

As seen above, there is a clear hitch in any route you may choose to take although I-87 appears to be heading straight toward New Bern Ave and Downtown Raleigh. This can lead to driver confusion, as well as wasted time and emissions.

Looking at the Typical Traffic Heat map from Google during morning rush hour, there are some delays heading South on I-87 and West on I-440 as people head toward Downtown, North Hill, and RTP.

Typical Traffic at 8 AM Wednesday (GOOGLE)

As many companies eventually ease back into offices as well as the explosive growth Eastern Wake County, Downtown Raleigh, and North Hills are experiencing, this corridor will become increasingly congested.

In addition to the Triangle region as a whole being among the fastest growing in the country – for good reason; Eastern Wake County is the fastest growing section of the triangle. This is due to Eastern Wake being the last area within close range that has significant developable land remaining.

Town of Wendell Development (

One of the towns in Eastern Wake, Wendell is a prime example of this explosive growth. The map below shows the current and planned developments within the town’s planning limits. Over 5000 residential units, a college, and numerous mixed use developments are on the docket for the town. Adjacent Knightdale and Zebulon are also experiencing similar growth.

The New Bern – I-87 connector would provide a direct route from the Interstate to Downtown Raleigh. It would also serve as a gateway into the city while also helping to drive development along a prime BRT corridor. An interactive map of the proposed route is at the link below.

Despite being a new route, only limited ROW impacts would be seen. There are a couple of existing roads that could be utilized, as well as sneaking between a few medical buildings of the Wake Med complex.

Section 1

Section 1 shows the tie-in to I-87 as well as the addition of ramps at the I-440 interchange. The existing flyover bridges should be maintained and the Connector should be routed to go under existing bridges wherever possible to ensure cost and constructability remains feasible.

Section 2

As the Connector moves away from the interchange it will transition into a complete street corridor with street trees, median plantings and a multi-use trail. The trail would be a direct connection from the Crabtree Creek Trail providing more direct bike access from the Neuse River Trail to Downtown Raleigh. A few Right-In-Right-Out driveways are provided for access to some commercial facilities.

Section 3

Section three features a Roundabout at the intersection with Sunnybrook Rd. Special design considerations for bikes and pedestrians on the roadside greenway trail should be explored to ensure the highest level of safety is provided. This would also provide a couple of prime corner development opportunities adjacent to the huge WakeMed medical facility. There would also be some more Right-In-Right-Out driveways to ensure a high level of access to all facilities.

Section 4

Section four sees the tie-in to the existing New Bern Ave. This is also where the majority of our ROW impacts would be seen. Due to the proximity of the Roundabout with New Bern and the Connector, a grade separation was chosen to pass Donald Ross Drive.

As mentioned, a BRT line is planned on New Bern Ave from Downtown to East Raleigh. On the Northeast quadrant of the Roundabout, a mixed-use BRT station with Park-and-ride, apartments and retail should be considered.

In total, the New Bern – I-87 Connector would span about 1.5 miles while shaving about a mile off of the existing shortest route that currently exists.

I-87 – New Bern Connector

As Raleigh continues to rapidly grow, we must ensure that connectivity remains our number one priority. While only a mile long, this connector would provide a more reliable, direct route for motorists traveling from Eastern Wake County. It would also connect one of the largest greenways in North Carolina to Downtown, as well as provide opportunity for economic development along the future BRT corridor.

In the coming parts of the series, we’ll explore some more ideas for enhancing the connectivity of Raleigh.

Phil Veasley

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