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Construction still years away

By By MIKE VOSS Contributing Editor
The North Carolina Department of Transportation has chosen its preferred route for the proposed U.S. Highway 17 Bypass around Washington.
NCDOT spokesman Bill Jones confirmed Wednesday that Alternative B, a western bypass of Washington's core, had been selected. The decision was made in January, according to Jones. Alternative B is the route closest to the existing U.S. 17 corridor in Beaufort County.
Thompson said NCDOT has been known to delay a project for a year to two because of funding matters. Thompson explained that should not be a problem this time, because Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, president pro tempore of the state Senate, got NCDOT to agree not to let that happen with this project.
Thompson said much of the truck traffic that flows through Washington's core likely will use the bypass, cutting down on traffic and traffic-related noise along one of the city's main commercial corridors. Thompson also said the bypass would be an improvement to the city's road system, something tourists, prospective residents and potential industries look at when considering coming to an area. The bypass could be useful in helping attract those elements to the city and county, he noted.
However, Thompson said the route selected is not his personal choice.
The Beaufort County Economic Development Commission had no "personal choice," he added. The commission's interest was to expedite the route-selection process, he said.
NCDOT proposes to widen portions of U.S. 17 to a four-lane, divided highway and construct a four-lane freeway on a new location near Washington and Chocowinity.
According to the NCDOT map, the freeway part of the project would begin just south of Hamilton Beach Road (SR 1536) and swing west of Washington's core, cross the Tar River, swing east of Chocowinity and tie in with U.S. 17 just south of Price Road.
According to information on the map, the freeway segment of the project is 6.1 miles long with an estimated construction cost of $13 million (excluding planning, rights-of-way acquisitions and other components). The proposed project is part of the U.S. 17 Intrastate Corridor. It is designed to improve 14.95 miles of U.S. 17 in Beaufort County, according to Jones, who estimates the total project cost at nearly $210,000,000.
NCDOT had been looking at three alternatives that included a route following the existing U.S. 17 through Chocowinity and bypassing Washington to the north, a similar route with a short bypass south of Chocowinity and a route bypassing both Chocowinity and Washington farther to the north.
Some Beaufort County residents had pushed for an eastern bypass, saying it made more sense from economic and environmental points of view. An eastern route was added to NCDOT's list of alternative routes, but it was removed later. Other people were concerned a western bypass would adversely affect wetlands adjacent to the Tar River.
Jones said the final environmental impact statement on the selected route should be completed about January 2004. Rights-of-way acquisition likely would begin in 2005, and construction probably would start in 2006, according to Jones.
The overall cost includes about $5 million for wetlands mitigation, Jones noted. The freeway segment will cross wetlands on either side of the Tar River, requiring NCDOT to mitigate the freeway's disturbance of those wetlands.
Funding for the bypass would be taken from the annually appropriated National Highway System allocations. Originally, the project was to be funded by the state Highway Trust Fund.
The preferred route would result in relocating about 100 homes, churches and businesses, according to NCDOT information released last year. The preferred route includes an interchange at U.S. Highway 264 near Whispering Pines Road.
Efforts to improve U.S. 17 began to increase in the 1960s, when a group of Eastern North Carolina residents formed the U.S. Highway 17 Transportation Association to lobby for the widening of the highway from Virginia to South Carolina. In 1989, the state Legislature ratified the N.C. Highway Trust Fund, which included U.S. 17. The trust fund was set up to widen several North Carolina highways to four lanes and create loops around large cities.