North Carolina Road Network

By | October 13, 2022

The state of North Carolina has a dense network of roads. The network is made up of state highways, US Highways and Interstate Highways. The state has no county roads. The state-run network of roads is therefore the second largest in the United States, at 127,666 kilometers in length. The network of state highways is approximately 10 times that of some mid-sized states in the Midwestern and Western United States.

  • Bittranslators: State overview of North Carolina, including geography, economy, population and history as well as introduction to major cities of North Carolina.

Road management

North Carolina’s highway network is administered by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, frequently abbreviated to NCDOT. [3] (pronunciation: en-cee-dee-o-tee ). The current North Carolina Department of Transportation was founded in 1979, but has its origins in the State Highway Commission of 1915. NCDOT has an extensive range of duties and, in addition to roads, also manages ferry services, pedestrian and bicycle paths, and is indirectly responsible for aviation, passenger transport by rail and other public transport. The Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is also part of the NCDOT.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation operates the second largest road network in the United States, with more than 125,000 miles of road. Only the Texas Department of Transportation operates a larger road network. However, the network of roads designated as state highways is larger in North Carolina than in Texas, because a significant portion of the roads under Texas state administration are Farm to Market Roads, a road category that does not exist in North Carolina. The North Carolina Department of Transportation also operates more than 18,500 bridges, several of which are more than 1 kilometer in length in the coastal region. The budget for the North Carolina Department of Transportation is approximately $4.4 billion per year.

  • Deluxesurveillance: Nickname of North Carolina as The Tar Heel State. Also covers geography, history, economy, politics and administration of the state.

Interstate Highways

North Carolina’s Interstate Highway Network.

The 2×4 lane I-40/85 at Burlington.

North Carolina has a dense network of Interstate Highways. All major cities are connected by Interstate Highways, and much through traffic along the East Coast of the United States has to pass through North Carolina. In the west of the state, Interstate 26 forms a north-south route through the Appalachian Mountains, via Asheville. I-26 is considered one of the most beautiful highways in the eastern United States, especially in the border area with Tennessee. Interstate 40 is the longest east-west route in the state, stretching nearly 700 miles. I-40 avoids the largest city of Charlotte, but continues north through the urban region of Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Durham and Raleigh, through to the Atlantic coast at Wilmington. The easternmost section from Raleigh to Wilmington runs mostly north-south.

Interstate 73 and Interstate 74 are being developed as north-south routes through the center of the state, the exact future route is not yet clear everywhere. These two highways are partly double-numbered and pass through Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Interstate 77 forms a north-south route through the west of the state, through the largest city of Charlotte, but does not serve significant places outside of Charlotte. The Interstate 85 is usually referred to as the main Interstate Highway in North Carolina because it connects almost all major cities, and runs diagonally through the state through Charlotte, Greensboro, and Durham. I-85 is mostly 2×4 lanes between these cities and has a fairly long double numbering with I-40 between Greensboro and Durham. Interstate 95 forms a transit route for north-south traffic through the flat and densely forested eastern part of North Carolina, but is of less importance to traffic within the state, the only place of note on the route is the city of Fayetteville.

Numerous auxiliary routes of Interstate Highways complement the network. Since 2000, North Carolina has introduced relatively many new Interstate Highway numbers. Interstate 140 forms the bypass of the coastal city of Wilmington, while Interstate 240 forms the bypass of Asheville in the Appalachian Mountains. Interstate 277 is a short beltway around downtown Charlotte and Interstate 285 is a future route between Lexington and Winston-Salem and is an upgrade of US 52. Interstate 295 is an incomplete bypass of the military city of Fayetteville.

Interstate 440 forms the minor ring road of the state capital Raleigh, while Interstate 540 forms the major ring road. Interstate 485 forms Charlotte’s major beltway. Interstate 495 is a regional east-west route from Raleigh to Rocky Mount and is an upgrade of US 64. Interstate 785 is a future highway from Greensboro to Danville, Virginia, while Interstate 795 is a short connection between Goldsboro and Wilson in the east of the state. Interstate 840 is to form the Greensboro Beltway, while Interstate 885 forms an eastern bypass of Durham.

US Highways

North Carolina has a very extensive network of US Highways. Dozens of trails run through the state. US Highways have also been developed as freeways on various stretches, although some US Highways have become part of Interstate Highways more recently. Much of the US Highways in North Carolina is constructed as a 2×2 divided highway with varying degrees of grade separation. In the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina, almost all US Highways have 2×2 lanes, and there are also a large number of double-numbered roads.

Freeway US Highways are US 1 between Sanford and Raleigh, US 64 between Raleigh and Williamston, some sections of US 70 between Raleigh and New Bern, US 74 between Columbus and Shelby and east of Charlotte, the US 264 between Zebulon and Greenville, US 321 between Gastonia and Hickory and US 421 west of Winston-Salem.

The large number of long bridges is characteristic of eastern North Carolina. This area consists of lagoons and estuaries, collectively called Pamlico Sound, a large lagoon separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the Outer Banks.

State Highways

The NC-12 ‘s Bonner Bridge to be replaced in the Outer Banks.

The state highways in North Carolina almost always fulfill a secondary role because of the dense network of US Highways. Traffic will usually rarely drive longer stretches on a state highway. The network of state highways is divided into primary routes with a number up to 999, and secondary routes, with numbers above 1000. Secondary routes are not signposted with a road number shield. The road number system is designed in such a way that road numbers of US Highways and Interstate Highways are not used again for state highways, there are, however, a few exceptions, the most well-known is State Route 540, which is planned to become part of I-540 in due course. and is also an extension of it.

Only a few state highways are freeway, the most famous is State Route 147 through Durham. In addition, state highways partly coincide with US Highways that are designed as freeways. One of the most famous state highways in North Carolina is State Route 12 over the Outer Banks. This is the only road link to Hatteras Island, a popular tourist area. The road numbers are often abbreviated in pronunciation and spelling with the two letters of the state, for example NC-12.

Toll roads

North Carolina currently has two toll roads, the Triangle Expressway which forms part of the Raleigh ring road. This consists of the southern part of NC-147 and NC-540. US 74 is also a toll road around Monroe near Charlotte. Express lanes have also been built on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte.

The North Carolina Turnpike Authority was established in 2002 for the implementation of toll roads. The Garden Parkway west of Charlotte was also planned to be built as a toll road, but its implementation is uncertain. Also planned was the Cape Fear Skyway in Wilmington, a large bridge over the Cape Fear River.

The North Carolina Turnpike Authority’s transponder is the NC Quick Pass. It is compatible with the E-ZPass, SunPass (Florida) and PeachPass (Georgia).

Ferry services

The Ferry Division of the North Carolina Department of Transportation oversees ferry services in the eastern part of the state. [5] Most ferry services run through Pamlico Sound. The routes vary in length from 4 to 42 kilometers and in sailing time from 20 minutes to 2 hours and 40 minutes. Most short ferries are free, only two long ferries across the Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke Island charge tolls. The most commonly used ferry service is the crossing from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Island, serving 353,000 vehicles and 960,000 passengers annually. The ferry service from Swan Quarter to Ocracoke Island is the least used, with 27,000 vehicles and 65,000 passengers a year. There is also a ferry service that only operates as parts of NC-12 around the Oregon Inlet have been swept away by hurricanes. Permanent ports were constructed in 2000 and 2001 for this purpose. They are generally only used by emergency services and residents of Hatteras Island and not by tourists. This ferry service runs from Stumpy Point to Rodanthe across the Pamlico Sound.

Route Currituck Stumpy Point hatteras Swan Quarter Cedar Island Bayview Cherry Branch Southport
Knotts Island Rodanthe ocracoke ocracoke Aurora Minnesott Beach Fort Fishero
Crossed Currituck Sound Pamlico Sound Hatteras Inlet Pamlico Sound Pamlico River Neuse River Cape Fear River
Sailing time 45 min. 1 h, 45 mins. 1 h. 2 h, 40 min. 2 hours, 15 minutes 30 min. 20 min. 35 min.
Distance 5 mi / 8 km 17 mi / 27 km 4.5 mi / 7 km 26 mi / 42 km 23 mi / 37 km 4 mi / 6.5 km 2.5 mi / 4 km 4 mi / 6.5 km
Toll Free Free Free Toll Toll Free Free Toll
Number of vehicles (annual) 30,000 N/A 353,000 27,000 76,000 82,000 277,000 185,000
Number of passengers (annual) 90,000 N/A 960,000 65,000 184,000 130,000 487,000 500,000


The early years

North Carolina’s road network was developed quite early because of the many villages and agricultural areas scattered throughout the state. Historic trade routes and horse-drawn carriage roads were expanded into motorized roads in the early 20th century, initially using old bridges, which were gradually replaced by more modern bridges suitable for heavier traffic. In the early years of the highway system, this was the job of the counties, it was not until 1915 that the North Carolina State Highway Commission was established and the state became responsible for the development of the highway network.

Expansion and modernization of the road network

In 1921, the issuance of $50 million in bonds was approved to build and modernize roads and bridges in North Carolina. This was a large amount for the time. In the 1920’s North Carolina already had an extensive network of paved roads connecting all places of interest, in 1930 only secondary roads were still a gravel road or completely unpaved. In 1931, the state took over the management of all the bridges and roads of the counties, resulting in a very large network of roads under the control of the state. At the time, the state already managed almost 92,000 kilometers of road. This was relatively uncommon in the United States, but North Carolina had a tendency to centralize a lot of things. In 1933-1934, the first major renumbering of state highways was carried out, mainly to eliminate duplication with the many US Highways introduced in the state from 1926. North Carolina has not had state highway 1.

The second World War

In 1937, another renumbering was carried out, this time to match the numbers of the state highways with those of the neighboring state of South Carolina. Such renumbering was not unusual at the time, many states had such a system whereby numbers of state highways were adjusted to those of neighboring states. In 1940, a third renumbering was made to match the route numbers to those of Virginia. A distinctly lagging area in North Carolina’s road network development was the coastal region. The focus was on the more industrialized interior, especially the Piedmont region. The coastal region has many estuaries and required long bridges to allow traffic in this region. The first long bridges in this area were privately funded.

During the Second World War, the development of the road network almost came to a standstill, as almost all expenditure went to war. The road network of almost no state was developed at that time, but the coastal region was seen to be vulnerable because of the poorly developed road network and the many detour kilometers around the estuaries. From the 1950s onwards, this region was developed by the construction of many long bridges of 1 to 4 kilometers in length. The Outer Banks also became a major tourist destination from then on.

The freeways

I-77 at Downtown Charlotte.

I-85 at Durham.

Bypasses were already built around some places of the limited-access highway character from the late 1940s. These were not yet full-fledged freeways, but they did provide the state with the necessary experience in high-quality road design, which was instrumental in the creation of the Interstate Highway system in 1956. The first freeway-like road was the bypass of Lexington which was built between 1949 and 1951, and had North Carolina’s first cloverleaf.

The focus of the construction of Interstate Highways was mainly on the I-40 corridor. By 1960, four years after the program began, several sections of I-40 were completed, including west of Hickory, between Hickory and Statesville, and a fairly long stretch through Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and beyond to east of Burlington. Portions of I-85 were also completed, such as the bypass from Charlotte, Salisbury, and from Henderson to the Virginia border. A substantial portion of I-95 had also been opened between Fayetteville and near Wilson. However, highway construction passed the capital Raleigh in the early years.

The first half of the 1960s saw rapid construction on I-26 (south of Asheville), I-40 (west of Durham), I-85 and I-95, much of which had already been built in the mid-1960s. were completed. In 1970 there were still a few missing links, which, however, were mostly filled by stretches of US Highway with 2×2 lanes. Aside from I-95, the focus of highway construction was entirely on the central and western state of the state, while the Atlantic Coast region and its vast interior had virtually no priority. In 1961, a fourth renumbering of the state highways was also carried out to eliminate duplications with the Interstate Highways.

After nearly all the missing links of the Interstate Highways had been eliminated in the 1970s, the large-scale expansion of US Highways to 2×2 lanes began. However, the population of North Carolina did not grow very quickly, there was a migration from the countryside to the city, but the countryside remained fairly densely populated. At the time, it was policy to connect all counties via 2×2 divided highways. North Carolina has 100 counties, so this resulted in a dense network of four-lane roads.

In 1980 some parts of the Interstate Highways were still missing. For example, the I-85 had not yet been built between Lexington and Greensboro because the US 29 was already a fairly well-developed road, which was even designated as ‘temporary I-85’. I-26 was not originally planned to run north of Asheville. This was developed as the US 23 as a freeway and it was not until 2003 that this section from Asheville to the border with Tennessee was numbered as I-26. In addition, I-40 ended in Raleigh, missing a long stretch further to Wilmington. This opened in phases between 1987 and 1992, causing the eastern portion of I-40 to curve significantly south.

Also, the cities in North Carolina did not have a proper ring structure. The construction of the Charlotte ring road, Interstate 285, only started in 1989 and was completed in phases, only in 2015 the ring road was completely drivable. Around Greensboro, there has been a series of renumbering of I-40, I-85 and their Business Routes, which resulted in obscure road numbering around the city for several years.

A focus of North Carolina has been the upgrade of I-85, the main highway in the state. This has largely been widened to 2×4 lanes in many phases between Charlotte and Durham. It is one of the longest 2×4 lanes in the southeastern United States. Several new Interstate Highways were also introduced after 2000, mainly over existing US Highways that had been developed as freeways.


Planned projects include the completion of the Raleigh ( Interstate 540 ) and Greensboro ( Interstate 840 ) beltways. Also, the Fayetteville bypass ( Interstate 295 ) is to be completed. Another focus is the widening of Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Statesville and the expansion of the urban highway networks of Charlotte and Raleigh, with or without toll roads. Interstate 885 is being built along Durham. In Asheville, it is planned to modernize Interstate 26 / Interstate 240. Also, the 7.5-kilometer-long Mid-Currituck Bridge to the Outer Banks.

Traffic intensities

North Carolina’s highway network is heavily traveled, especially in the mid-state where most highways count more than 70,000 vehicles per day between cities. The busiest routes in North Carolina count up to approximately 180,000 vehicles per day, such as I-85 in Charlotte and I-40 between Durham and Raleigh. Outside Charlotte and Raleigh, the congestion is relatively easy, the highways often have 2×3 or 2×4 lanes and are therefore reasonably adequately equipped. In the TomTom Traffic Index, Raleigh and Charlotte belong to the lower middle bracket of congestion-prone regions of the United States, which is a relatively good performance given the explosive population growth.

North Carolina Road Network