07/20/05 — Planning for new 4-lane highway began nearly quarter century ago

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Planning for new 4-lane highway began nearly quarter century ago

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on July 20, 2005 1:45 PM

When Wayne County Commissioner Andy Anderson began pushing for improvements to U.S. Highway 117, he didn't realize it would take 23 years to complete 21 miles of highway.

It was 1983, and Anderson had recently retired to Wayne County after a career in the Air Force.

While looking at a map of the eastern U.S., he was amazed to see that no major highways from the North led to North Carolina's beaches.

"It jumped out that at Wilson, you picked up I-95 towards the west, so that the first beach you came to is Myrtle Beach," Anderson said. "We were missing all the beach traffic, and there were no roads to get to our ports."

The need for a four-lane route through Wayne County that would connect the interstate with U.S. 70 east was apparent, he said.

Anderson found old maps that showed the state Department of Transportation had planned for years to widen U.S. 117 through Wayne County. The proposed project had been on the state's wish list but had been dropped in the early 1980s.

Getting back

on the list

Anderson's first goal was to get the highway project back on the state's transportation improvement list.

He formed a non-profit organization, the Wayne-Wilson U.S. Highway 117 Association, and met with community leaders in all the towns between Wilson and Faison to drum up support.

"Each community said they would support it, and they put some small amount of money into the effort, whatever they could afford," he said.

Anderson then went to the Wayne County commissioners, challenging them to match whatever he could raise from the smaller towns.

They agreed. Eventually, with the county's match, about $56,000 was raised. With the money and the backing, Anderson went to Raleigh with a safety report detailing the need for improvements to the road.

Transporation officials told Anderson the report provided valuable statistics, but said the project couldn't proceed without an environmental and economic impact study and there was no money available for them.

So Anderson hired an engineering firm, Kimley-Horne, and asked it to conduct an environmental impact study.

He also went to East Carolina University and got an economics class there to perform an economic impact study.

The studies were completed in the mid 1980s. With the information in hand, Anderson helped set up a luncheon at the Goldsboro Country Club that included officials from the county chamber of commerce, the department of transporation, and business and local government leaders from Wayne, Wilson and Duplin counties.

"Anyone that had some influence was invited," Anderson said.

The two studies were presented to the group and, before long, the U.S. 117 project went back on the state's transportation project list.

Environmental delay

But even though the project was back on the list, the state had to perform its own environmental impact study before the project could advance.

The company that the state first hired to conduct the study proved slow to act, and eventually they were replaced. In the meantime, environmental regulations changed dramatically, forcing the second company to virtually start all over again.

Finally, in the mid-1990s. the study was completed.

At that point, the project got help from two key legislators.

State Sen. Henson Barnes and state Rep. Martin Lancaster, concerned about development in Wayne and surrounding counties, managed to get an additional $15 million in funding for the project so that it could be built to interstate standards.

Barnes, now retired, said he worked on improving U.S. 117 from the minute he was elected to office.

"According to statistics, the stretch between Goldsboro and Mount Olive was the most dangerous highway in the state at the time," said Barnes, who became president pro tem of the state Senate. "I thought something should be done about it.

"They had committed funds for highways that year, but even with money committed, it could take three to four years to get the project going," he said. "But I learned that if they committed money, they would usually complete the project."

Then-governor Jim Martin had committed to a state highway construction plan that would eventually put a four-lane highway within 10 miles of every North Carolinian. Improving U.S. 117 fit into the plan.

"So I was able to get the four-lane into Wilson in the budget," said Barnes, who lobbied extensively for the project in the halls of the Legislature.

Barnes said Anderson was constantly in Raleigh, pushing lawmakers to the highway.

"Whatever he believes in, he works hard at it," Barnes said. "Andy kept working at it and he kept me informed."

Lancaster, who became a congressman after a decade in the state House, used his pull to help the project in Washington.

He said one of the justifications used to get the project moving was the development of the Global TransPark in Kinston. Planners said the TransPark would need access to a network of four-lane highways in order for it to be successful.

Choosing a route

Anderson said the plans for the highway had stayed fairly consistent throughout the years, except for altering the route slightly in Wayne County.

Highway officials decided widening the existing road was not feasible because of the development along the route. After considering several alternatives, they chose one that ran just west of the current highway.

But how to connect the road with U.S. 70 posed a problem.

"When it went by Lane Tree (Golf Club), it was going to cross Salem Church and Stoney Hill roads, which would have required an overpass," Anderson said. "But we wondered why we should cut across the countryside for no reason."

Plans eventually changed to turn the road past Salem Church Road, curve around the Belfast area, and come in parallel to the railroad track.

Anderson said the revision fit into long-range plans for a bypass of U.S. 70 around Goldsboro.

"After that, it was a waiting game," he said.

Rights-of-way for the new highway were acquired in the late 1990s, surveying was done and the first contract was signed.

Work commenced on the project in the fall of 2000.

Anderson said that the original plan had a cloverleaf interchange at the 581 intersection because state planners thought the highway would end in Goldsboro.

"At that time, everyone said that this project will end here, just like I-40 ends at Wilmington," Anderson said.

Anderson said he and other Wayne County residents saw the potential for a loop around Goldsboro, and viewed the new roadway's end at N.C. 581 as a temporary link. So did area lawmakers, who recommended that the intersection be built as an at-grade crossing.

"We decided to work on an environmental study that would let us know where the road around Goldsboro would intersect with 581," Anderson said.

Everything should have dove-tailed together Anderson said, but the political climate in Raleigh changed.

"Politics got involved," he said. "There was a local shift in priorities."

Anderson said that the loop, which would run for eight miles from N.C. 581 to the Wayne County fairgrounds, was taken off the list.

"Local transportation board members decided that improvements to city streets should take precedence," he said.

The loop project went by the wayside.

In 2003, planners realized the dangers involved in having an at-grade crossing, Anderson said, and changed their focus.

The local transportation boards, the Transportation Advisory Committee and the Technical Coordinating Committee, agreed that they needed to look at getting a route for the loop.

"They spent $400,000 doing an abbreviated route study for the loop, trying to determine where a crossover could be built," he said.

In 2004, the route was selected by the local transportation committees, but the state says it will have to do its own impact study.

Anderson said that study could take 10 years, but local transportation boards are trying to get it back on a priority list.

Original highway

nearing completion

In the meantime, the 21-mile stretch of new highway between Wilson and Goldsboro is nearing completion.

The highway begins in the vicinity of 264 near Wilson and ends at the intersection with 581 west of Goldsboro.

The first section of the highway to be built was from south of Pikeville to Fremont. Next came the portion connecting Fremont to near Wilson. And finally, the portion of the road south of Pikeville was constructed.

Work on this section is expected to be completed by the end of the summer.

By next year, the last couple of miles on each end of the highway will be finished, officials have said.

Anderson is glad that after 22 years, the stretch of highway is almost completed, but says the work isn't over.

"We need to push to get that loop completed," he said.