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What was I-40 Inc.?

Merton Vance
StarNews

I-40 Inc. was started by a father-and-son team of Wilmington businessmen and civic boosters, Gene Merritt Sr. and Gene Merritt Jr.

They organized  I-40 Inc. to lobby for construction of the Interstate 40 link from Wilmington to Raleigh, sometimes conflicting with other civic and political leaders that the Merritts sometimes thought were moving too cautiously or were afraid to make political waves.

Throughout long and entangled political maneuvering to find money to pay for the I-40 connection, I-40 Inc. was pushing the project.

In late 1977, when highway planners were looking at alternative routes to link I-40 at Raleigh to Interstate 95, the Wilmington boosters pushed hard for a connection to Benson, because they thought that route provided the best alternative to extend the highway to Wilmington.

They won out, and within a short time, I-40 Inc. bumper stickers that read “I-40 Benson to Wilmington” were showing up on cars around the region.

The next year, when a Benson-to-Wilmington route was selected for Interstate 40, another Merritt was involved, too. John Merritt, Gene Jr.’s brother , was administrative assistant at the time for U.S. Rep. Charlie Rose, who represented the Wilmington area at the time.

Rose, along with fellow Democrat U.S. Rep W.G. “Bill” Hefner, helped secure federal funding for the I-40 link to Wilmington.

Initially, the congressional delegation anticipated $125 million from a discretionary fund overseen by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and $60 million went into the project before Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and decided to eliminate the discretionary fund.

Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms backed Reagan’s move. Helms opposed the I-40 project, preferring instead to put money into upgrading existing highways.

For a while, the funding for the project was in turmoil.

Rose managed to keep the I-40 link on a list of highway projects that qualified for federal funding, But back in North Carolina, shrinking gas tax revenues cut into the state’s road-building budget, threatening to delay I-40.

State Rep. Harry Payne, then a junior member of the state House, tried to direct all of the state’s federal highway money to the I-40 project.

But Gov. Jim Hunt opposed the idea, preferring to spread the money to other road projects around the state.

The position dogged Hunt, who was often doing battle with the editorial page of the Wilmington Morning Star, which took a tough editorial stance to support I-40.

Hunt won the funding feud in the legislature, and in 1983 the proposed completion date for L-40 from Benson to Wilmington was pushed back to 1994.

In 1984, just weeks before he lost the showdown with Helms for the Senate, Hunt made a visit to Thalian hall in Wilmington and announced that he’d found another $16.7 million to move the I-40 completion up by one year.

Jim Martin, while running as the Republican candidate for governor in 1984, promised to have all the work for completing the I-40 connector under contract by the end of his four-year term.

He made good on the promise and went on to cut the ribbon to open the last stretch of I-40 in 1990, during his second term.

RELATED LINKS

What are the large green boxes, often grouped in threes, along Interstate 40? http://www.myreporter.com/?p=3565

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