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Windsor Bypass in full swing

WINDSOR – The signs of progress are very clear.

Mammoth earth-moving machines are chewing into the fertile Bertie County soil.

Homes, attached to mega-horsepower vehicles, are being uprooted from their foundations and moved to new locations.

Men and machines are cutting a swath of right-of-way, some of it through the heart of the Cashie River basin.

All of this is in an effort to build the U.S. 17 Windsor bypass. But while local officials are pleased over the fact that the bypass holds promise of economic development, they remain worried over the future of strip of asphalt known as the “Ocean Highway.”

Windsor Mayor Bob Spivey and Bertie Economic Development Director Steve Biggs addressed the Bertie Board of Commissioners on Monday night in regards to U.S. 17, a route they called the “forgotten highway.”

“We are excited about the possibilities for economic growth with the Windsor bypass,” Spivey said in reference to the project that is now in full swing. “It has the potential to bring tourism, business and industry to Bertie County.”

However, Mayor Spivey and Biggs stressed that for U.S. 17 to become a popular route of travel, there is a need to have the thoroughfare four-laned from what Spivey described as “border-to-border.”

The Mayor pointed out that while two-thirds of U.S. 17 is four-laned through North Carolina, there are seven major

which remain two-laned.

Each is currently unfunded in the state’s TIP (Transportation Improvement Plan).

“U.S. 17 must be four-laned from border-to-border to full the full effect of economic growth,” Biggs noted. “Motorists use I-95 as their major north-south mode of travel in order to intersect with the major east-west routes (U.S. 64 and U.S. 70). U.S. 17 also connects with 64 and 70 and if 17 is completely four-laned, then we would see an increased flow of traffic which would bring more travelers and more businesses to the towns and counties along the 17 corridor.”

Both men pointed out that a large portion of the state’s historic attractions are located along or close to U.S. 17. The state’s top tourist attraction, the beaches along the NC coastline, is easily accessible off U.S. 17. In addition, two major military bases n Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point Air Station n would benefit from the complete four-laning of U.S. 17.

Biggs went on to point out that eastern North Carolina is the poorest region of the state partly due to the lack of a major four-lane highway. He said economic indicators show that eastern ‘Carolina poverty levels average 20-plus percent while the unemployment rate historically exceeds the state average.

Meanwhile, the longer the state waits to add the remaining two-lane portions of U.S. 17 to the TIP, the higher the costs.

“As it stands right now, the state is saying it does not have enough money to complete the four-laning of U.S. 17,” Spivey said.

He went on to say that the seven unfunded U.S. 17 projects cover 56.5 miles, the majority of which are south of Washington towards New Bern and Jacksonville. If all were funded today, the price tag would stand at $455.5 million.

In an effort to draw attention to the “border-to-border” effort, the Highway 17 Association is soliciting support from towns and counties along the road in order to hire a full-time person to seek state and federal funds to complete the project.

“This is our last chance to unify the east,” Biggs noted.

The Association is seeking $200,000 to create and maintain a presence in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. from where the funds will be sought.

Bertie’s portion of that effort amounts to $10,000. Spivey said the Town of Windsor had committed $2,000, leaving the county with supplying the remaining $8,000.

“They (Spivey and Biggs) are putting this idea before you to consider including in the 2006-07 budget,” County Manager Zee Lamb said.

Commissioner Wallace Perry motioned to include the $8,000 request in the budget discussions that begin in April. His motion passed without objection.