Four-laning funds halfway there

Published 8:15 am Thursday, April 1, 2010

Community Editor

NEW BERN — The Highway 17 Association still has work to do.
During the association’s annual meeting Tuesday at the New Bern Riverfront Convention Center, Marc Finlayson, the association’s executive director, said the N.C. Department of Transportation has commited about half the funds needed to completely four-lane U.S. Highway 17 in North Carolina — from Virginia to South Carolina.
The highway weaves through 13 eastern North Carolina counties, including Beaufort County. Portions of the highway have just two lanes, including a 30-mile stretch between Washington and New Bern and a 20-mile stretch between Washington and Williamston.
According to its Web site, the association’s mission is to assure, through collective action and constancy of purpose, that the inclusion and funding of all unfunded portions of the U.S. 17 corridor shall be part of DOT’s Transportation Improvement Program.
State Highway Administrator Terry Gibson assured the association that DOT is committed to four-laning the highway, but he said, in doing so, there are challenges, economically and environmentally.
“Our needs far outweigh our ability to put things in place,” he said.
Among the environmental challenges are protecting the habitat of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which finds its home in marshland along the corridor, and ensuring the safety of wildlife in the Croatan National Forest, which encompasses a stretch of the highway.
Gibson said Gov. Beverly Perdue’s new way of prioritizing DOT projects will not take funding away from eastern North Carolina or the U.S. 17 corridor.
“You’re not going to lose money in the process,” he told the crowd of several hundred. “The equity formula still applies.”
He said projects will be chosen based on crash statistics and pavement-condition ratings, among other variables. Projects with the highest needs will be put on DOT’s five-year TIP.
According to Gibson and Finlayson, DOT currently has an unprecedented five U.S. 17 projects under construction simultaneously. Gibson said DOT is working to move those projects forward, including the four-laning of the highway from Washington to Williamston and the construction of the New Bern bypass.
“We have a long way to go — that’s the bottom line,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who delivered the event’s keynote address, touched on the economic effects a four-laned U.S. 17 would have on eastern North Carolina. Four-laning the highway would improve trade routes to the area’s seaports and access to its military bases, including Camp Lejune and Cherry Point. It also would promote tourism to the region’s Crystal Coast, he said.
“It (U.S. 17) has always been a main artery for coastal tourists,” Dalton said.
That’s why, according to Dalton, DOT has designated the highway a “strategic road.” As chairman of the Governor’s Logistics Task Force, Dalton said he would be looking into ways to connect the state to the global economy, including use of the “Ocean Highway.”
The task force has been charged with examining the state’s roads, highways, ports, airports and railroads to find better ways to move people and goods efficiently so the state can be an attractive business location.
Dalton said U.S. 17 has helped drive the state’s economy in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. A study by East Carolina University on the economic effects of investment on U.S. 17 reaffirms this assessment.
The study’s executive summary states: on average, investment on U.S. 17 has generated significant effects. The short-term, quantifiable economic effects include increasing growth in output, earnings and employment.
The total output from investment in the highway was $5.5 million, total earnings were $1 million and 20,489 jobs were created. The study looked at the years from 1989 to 2007.
Dalton credited the association for its hard work in improving the highway, creating jobs and helping the economy of eastern North Carolina.
“You, in this room, are a model of cooperation and collaboration,” he told the audience.
Attending the meeting were Rep. Arthur Williams (D-Beaufort), Beaufort County commissioners Ed Booth and Robert Cayton, Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill, Washington Mayor Archie Jennings, Washington councilmen Gil Davis, Ed Moultrie, Doug Mercer and Bobby Roberson and Washington City Manager James C. Smith. Cayton was named vice president of the association for the 2010-2011 term.
Association President Lionel Midgett, an Onslow County commissioner, said, “Driving from Jacksonville to Washington, I’m reminded how bad we need Highway 17 to improve. We will continue to press to make (the highway) four lanes from Virginia to South Carolina.”