U.S. 421 to become I-685 through Randolph County

N.C. Transportation secretary Joey Hopkins, left, and N.C. Transportation board member Lisa Mathis stand next to a Future I-685 sign during Monday’s ceremony in Liberty. (P.J. Ward-Brown / Randolph Record)

Upgrading the highway to interstate standards will take years

LIBERTY — With an interstate cutting through Randolph County, it’s going to contribute to the area’s growth, Darrell Frye said.

Frye, chair of the Randolph County commissioners, was among the state and local leaders gathering Monday to celebrate the designation of U.S. Highway 421 as the future Interstate 685.

“I think it’s a recognition of what’s happening here in this part of the Triad,” Frye said.

The event, held next to the under-construction Toyota Battery Manufacturing plant, featured the unveiling of new Future I-685 signs that will be going up along the route from Greensboro to Sanford.

“Unveiling of the Future Interstate 685 sign is a true testament to the collaboration and teamwork that is fueling our economic momentum here in the Carolina Core,” Loren Hill, Carolina Core Regional Economic Development Director, said.

I-685 will eventually run from I-85 to I-95, improving connectivity and commerce across the region. According to NC Transportation secretary Joey Hopkins, upgrading U.S. 421 to interstate standards will take place in phases across many years, coordinating with local governments. Two new interchanges are already under construction near the Toyota plant site and will open in the coming months.

“It’s another convenience thing,” Frye said. “I think it gives another access to the site for workers, adds another degree of safety to it.”

A recently completed bridge over U.S. 421 was the backdrop for Monday’s ceremony.

The future interstate is expected to be a major draw for new businesses to locate in the area.

“One of the main things (businesses) look for is the transportation network,” Hopkins said. “They all want to be adjacent to or near an interstate.”

It’s unclear when U.S. 421 will actually reach interstate status, but it’s part of a long-range process that Frye has been aware of for more than a decade.

“The word ‘megasite’ was first mentioned in about 2010,” he said. “We met for almost two years. I have maps, a suitcase full of notes and meeting agendas. We have preliminary maps.”

Those maps show what has not been dubbed the future I-685.

The under-construction Toyota Battery plant near Liberty serves as a backdrop for the roadway that eventually will become I-685. (P.J. Ward-Brown / Randolph Record)

Designating U.S. 421 as a future interstate has been a key initiative spearheaded by the Piedmont Triad Partnership since launching the Carolina Core brand in 2018 for the region anchored by Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point and Fayetteville. The region has seen $20 billion in investment and 50,000 new jobs announced in recent years from companies around the world.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and former Sen. Richard Burr were instrumental in getting congressional approval for the future interstate in 2021. Regional leaders are now seeking an additional future interstate designation for US-421 north of Winston-Salem.

The Toyota battery plant and Wolfspeed semiconductor factory, both under construction, represent some of the biggest economic development projects in the state, bringing thousands of jobs and billions in investment to the region.

“We’re just ripe for future opportunities like this,” Hopkins said.

Randolph County and surrounding areas are going to be a critical parts along the interstate.

“If you look south and (toward) Greensboro, the two biggest projects in the state right now it’s Toyota and Wolfspeed,” Frye said. “They are only 6, 7 miles apart here. This is really the heart of that of that interstate.”

By Jordan Golson and PJ Ward-Brown