U.S. 17 effort continues, but faces challenges

Published 1:00 am Friday, March 25, 2011

Efforts to make U.S. Highway 17 a four-lane road throughout its entire length in North Carolina continue, said Marc Finlayson, executive director of the Highway 17 Association, during his appearance before the Washington City Council earlier this month, but not without some challenges.

A new status report on that effort and its influence on local economies is due in April, he said.

Segment A of the Washington bypass project, which is the segment from Chocowinity south to Possum Track Road, is expected to be completed by early summer, Finlayson said.

“It was 83 percent complete as of the end of 2010,” he said.

Segment C, which is the northern segment of the overall bypass project going from Washington to Old Ford, was put out for bids March 15.

“That project will begin shortly,” Finlayson said.

The bypass project has three segments. Segment B, the “freeway” part of the bypass that includes the new bridge over the Tar River, opened to traffic in March 2010.

The Washington area isn’t the only area where U.S. 17 projects are under way.

“We have five projects under construction along the 17 corridor, simultaneously,” Finlayson said. “That is unprecedented. There are 10 projects in all, eight considered bypass or four-lane type projects and two Highway 17 business-type projects. But of the 10, five are under construction, including, of course, (project) 2510 here in Beaufort County.”

Two projects are under way in Craven County, including the southern leg of the New Bern bypass, which should be completed sometime this year, Finlayson said. The other project is the improvement of a section of U.S. 17 just north of Bridgeton, he said. A couple of projects to relieve traffic congestion on U.S. 17 are under way in Onslow County, he said. The U.S. 17 bypass around Wilmington is under way, too, Finlayson noted.

A schedule for improvements to U.S. 17 in Jones County, including the four-laning of U.S. 17 throughout the entire county, has been adopted, he said.

Important projects

Those projects are important to eastern North Carolina, contends one of the state’s top economic developers.

“As someone who talks with businesses every day, one of their priorities continues to be infrastructure, and critical access to main highway arteries, ports, air, rail, freight and other vital infrastructure,” reads a copy of the remarks that N.C. Commerce Secretary J. Keith Crisco delivered at the annual meeting of the Highway 17 Association earlier this month. “That’s why the Highway 17 Association’s actions are very much aligned with meeting the critical economic development needs in this state.”

“There are other key benefits to improving 17 č greater safety for drivers, better traffic mobility, easier movement of troops and materials by our military, and more efficient hurricane evacuation ╔ and this list goes on,” he said. “Right there at the top of that list is improving the economic future of the corridor. The improvement of Highway 17 will give a major boost to local economies.”

“A big step to improving the economic growth of a region is to make important investments in infrastructure č it’s a way of closing any economic development gaps that may exist,” he said. “Earlier I was talking about job creation. The Highway 17 improvement means jobs in the short term and the long term.”

“The project will lead to the retention and creation of construction jobs in the short term while the different phases of the project are under way,” Crisco said. “In the long term, the improvements will mean a greater success in attracting new businesses, retaining existing businesses and improving employment capacity.”

Fiscal challenges

Finlayson, at the March 14 council meeting, said he hopes expected cuts to the N.C. Department of Transportation’s budget won’t affect “project delivery, particularly along the 17 corridor or eastern North Carolina, generally.”

Finlayson said new initiatives to cap the tax on gasoline could affect transportation projects throughout the state. If that happens, it will cost the state anywhere from half a billion dollars to $2 billion in revenue, which could be used for construction and maintenance, over the next several years, he said. If the cap is approved, that would save motorists some money at the gas pump, he said.

“So, that’s the trade-off, a small benefit to us taxpaying gas consumers versus the significant cut to funds available (for road projects),” Finlayson said.

There’s another interesting issue developing, he said.

“Metropolitan legislators are continuing to push for a change in the equity formula, which is the formula by which DOT distributes money among the 14 highway divisions across the state,” Finlayson noted.

One possible change would be to give more weight to the population piece of that formula, he said. Such a change would benefit the state’s more urban areas where population growth outpaces population growth in the state’s more rural areas, he said. Changing the formula as proposed would result in less funding for road projects in rural areas, Finlayson said.

“It’s going to take a stout effort on behalf of the more rural legislators representing the east and west to maintain the current distribution formula,” Finlayson said.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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