State asks public to prioritize projects, US 17 among them

Published 7:23 pm Friday, October 28, 2016

North Carolina Department of Transportation is asking for the public’s help deciding which road projects should be on the list of things to do for the next 10 years — and there’s one project county officials are hoping Beaufort County residents will weigh in on.

“It’s the Board of Commissioners top priority, and the public, they need to turn out and be heard, because this is the opportunity to do that with this public hearing,” said Beaufort County Manager Brian Alligood.

Alligood is referring to the completion of U.S. Highway 17, which is a four-lane highway running north to south through most of eastern North Carolina, including Beaufort County. But the remaining sections to be completed are in Beaufort, Craven and Martin counties, and completion could boost the county’s ability to attract industry.

“It’s (completion) is good for Beaufort County because of the access it brings for business and movement of goods and services. It is the primary north-south corridor for North Carolina until you get over I-95,” Alligood said.

But because of State Transportation Improvement Program is data-driven and designed to put priority on projects that would alleviate traffic congestion, many eastern North Carolina projects have been ignored since the new formula was implemented.

Alligood said there’s nothing holding up the completion of four lanes of U.S. 17 — the project has already been designed and all environmental studies have been done and the project approved.

“It is as close to being deemed a “shovel-ready” project as it can be,” Alligood said.

Before the Connect NC bond was finalized transportation projects were a major part of the bond, and approved by Gov. Pat McCrory. Primary among those projects was the completion of U.S. Highway 17, creating a four-lane highway from the South Carolina to Virginia borders, and the only eastern North Carolina major highway running north-south. The Connect NC bond was passed by referendum in the March primary, but the transportation part of the bond was left out, focusing instead on higher education facilities’ projects, state parks improvements and water and sewer infrastructure projects across the state.

With the current Strategic Transportation formula, the U.S. 17 projects are low on the list of priorities, which cover ranking on three levels: statewide, regional and division.

A DOT report measures released in late August shows where U.S. 17’s completion stands in all three categories. At the statewide level, the U.S. 17 bypass from Old Ford to south of Williamston, which carries a price tag of $72.1 million, has hundreds of projects that rank above it, and measures only 33.85 points on a scale of 100 points for projects statewide. On a regional level, the number point system gives that particular piece of the project 32.14 points on a scale of 70 points, and on a division level, it ranks 23.28 points on a scale of 50. The pieces of U.S. 17 around New Bern in Craven County don’t measure much better, which leads to a pretty bleak picture for having the four-lane highway completed in the next decade.

“Because of the way the transportation formula is designed in North Carolina, that project will be never done, because there’s not enough traffic on it,” Alligood said.

While the Board of Commissioners has passed a resolution asking the General Assembly to reconsider its strategic planning formula and move away from funding transportation based on congestion — which tilts preference in the direction of metropolitan areas — the general public can let NCDOT know that U.S. 17 should be a priority, and important to the economic health of the region, Alligood said.

The public comment period about the Strategic Transportation Implementation Program’s projects runs until Nov. 7. There are three ways by which residents can submit their comments: by calling Division 2 contact Jeff Cabaniss at 252-439-2800, mailing comments to NCDOT Division 2 Office, 105 Pactolus Highway N.C. 33, Greenville, NC 27835, or following this link: and scrolling down to send an online message.