US 158 future plans impact Gates County

Published 9:22 am Thursday, February 14, 2013

GATESVILLE – The ongoing upgrade to US 13 isn’t the only major highway improvement project scheduled for Gates County.

At their meeting here last week, the Gates County Board of Commissioners along with a large group of county citizens in attendance heard more definitive plans by the North Carolina Department of Transportation regarding their plans to widen, from two to four lanes (with a 46-foot median), US 158 from Sunbury to US 17 at Morgan’s Corner in neighboring Pasquotank County.

Right-of-way acquisition, with a budget of $8.4 million, is scheduled to begin in October of 2018. The construction budget of $84 million is unfunded at this time. According to NCDOT’s website, construction is on tap for January of 2030.

The total cost of the project is $92.4 million in current day dollars.

Michelle James is DOT’s Planning Engineer for the project. She attended last week’s commissioners’ meeting to update county leaders and citizens about the Gates County portion of the project. She stated the project is broken into three sections. Section one is in Sunbury; section two is the Great Dismal Swamp; and section three is Morgan’s Corner.

James said there are several factors driving the need to improve this particular stretch of highway.

“We have some issues with 158 regarding the shoulders of the roadway,” James noted. “Right along the Great Dismal Swamp area, the roadway shoulders are not very wide and they are not very stable.

“We’ve had 200 vehicle accidents from January 2008 until Dec. 31, 2012 in that stretch of 158,” she added. “Another thing is that we need to bring this roadway up to par because it is a hurricane evacuation route. This road is also part of the strategic highway corridor. Keeping all this in mind, we want to get this roadway where it’s safe.”

James said other factors to consider in the planning and design process for this project were the natural, historic and community resources.

“In Sunbury, you can see the historic district,” James observed while pointing to a large map on display for her presentation. “We also have natural resources – wetlands and streams – to think about for this project. Community resources to think about are the churches, a fire station and downtown Sunbury along this project.”

James pointed out several alternatives as routes to take this project around Sunbury. She began that portion of her presentation by explaining the impact this project would have on the village if DOT simply decided to widen the existing route to four lanes with a 46-foot median.

“That would wipe out downtown Sunbury,” she said. “For that reason that alternative has been eliminated.”

James said DOT has developed three alternative routes to the south of the current roadway and two to the north. One of those, to the north, sliced through Sunbury’s historic district and was automatically eliminated. That led to another alternative further north, one that James said misses the historic district and most of the wetlands and streams.

“This alternative is still in play,” she said. “There’s another one that’s not that far from downtown Sunbury that does clip the historic district that’s still in the mix.”

She said of the five alternatives, three remain under consideration.

As far as the plans to widen US 158 through the Great Dismal Swamp, James said there are two alternatives.

“The swamp is federally protected and basically we can’t impact it at all with this project,” she stated. “By shifting our plans just a bit to the south (of the roadway), that keeps us from impacting the wildlife refuge.”

That alternative will use the existing two-lane road bed as a dam to build four new lanes and median.

James said the next phase of the project includes public input, including, but not limited to, the release of an environmental assessment study sometimes this summer.

To date, DOT has conducted two public informational workshops on this project. However, both have occurred in Morgan’s Corner.

“I do not know how the participation was at those workshops from the folks in Sunbury,” James noted. “I can tell you today that we are willing to come out again and have another workshop in Sunbury if you feel like that’s what we need to do. We want to keep you aware of what’s going on with this project, to include how we’re making decisions that affect citizens of Gates County.”

“I can assure you today that you need to hold a workshop here in the near future,” said Henry Jordan, Chairman of the Gates County Board of Commissioners. “One of the things we’d like to know is what is the projected start date of the Sunbury bypass?”

“I don’t know which end we’re going to start on, but we will start acquiring right-of-way in 2019,” James said. “We normally have a two to three-year time frame to obtain right-of-way.”

After a brief discussion, Jordan said the new Visitors Center at Merchants Millpond State Park, the Gates County Community Center, the Sunbury Fire Department or the gym at T.S. Cooper Elementary School could be considered for use as possible sites to hold a public information workshop and/or for a public hearing regarding the project’s environmental assessment.

Another piece to DOT’s plans to improve major roads in Gates County is to widen US 158 from US 13 (at Tarheel BBQ) to Sunbury. That project (R-2578) comes with a price tag of $110.4 million, to include $45.4 million for right-of-way acquisition (to begin in January of 2023) and $65 million for construction (scheduled for start-up in January of 2030).

While that particular project was not discussed at last week’s meeting, it is one part of a bigger plan to improve US 158 east from I-95 in Northampton County. Portions of that project are already under construction – one from the Murfreesboro bypass east to Winton, and another from US 13/158 at Winton north to Tarheel BBQ.  Plans are being developed to widen US 158 from two to four lanes in Northampton County from I-95 east to the western end of the Murfreesboro bypass. That part of the project (in the 2014-17 timeframe) includes bypasses of Jackson and Conway.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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