Board committed to border-to-border US 17

Published 9:15 pm Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Beaufort County Commissioners are on board with continuing support of the Highway 17 Commission, even as it extends its reach to include promotion of U.S. Highway 64.

In the March meeting of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, Marc Finlayson, the director of the renamed Highway 17/64 Commission, spoke to the board about progress on the highway and the push to expand its scope to U.S. 64, finding partners in more legislative districts along the U.S. 64 corridor to potentially broaden the organization’s influence in Raleigh. Finlayson said the move is an effort to recoup funding for U.S. 17 completion, lost when the General Assembly imposed the Strategic Mobility Plan that shifted focus from connectivity to decongestion for North Carolina’s highways.

“The rural divisions got scalped. The metropolitan divisions profited,” Finlayson told commissioners regarding the Strategic Mobility Formula that has siphoned DOT construction money from the rural to the urban.  “I think there’s some possibility for some legislative adjustment … to give more weight to our projects.”

The Highway 17 Commission was created in 1975 on an ad hoc basis, Finlayson said, but in 2006, it was formalized into an organization advocating for the completion of a South Carolina to Virginia Highway 17. Since, U.S. 17 has received more than $360 million in funding from the state and 11 four-lane segments have opened, while the New Bern to Jacksonville segment is currently under construction. But there are gaps where the work hasn’t been done, including a 10-mile stretch between Washington and Williamston that would cost an estimated $54 million, as well as a projected $72.5 million segment from Chocowinity to Vanceboro. Incorporation of the Strategic Mobility Plan has further hampered efforts to get it done, Finlayson said.

Beaufort County was one of the Highway 17 Commission’s founding members and the Board of Commissioners has continued to support Finlayson’s advocacy at approximately $20,000 a year, when other counties have dropped out once their section of U.S. 17 was completed, according to Finlayson.

“It is a priority for the Board of Commissioners,” said Beaufort County Manager Brian Alligood. “They’re committed to (the highway) being completed. The tough part about it … the very difficult piece of 17 is the funding to finish it, and the reason is the new transportation formula.”

Alligood said under the new plan, funding for DOT projects has been broken down to a three-tier system: Tier 1, projects face statewide competition; Tier 2, regional competition; and Tier 3, divisional competition.

“When you’re looking at it on a statewide level, (U.S. 17) doesn’t compete well. Relieving congestion is scored higher,” Alligood said.

On a regional level, the Beaufort County U.S. 17 projects are competing with areas around Wilmington and Fayetteville — also prioritized due to more congestion — leaving only one current funding option.

“It’s (under) projects that the division themselves would fund and they don’t have the funds to do it,” Alligood said.

Commissioner Robert Belcher is well versed in the issue, having served on one of 20 Rural Transportation Planning Organizations in the state, created to address and improve rural area transportation planning.

“They took the equity formula … and have done away with it. Now it’s based on merit. (Urban regions) are going to always be more meritorious than we are. … It’s very difficult when they have more representatives from Wake County than we have in eastern North Carolina,” Belcher said in the meeting. “We’re fighting an uphill battle when it changed from equity formula to merit based. That’s why we’ve got Marc. He’s up there fighting for this.”

Completion of a four-lane U.S. 17 from South Carolina to Virginia has the potential to change the economic landscape of eastern North Carolina, according to an economic impact report by the Highway 17 Commission.

“If you think about the north-south route, if you look at north-south traffic, you’ve got to go over to (Interstate) 95 to find any straight, four-lane, quality access. This, (U.S.) 17, is the strategic corridor throughout this part of the state,” Alligood said.

The report states that a completed U.S. 17 would attract industry, much more daily traffic, and therefore more business, to gas stations, restaurants, hotels and similar establishments, ultimately creating more jobs in a region where the unemployment rates are historically above the state average.

Beaufort County commissioners only concern with the inclusion of U.S. 64 in the scope of the organization is whether priority within the Highway 17/64 Commission will shift to U.S. 64 projects.

“As long as I’m in this seat, that will not be the case,” Finlayson told commissioners.