Bypass not top priority

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 8, 2008

AHOSKIE – As the debate continues over the pros and cons of the Ahoskie bypass, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald has learned the proposed US 13 route around the town isn’t the number one choice on a priority list of regional highway projects.

As a matter of fact, it didn’t even finish in second place on the Peanut Belt Rural Planning Organization’s (RPO) “wish list.” Nor was it the third choice, or even the fourth.

Of all the projects discussed at a May 10, 2007 Peanut Belt RPO meeting in Jackson, the proposed US 13 Ahoskie bypass placed fifth among a list of 10.

According to the list, the US 158 widening project from the Murfreesboro bypass to Winton was number one on the list with 12 points. Widening US 158 from Littleton to Roanoke Rapids placed second (11 points) followed by a proposal to widen US 13 from Powellsville to Windsor (10.5 points). A service road running parallel to I-95 near Roanoke Rapids placed fourth with 10 points followed by the Ahoskie bypass with 9.5 points.

Rounding out the top-10 were: tie for 6th n two projects that widen US 158 from Weldon to the Murfreesboro bypass with bypasses of Jackson and Conway (9 points each); tie for 8th n widening US 158 from I-85 in Warren County to Littleton and widening US 13 from Winton to the state line (7 points each); and 10th n widening to four lanes NC 11 from NC 903 in Martin County to the Ahoskie bypass (6.25 points).

The points rating system was based on several criteria, including current volume capacity ratio (traffic on a road compared to what it’s designed to have); water, sewer, gas infrastructure (to promote economic development); significantly improves direct access to a major employment centers (points based on number of employees at a business in a major employment center), direct access to one of more highways, interstate or intrastate; scope of project; completes a total project; or improves a severe safety problem.

Hertford County Commissioner Johnnie Ray Farmer, Vice-Chairman of the Peanut Belt RPO, said he was a bit baffled over how the points were assigned.

“One of the future projects on that list, the four-laning of US 13 from Powellsville to Windsor, was rated much higher than the NC 11 project,” Farmer noted. “Even with right-of-way that was purchased over 30 years ago, NC 11 was lower on the list. That’s just not right. How can a road with right-of-way already available to widen to four lanes play second fiddle to a road without any pre-existing right-of-way?”

While Farmer knew that pre-existing right-of-way was not among the criteria, he said NC 11 didn’t receive a “fair shake” in the points process. He said it does have gas infrastructure, direct access to major employment centers (particularly the Greenville area), is directly tied in to other major highways and should rank high among roads with traffic safety issues.

“But yet it generated only six and a quarter points; something’s not right with that,” he said.

Farmer said he favored pushing the R-2900 (NC 11) project ahead of R-2206 (Ahoskie bypass project). He, along with the remainder the Hertford County Board of Commissioners, recently approved a resolution in support of widening NC 11 to four lanes and completing that project ahead of any planned improvements to US 13, including the Ahoskie bypass.

At the May 10 RPO meeting, Farmer lobbied for NC 11, citing the heavy truck traffic on that road as well as its danger to motorists, pointing out two fatalities over a one-year period. He gave fellow RPO board members Hertford County’s priority list as well as letters from Hertford County citizens and businesses, all in support of NC 11.

“Personally, I based my priorities on what the citizens and business owners of Hertford County want,” Farmer stressed. “No one from within my area has told me they want to see US 13 improved, but I do have plenty of documentation supporting NC 11.”

At the May meeting, Peanut Belt RPO Chairman Bob Spivey, mayor of Windsor, turned the chair over to board coordinator/secretary Ann Whitley so he could participate in the discussion. Spivey, a noted proponent of the Ahoskie bypass, said it would be a mistake to divert traffic away from a US highway. He added that NC 11 is not eligible for Trust Fund money (the pot of funding used for highway projects statewide) and that other RPO’s have supported US 13. Spivey also said he feels that to deviate from the adopted rating system would be a mistake.

Farmer countered, saying that Hertford County is not trying to take anything away from anybody. Rather, he voiced his concern about safety issues on NC 11 and that it was a major artery to transport patients to medical facilities in Greenville.

At the end of the discussion, Robert Partin, now the former mayor of Scotland Neck, motioned to adopt the priority list as presented. Bertie County Commissioner Wallace Perry offered a second.

Spivey, Partin, Perry, Conway Mayor Brian Bolton and Northampton County Commissioner Virginia Spruill voted in favor of the measure with Farmer casting the only “no.”

Voting members not present at the meeting included Ahoskie Mayor Linda Blackburn and Halifax County Commissioner Gene Minton.

The Peanut Belt RPO serves Bertie, Halifax, Hertford and Northampton counties.