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US 158 project loses funds

JACKSON – When the Governor Pat McCrory announced last year that he wished to see a transportation/road improvement bond put on a ballot for voters across the state, a portion of the US 158 project in Northampton County was on the list at $62 million.

One year later, funding for that local project – which would widen the road to four lanes and include bypasses around Garysburg, Jackson, Faisons Old Tavern and Conway – is listed at $15,505,000.

That reduction in funding has Northampton County Economic Development Director Gary Brown a bit torqued.

Now just two days before the next meeting of the Peanut Belt Rural Planning Organization (PBRPO), Brown is lobbying hard for that group to strongly consider penning a resolution that will encourage state officials to return the US 158 project to full funding.

In a recent letter sent to Justin Oakes, RPO Planner for the

Mid-East Commission, Brown noted that the Northampton project was fueled by $62 million in McCrory’s bond proposal. That money was to be used to widen US 158 from I-95 to just east of Jackson. Brown also pointed out that the original listing of projects were a mix of highway improvements in rural areas and urban bypasses (or “loops”). For example, on the 2014 list were US 220 in Richmond County (a rural project) at $128.3 million and the Winston-Salem Loop (an urban bypass project) at $266.5 million.

“In the May 2015 version, funding for US-158 dropped to $15,505,000 and the funding was shifted from project R-2582 to project R-2584C which is a 4.1 mile section extending from the existing Murfreesboro Bypass to east of the Town of Conway,” Brown said.

“Also in the May 2015 version, $72 million was added for US 17 (Beaufort & Martin counties, part of the proposed Intrastate 495 project); $48 million for the US 331 bypass in Guilford County; an additional $221.6 million added for the Winston-Salem bypass (totaling $448 million); $168.44 million added for I-40 in Iredell County; and funding for US 220 (Rockingham bypass) is no longer listed,” Brown stated in his email response to Oakes.

Brown feels that added emphasis has been placed on accelerating STIP projects.

“That’s likely in response to criticism that Governor McCrory and NCDOT were diverging from the point based ranking (STIP) method of funding highway improvements,” Brown remarked.  “Obviously, emphasizing STIP projects works to the advantage of urban areas, and to the disadvantage of shovel ready rural projects such as the US-158 projects (R-2582 & R-2584) in Northampton County.”

Brown added that the US-158 project, specifically the four-lane improvement through Northampton County, has been pledged by successive governors of North Carolina since the Jim Martin administration.

“Based at least in part on that pledge, industries in Hertford and Northampton County have made investment decisions that today exceed $1 billion and have created new, higher wage, sustainable jobs that likely today well exceed 2,000,” Brown stressed. “For many of the companies in this region (Nucor, Kapstone, GP Chemical, Resinall, Hampton Farms, Lowes, Enviva, etc.) transportation logistics are critically fundamental to their business.”

In making investment decisions, Brown noted that, “decision-makers in industry talk with lots of folks including commerce representatives, secretaries of departments, legislators and governors.  They also talk with and listen to other decision makers in existing industry.

“From their peers, those industry decision-makers hear that comingling trucks laden with steel, trucks hauling petrochemicals, trucks hauling timber, trucks carrying freight bound for distribution centers and the Virginia ports, modern farm equipment of enormous size, tourists bound for the Outer Banks, mail delivery, bicycles, school busses, garbage trucks stopping every 150 feet, mopeds, ambulances, freight trains, AMTRAK and real people driving real cars – all that combined, which is not at all unusual – is not a pretty picture,” he stated.

Brown said US-158 project in its entirety from I-95 to connect with the Murfreesboro bypass is long overdue.

“The $62 million proposed in September 2014 for the US-158 project R-2582 (I-95 to east of the Town of Jackson) was a good start and a meaningful improvement, particularly in that R-2582 includes by-passes of both Garysburg and Jackson and would alleviate a bunch of the existing transportation logistics chaos through Northampton County,” Brown said. “The $15,505,000 proposed in May of this year for the R-2584C project does little more than move the highway signs marking the beginning of the chaos a bit closer to Conway.”

Northampton County Commissioner Virginia Spruill, a member of the PBRPO, agreed with Brown.

“(US 158) in our county should be at the top of the pecking order; this project has been on the drawing board for a long time and it’s high time it move forward,” said Spruill on Monday afternoon.

Spruill, a veteran in local politics, said she was stunned, but not surprised, upon seeing state officials lower the amount of funds for the project.

“It always seems that the people on this end of the state always get cut short,” she stressed. “Yes, I understand the transportation needs of our state’s urban areas, but please don’t forget that we have needs as well.

“This project will provide a strategic transportation corridor through the heart of our county. We see it as not only an economic plus for Northampton, but for our neighboring counties as well that have US 158 as one of their major highways,” Spruill added.

Brown said he would like to see the PBRPO approve a resolution strongly expressing a position of the organization that bond funding should result in a meaningful allocation of funds to the US-158 project and meaningful improvements to US-158, specifically funding for the R-2582 Project (I-95 to east of Jackson) as proposed in September 2014.

“We are confident that Senator Smith-Ingram, Senator Bryant, Representative Wray, Representative Hunter and Mr. Fearing, among others, will support this position and be strong advocates on behalf of the region,” Brown concluded.

The PBRPO meets Thursday, Aug. 6 in Windsor.

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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