Board tangles over U.S. 17 assessment

Published 2:52 pm Thursday, September 9, 2010

Staff Writer

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners voted 5-1 Tuesday to adopt a resolution of support for the Highway 17 Association.
The nonprofit association is trying to generate “at least $250,000” for a comprehensive economic-impact study of the U.S. Highway 17 corridor.
Along with its local-government partners, the association favors fully expanding U.S. 17 to four lanes from the Virginia-North Carolina line to the North Carolina-South Carolina border.
Commissioner Stan Deatherage, the board’s vice chairman, voted against the resolution.
“It’s part of the wasteful stimulus dollars,” Deatherage commented.
The study will not be sponsored in whole or in part by Beaufort County, said Commissioner Robert Cayton, who introduced the resolution, with a second from Commissioner Ed Booth.
The money will be culled from foundations and other sources, “not from Beaufort County,” Cayton said.
“I think it’s safe to say that Beaufort County is not being asked for any money,” he reiterated.
Cayton serves as vice president of the association, according to the group’s website.
Commissioner Hood Richardson called the four-laning study “a political issue,” and referenced his election-year opponent, state Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, whom Richardson is challenging for the District 1 Senate seat.
Richardson and Deatherage, both Republicans, indicated they’re convinced the $250,000 will be derived from government sources.
“A lot of consultants in Charlotte are going to make a lot of money,” Richardson said.
In a letter requesting support for the resolution, Mark Finlayson, executive director of the Highway 17 Association, wrote the entity is “exploring every potential appropriation, grant, agency and foundation in order to secure funding in the amount of at least $250,000.”
“We are respectfully asking our local government and regional economic development partners to pass resolutions of support for our efforts,” Finlayson wrote. “We understand without doubt that funders will appreciate, acknowledge and respect support for this effort from all of eastern North Carolina. It is truly a regional project, but with the benefit of also having specific, local value, too.”
In a brief interview, Finlayson said the association intends to apply for funds for the study through the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The association is talking with state-government sources about the possibility of obtaining matching funds for the study, he said.
“We’re seeking local-government support for the initiative, not local-government funding,” Finlayson explained.
Economic-development officials have said finishing the four-laning of U.S. 17 would help open the state’s eastern region to more tourism and industrial opportunities and enhance safety for motorists.
Cayton allowed his motion to be amended to read that Beaufort County would contribute no more than $35,000 annually to the association.
The county’s contribution to the association was recently trimmed by $10,000, said County Manager Paul Spruill.
“Why do you have to spend money to prove what you already know?” Richardson asked, speaking to the widely held belief that U.S. 17 isn’t wide enough throughout.
In response, Cayton suggested the study would quiet skeptics who say the widening isn’t necessary.
The too-narrow parts of the highway have local effects, he shared.
Around 50 miles of the road — between Washington and Williamston and Washington and New Bern — consists of two lanes, Cayton pointed out.