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Unanswered question

AHOSKIE – Linda Blackburn is still waiting for an answer.

On Tuesday night, Blackburn, the Mayor of Ahoskie, posed a question to a Department of Transportation official during a meeting of the Citizens Against the Ahoskie Bypass (CAAB) held at Bearfield Primary School.

“We’ve heard that the Ahoskie bypass is good for the region; what I want to know is how is it good for Ahoskie,” Blackburn asked of DOT Project Engineer Jay McInnis. “Hertford County and Ahoskie are a part of this region, so how does bypassing Ahoskie and all the businesses we’ve built here over the years help us?”

On Thursday, Blackburn told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald her question remains unanswered. She also stated once again the opposition the town has for the proposed bypass.

That opposition is not limited to Ahoskie officials.

Hertford County Commissioner John Pierce was among the 175 people attending Tuesday night’s meeting. He said he and the commissioners stand against the bypass.

“We, Ahoskie and Hertford County, stand to lose a lot if this road is built,” Pierce said. “We’ll lose tax base when DOT purchases the homes, businesses and farm land that stands in their way. When you lose tax base, about the only option we have to replace it is to raise taxes and that’s something we do not want to do.”

Pierce said he knows first-hand the harm a bypass can cause.

“Take my little hometown, Winton, for example,” he said. “Highway 13 used to go right through our town. We had businesses that thrived on that traffic. When they moved the Chowan River bridge out to where it is now, that killed Winton. If we didn’t have the Duck Thru or the Red Apple (two convenience stores), we’d have nothing in Winton right now.”

There were other points of contention concerning the proposed bypass heard at Tuesday’s meeting. They included a plea not to uproot old cemeteries and churches; how DOT handles property appraisal and why doesn’t the state consider four-laning NC 11 rather than bypassing Ahoskie using US 13.

One man questioned the NC 11 issue more in depth, noting that road already has existing right-of-way purchased by DOT over 30 years ago.

Upon asking McInnis about the bypass construction costs (estimated at $102.4 million, which is not yet included in the NC Highway Trust Fund), the concerned citizen said, “If you don’t have the money to complete the bypass, why not find the money to complete something DOT started 30 years ago n NC 11.”

Another audience member said it wasn’t fair for Ahoskie area residents to lose their land for the benefit of someone else.

“It just doesn’t make sense for someone else in another county to say we’re going to take your land for their benefit,” she said.

In regards to NC 11, CAAB co-founder and spokesman Kent Williams brought up an interesting point. He displayed documents and maps from 1977, all bearing the same DOT project number n 6.804142. The description of that project, as noted on a DOT letterhead, was the Ahoskie Bypass.

“How many bypasses does it take to get around Ahoskie,” Williams asked. “Here’s one from 1977 on Highway 11 and now the state wants to spend more than $111 million (a figure that includes right-of-way acquisition) to build another one on Highway 13.”

Williams went on to point out that the NC 11 project began in 1970. The DOT description of the Ahoskie Bypass was detailed in a letter dated Sept. 20, 1977 to a landowner who was contesting the price the state would pay for land needed to build the road.

He noted that once the DOT project on NC 11 moved south, the road was designated as the Aulander bypass and then the Lewiston bypass. At the same time, DOT purchased right-of-way on both sides of NC 11 for future improvements, but the road still remains two lanes.

“NC 11 was built to tie Greenville with the Tidewater, Virginia area,” Williams noted. “It bypasses Ahoskie, Aulander and Lewiston. It saves us time, money and gasoline.”

At the end of the 90-minute meeting, McInnis said the DOT plans to have a Draft Environmental Impact Statement ready by July of next year on the five proposed bypass routes around Ahoskie. A public hearing on that Impact Statement is scheduled for later in 2009 followed by DOT naming the preferred corridor by early 2010. Right-of-way acquisition is scheduled for 2012 and construction may begin as early as 2015.