12/18/05 — Committee to hear highway study

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Committee to hear highway study

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on December 18, 2005 2:09 AM

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith says an invigorated U.S. 70 could be the catalyst eastern North Carolina needs to attract more business, industry and tourism to the region.

On Monday, Smith and other business and government leaders from the counties affected by the proposed series of new bypasses will hear from planners how they can make them more accessible for residents and a bigger boon to economic development.

Kimley-Horn and Associates will present the U.S. 70 Access Management Study to the Wayne County Transportation Committee. That analysis could include advice on engineering design standards, cross-access agreements, driveway requirements, street connectivity and site access.

In addition to the input from the consultants, the commissioners also want to hear from the residents who will use the new highway. Concerned citizens will be able to offer their opinions at the Transportation Committee meeting at 11:30 a.m. at the Wayne Center.

Wayne County Commissioner Atlas Price said the committee wants residents to know where the long-awaited highway project stands, and where it is headed.

"Highway 70 is one of the most important issues that we have less control over. We need to take care of it," he said.

When towns and municipalities throughout eastern North Carolina joined forces to form the Highway 70 Corridor Commission earlier this year, Price said leaders from around the region began to speak with one voice and with one set of priorities. The multi-county arrangement made getting state attention and the necessary funding easier, Price said.

But to get anything done, all six counties involved in the commission had to be willing to fund and to plan the project as a unit. City and county officials throughout the area are beginning to accept that message and to spread it to their own residents.

"It is important for the coalition to be committed, and all stay committed. It is extremely important to make 70 a success," Kinston City Manager Ralph Clark said.

In October, the commission, which includes officials from Carteret, Craven, Johnston, Jones, Lenoir and Wayne counties, met to discuss the future of the highway and what each county could do independently and as a group to lobby for money, work with environmental agencies to protect the land during construction and get input from residents and businesses to ensure the new bypasses will be safe and provide the best use for people living in the six counties, as well as the businesses that use the highway.

Anything, government and business leaders agree, would be better than the existing four-lane, which has more than 90 stops between Raleigh and the Morehead City.

"There are accidents every day. There is congestion every day. It hurts our industrial prospects," Craven County Manager Harold Blizzard said.

Morehead City Manager Randy Martin said every town along the route has problems with traffic, and that future highway development should include restricted access routes.

"The purpose of restricted access routes is that it is a non-economical road and it is able to keep the flow of traffic fast," Martin said.

Other suggestions from the commission have included toll roads, overpasses and bypasses to divert traffic from congested areas and to help pay for the project.

Coming up with county money to help pay for the commission's work might not be easy.

Each of the six counties has contributed to paying initial consulting fees involved in the access study, but Smith has suggested they chip in $25,000 annually over the next five years to pay for a consultant to assist state planners in the project's development.

Although some counties, including Wayne, have begun the process of allocating the money for the highway, not all are in agreement. Clark said Lenoir County officials might not see the need for the expenditure. There are few large businesses along U.S. 70 in Lenoir, he said. Although the road might improve traffic and boost the local economy, getting public support might not be easy.

"It's too early to say we'd chip in. It gets people adamant when you are prioritizing their money. We will look at the proposals, and the people can decide," he said.

Smith said the six counties cannot afford to wait if they want to take full advantage of the opportunity to be involved in the road's planning.

"This is our chance for 70. If we don't do it, I believe the door will close in the next five years," he said.

John Rouse is matinenance engineer for Division II, which includes Lenoir, Craven, Carteret and Beaufort counties of the state Department of Transportation. He said funding for the U.S. 70 work suffers from the same problems as other highway improvements across the state -- a lack of money that keeps many projects behind schedule.

"There are more needs on U.S. 70 than it is receiving funds for. The project keeps getting pushed into the future. It's a statewide problem," Rouse said

The project is of great importance to both private and commercial traffic in eastern North Carolina, officials from every county agreed.

Smith said the area with the most to gain from a controlled access route between Raleigh and the ocean could be Morehead City. If the state undertook to dredge the harbor there, Morehead could handle supertankers. The amount of goods exchanged at the port would likely increase exponentially and generate a great deal of businesss for the region, he said.

Of the top 20 poorest counties in the nation, eight are located east of I-95 in eastern North Carolina, Smith pointed out. Improvements to the road, which runs through the heart of the region, would help every small town along the way.

Clark said a U.S. 70 that provided tourists with an uncongested east-west course through the region would be a great boost to tourism. Counties are beginning to recognize the benefits of maintaining and touting their historically significant sites. An improved highway could help make eastern North Carolina a destination for history buffs, he said.

"We could use a route around our battlefields. If we had control, we'd make the battlefield conveniently located. But we have existing businesses on 70, and we don't want to damage them economically," Clark said.

Another issue that local governments need to keep up with is the new roadway's effect on the environment. Much of the highway crosses environmentally sensitive wetlands and large sections of farmland, he noted.

"The further east you get, there are more environmental issues," Smith said.