The history of North Carolina's growth and prosperity has been inextricably linked to the history of transportation in the state, especially the history of highway development. North Carolina has the largest state-maintained highway system in the nation. To provide and maintain this system, North Carolina relies strictly on user-related sources of funds, such as motor fuel taxes and state license and registration fees.
The early settlers widened and improved the Indian trails into bridle trails and then dirt roads. In colonial times, waterways were the avenues of commerce. Almost all products moved on rivers and streams within the state, and most manufactured goods arrived by sea. When it became necessary to transport goods farther inland, local laws were passed which directed that a road be built to the nearest landing. By this piecemeal process, the state slowly acquired a system of dirt roads.
As the population of the state grew, so did the demand for roads. From 1830 onward, a new element was introduced into the picture—railroads, representing the newest and most efficient means of travel. In the 1850s, transportation took yet another turn when the state invested in plank roads, which did not prove financially practical.
With the coming of the Civil War, transportation improvements in North Carolina ground to a halt. During the war, the existing railroads were used heavily for military purposes. Renovations and improvements were delayed during the early years of the Reconstruction period because of poor economic conditions in the state. By 1870, the state gave up on assistance to railroads and left their further development to private companies. In 1895, the Southern Railway acquired a 99-year lease on the piedmont section of the North Carolina Railroad while eastern routes fell to the Atlantic Coast Line and the Seaboard Air Line Railway.
In the early years of the 20th century, the principal emphasis was on the further development of the investor-owned railroads. In 1911, there were railroads covering 4,608 mi (7,414 km); by 1937 this figure had increased, if only slightly, to a total of 4,763 (7,663 km). By 2000, railroad track in North Carolina had decreased to 3,360 route mi (5,407 km). Two Class I railroads operate in the state, along with 14 local and eight switching and terminal lines. In 1998, these railroads shipped more than 122 million tons of rail freight through the state. The Carolinian and Piedmont, both state-owned trains, provide daily, round-trip passenger-rail service between Charlotte and Raleigh. The Carolinian also offers continuing service to the Northeast. Amtrak provides passenger service to most large North Carolina cities. Each year more than 325,000 rail passengers begin or end their trips at one of North Carolina's 16 Amtrak stations.
By the second decade of the century, the building of roads received new emphasis. It was during this period that North Carolina earned the label "the Good Roads State." In 1915, the Highway Commission was created, and in 1921 the General Assembly approved a $40 million state highway bond to construct a system of hard-surface roads connecting each of the 100 county seats with all of the others. The new hard-surface roads soon proved ideal for automobiles and trucks. More highway bonds were approved to pay for a statewide system of paved highways, giving the state more roads by the end of the decade than any other southern state except Texas. The state government took over the county roads in 1931.
In 2000, North Carolina had 99,813 mi (160,633 km) of public roads. There were 6,305,150 motor vehicles registered in the same year, including 3,743,066 automobiles, 2,448,806 trucks, and 30,631 buses. Licensed drivers numbered 5,690,494. The major interstate highways are I-95, which stretches north–south across the coastal plain, and I-85, which parallels it across the piedmont. I-40 leads from the mountains to the coast at Wilmington, and I-26 and I-77 handle north–south traffic in the western section. I-73 and I-74 add 325 mi (523 km) of interstate highway and will handle north–south traffic in the eastern section of the state.
Transportation 2001, a plan to speed up highway construction and complete key corridors, eliminate the road maintenance backlog, and develop a master plan for public transportation, was unveiled in 1994. A $950 million highway bond was approved by North Carolina voters in 1996 to accelerate construction of urban loops and intrastates and to pave secondary roads. Transit 2001, the master plan to improve public transportation was unveiled in February 1997. A major incentive has been placed on high-speed rail service from Raleigh to Charlotte, reducing travel time to two hours by 2000.
There are nine types of public transportation currently operating in North Carolina: human service transportation, rural general public transportation, urban transit, regional transit, vanpool and carpool programs, inter-city buses, inter-city rail passenger service, pupil transportation, and passenger ferry service. There are 17 publicly owned urban transit systems operating in North Carolina. More than three million North Carolinians have access to rural public transportation services operating in approximately 45 counties and towns.
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway follows sounds, rivers, and canals down the entire length of eastern North Carolina. The North Carolina ferry system, the 2nd-largest in the nation, transports more than 23 million passengers and 820,000 vehicles each year. Twenty-four ferry vessels move passengers and vehicles between the state's coastal communities. Seventeen of the vessels feature the colors and seals of North Carolina's public and private colleges and universities to promote the ferry system. There are major ports at Morehead City and Wilmington. Morehead City handled 4.4 million tons of cargo in 2000; Wilmington, 6.7 million tons.
North Carolina has 76 publicly owned and 225 privately owned airports. Fifteen airports have regularly scheduled airline service; four are international. There are more than 6,000 private aircraft based in the state, flown by more than 15,000 certified pilots. More than 36 million passengers fly to and from North Carolina each year, and more than 650 million pounds of air freight originate annually in the state. There are three major airline hubs in North Carolina. North Carolina has larger airports at Asheville, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Kinston, Raleigh/Durham, Wilmington, and Winston-Salem.