10/02/07 — U.S. 117 gets OK to allow trucks

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U.S. 117 gets OK to allow trucks

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 2, 2007 2:13 PM

A few months after the first tickets began appearing, the new U.S. 117 bypass is once again open for business for truckers hauling trailers more than 48 feet long.

On Friday, a committee of the Federal Highway Administration approved the interstate designation for the roadway connecting U.S. 70 in Wayne County with Interstate 95 in Wilson. Now the stretch of U.S. 117 and U.S. 264 will be called I-795.

"We now actually have an interstate. It will be a spur of I-95," said Kevin Lacey, a state traffic engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation.

The next step will be adding the signage along the roadway and along U.S. 70, U.S. 264 and I-95.

But of more immediate importance, Lacey said that "as of (Monday) we have requested the Highway Patrol enforce it as an interstate."

The state Highway Patrol, after years of more or less ignoring the regulations concerning where tractor trailers longer than 48 feet may run, had begun an aggressive road safety campaign earlier this year, ticketing truckers with 53-foot trailers on U.S. 117 and other non-approved routes.

The problem is that under the 1982 federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act, trucks longer than 48 feet are only allowed to travel on interstate highways and other state-approved routes because of concerns of off-tracking -- a condition in which the rear wheels of a larger trailer do not follow in the tracks of the front wheels when turning. Today, though, the 53-foot trailers have become the industry standard.

In Wayne County, until this recent decision on the U.S. 117 bypass, the only approved route was U.S. 70.

For Wayne Aycock, former chairman of the Wayne County Planning Board and employee at Wilco Transportation, securing the right to use the bypass, however, is just a first step.

"It'll benefit us some, and it's a step in the right direction" he said. "But it's not going to solve the problem. The next thing we need is for the state to designate the rest of 117 from Goldsboro (U.S. 70) to I-40 in Sampson County as an STAA route."

To do that, though, will take a little more time.

Currently, Lacey said, there have been several requests made for reasonable access on the rest of U.S. 117. He did not, however, say who made the requests or for which section of the highway they were for. Applications also have been made for N.C. 55.

Reasonable access requests, he explained, are point-specific and cannot be used to open up the whole highway. But, he added, in the case of U.S. 117, separate applications could be made from a terminal in Mount Olive to U.S. 70, and from that terminal to I-40.

The only hitch, though, is that only trucks going to and from that terminal would be able allowed on the highway.

The more comprehensive option, therefore, is to apply for designation.

That, however, is much harder to get.

Whereas the reasonable access only requires a 90-day investigation before DOT can make a decision, the full designation has many more steps and must receive approval from every municipality affected -- not an easy process, Lacey said.

In fact, he continued, in three and a half years with the state, he has only seen one request approved, and it had been attempted for more than 10 years.

"The vast majority of requests fail because one of the municipalities denies it," he said.

But he does expect DOT to make a decision on the reasonable access requests by December.

State Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, also is hopeful that by having U.S. 117 bypass designated as an interstate, it could pave the way for the rest of the highway to be brought up to interstate standards.

"I think this will be a good incentive," he said. "We've got to go forward with that."