05/12/06 — Counties add to plans for U.S. 70

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Counties add to plans for U.S. 70

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on May 12, 2006 1:56 PM

Officials from counties and municipalities throughout eastern North Carolina agreed Thursday afternoon that the long-term future of a U.S. 70 corridor lies in the creation of bypasses and interchanges similar to a freeway.

Representatives from Lenoir, Craven, Carteret, Jones and Wayne counties and Kinston, Goldsboro, New Bern and the state Department of Transportation met at the Goldsboro Country Club for the monthly Highway 70 Corridor Commission meeting, and the group decided on constructing long-term solutions to the highway after discussions among themselves and Kimley-Horn representatives.

Wayne County officials completed a contract to secure Kimley-Horn's consultants, making them contractually bound to the firm for $100,000, Wayne County Manager Lee Smith said. The other counties financially supporting the project -- Lenoir, Craven and Carteret -- will provide $20,000 each to repay Wayne.

The city of Goldsboro has pledged $20,000 for the consultants and the commission secured another $20,000 from North Carolina's Eastern Region.

Johnston County, which is considered part of the U.S. 70 corridor stretching from Clayton to Morehead City, has not agreed to be a part of the commission. Smith said he hopes, as the commission gains momentum, Johnston officials will join the group.

Jones County officials have agreed to the U.S. 70 corridor conceptually, but can't provide money because U.S. 17 is a priority for them, Jones County Commission Jesse Ray Eubanks said. The commission's bylaws were changed to allow Jones as a non-paying member of the group, and the members of the commission would work together to help improve conditions along U.S. 17.

"If we don't have support from all of the counties on 17, then I don't see how we can support this," Eubanks said.

On Thursday, commission members divided into three groups to discuss the most important issues for a future U.S. 70 -- highway safety, travel time and the highway's economic vitality.

Kimley-Horn representative Roger Henderson said discussing these issues provides the commission with an opportunity to decide the future of the highway.

"What does Highway 70 want to be when it grows up? Better yet, you -- as the parent -- what do you want it to be," Henderson asked.

U.S. 70 currently has 264 median openings that could become stop lights. Each time a traffic light is constructed, Kimley-Horn representative Michael Rutkowski said it causes more delays for travelers, which can exceed 50,000 vehicles per day.

The amount of vehicles on the highway also causes a massive amount of accidents, Kimley-Horn representative Todd Delk said. From 2001 to 2004, 4,524 accidents were reported along U.S. 70, including 42 fatalities and 179 crashes involving intoxicated drivers. Almost 38 miles of U.S. 70 have crash rates that are higher than the state average.

The variations in the speed limit and excessive stop lights help cause some of the accidents, Delk said, so the commission should look for long-term ways to eliminate the problem.

The solution for improving travel time and safety along the highway, Rutkowski said, is the construction of interchanges. Interchanges would also help the highway's economic vitality, Henderson said.

Although building an interchange can cost up to $10 million, Henderson said a better highway could be a magnet for industry, which would create a larger tax base for the region.

"Our ultimate goal is this -- create a tax base and jobs," Smith said.

The commission unanimously voted for the U.S. 70 corridor to be a highway that greatly reduces travel time, lowers the crash rate and has planned development along the highway.

Henderson told the commission that it would be a costly goal with the construction of interchanges and bypasses, but it is a goal that each commission member agrees with, which will help when the group presents the idea to state legislators.

"It will take everyone working to throw onto the table and to go for it. It's no good if it's a vision. It needs to be real," Carteret County Manager Tom Steepy said.

The next commission meeting is scheduled for the second Thursday in June at 2 p.m. The meeting will be held in Carteret County, but a location has not been determined.