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Bypass foes focus on NC 11

AHOSKIE – It was music to his ears.

When Kent Williams asked Kim Gillespie what road she used to travel to Ahoskie on Tuesday, the NC Department of Transportation official answered, “NC 11.”

“Need I say more,” quipped Williams, co-spokesperson for Citizens Against the Ahoskie Bypass as he addressed a crowd estimated at 400 that packed the Hertford County High School cafeteria to learn more about this highly debated road project.

What they did learn was a strategy to eliminate DOT’s plan to build a US 13 bypass around Ahoskie, and eventually a four-lane road from Powellsville to Windsor, and shift the road improvement focus to NC 11.

However, that effort will not come without a struggle and Williams wanted everyone to understand that fact.

“Some of us here tonight will lose everything they own, everything that took generations to build and it’s for all the wrong reason,” Williams said. “We have an alternative….Highway 11.”

He continued, “This will be a long, hard fight. It will be won through the power of the people who believe in themselves and believe they can change things. Public opinion will be the driving force behind this.”

From the statements made by two local elected officials at Tuesday’s meeting, those fighting the bypass have allies.

“We’re here to support the citizens of Hertford County,” said Howard Hunter III, chairman of the Hertford County Board of Commissioners. “We do not want to see houses taken, churches taken, cemeteries moved and businesses relocated. We’re with you on this.”

In a complete about-face of their wishes last year, Ahoskie Mayor Linda Blackburn reported to the audience that the town’s elected leaders, at their meeting earlier on Tuesday, approved a resolution rescinding their support of bypass alternative #12 and threw their support behind four-laning NC 11 from Ahoskie to Bethel.

“It’s the best thing for Ahoskie, Hertford County and the region,” Blackburn said of the NC 11 proposal. “The Ahoskie Town Council stands with you.”

District 4 State Senator Ed Jones was also in attendance. He stood squarely in the middle of the two proposals, saying he did not want to see this issue cause hard feelings between the opposing sides. That statement was made in reference to the Ahoskie bypass support in Windsor.

“It’s not fair or is it right to stand here and say that (Windsor Mayor) Bob Spivey doesn’t want what’s best for his town,” Senator Jones said. “He supports the US 13 project. What I will promise you is that I will not let politics play a role in this. I’ve asked DOT to take another look at US 13 and NC 11. They are the experts so let them decide what’s best.”

As has been a concern all along for the bypass opponents, the issue of DOT project money was a point of interest during Tuesday’s meeting. Gillespie explained that the US 13 bypass money (estimated at $111.2 million) is earmarked specifically for that project. That money, she said, was in the state’s highway trust fund, a financial stream that currently does not include any money for NC 11 improvements.

Bypass opponents argue that when NC 11 was built 30 years ago, additional right-of-way was purchased to possibly expand the road to four lanes if needed in the future. The opponents say the future is now….four-laning NC 11 is the right move since the additional right-of-way already exists, thus preventing uprooting families, farms and businesses as well as saving the state the estimated $8.85 million earmarked for right-of-way acquisition along the Ahoskie bypass.

To make NC 11 more enticing, the bypass opponents want to rename that road US 13 Alternate/NC 11 in an effort to shift the US 13 funds to that project. Later in the meeting, Gillespie said that effort would have to be funneled through local officials.

“If you want to change the road (signage), you must relay that message to your local officials,” she said. “They would have to write letters (of support) to DOT and state legislators.”

“It’s like I said earlier, public opinion can change this,” Williams said. “Contact your local officials and let them know how you feel about this.”

Prompted by a question from the audience, Gillespie did admit that the early process of determining which of the eight proposed alternative bypass routes bear further study had been narrowed to four plus the addition of one new alternative. She said alternatives 1, 2, 2A and 12, all a part of the original study, would be further analyzed. Additionally, alternative #19, which carries the bypass further down NC 11 south of NC 561 before looping around town beginning near the NC 42 intersection, has been added.

As far as future plans of the Citizens Against the Ahoskie Bypass, Williams said another meeting will be held next month (date, time, place TBA). Additionally, the group solicited volunteers to head committees for public relations, petitions, signs and letter/phone campaigns.

Also, the group is in the process of setting up a website. Once active, that web address will be www.ahoskiebypass.com.

DOT officials said it would take up to two years for detailed studies to be completed on the routes which bear further study. From that point, a recommendation will be made on one route.