Platé: Bypass is vital to Port of Wilmington

Oct. 24, 2013 @ 05:06 PM

Several speakers extolled the positives of the stalled Monroe Bypass during Tuesday’s meeting of the Indian Trail Town Council.

Scott Cole, NCDOT Division 10 engineer, said the project was conceived “to build mobility and capacity in the project corridor.”

In October 2011, a district judge ruled in favor of NCDOT. Transportation officials borrowed the money to construct the road and contracted companies to do the design-build work.

In May 2012, a panel of three federal appellete judges reversed the decision. The entire project was put on hold.

“There’s been a misunderstanding about what the court of appeals really stated. It did not say that NCDOT misled or lied to the public,” Cole said. “It said that we had errors in the way that we compared our no-build alternative to the build alternative. And because of our errors, we failed to take a hard look at environmental consequences.”

The court did not say NCDOT had to produce a completely new environmental analysis, Cole said. But it was clear that the errors need to be corrected. Since the appeal, the NCDOT has worked on revising its impact statement. Final approval by the Federal Highway Administration is expected within a few weeks, he said. Bypass construction and purchase of right of way could resume early next year. Construction is estimated to take 2 to 3 years.

“Say it didn’t get built. Say all this all went through, just didn’t happen whatsoever. What would be the outlook for the future for the only other way through, which is 74? What would be the

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implications for Union County, for Indian Trail?” Councilwoman Darlene Luther said.

NCDOT did a study in 2007 for temporary measures to releve 74 traffic congestion, Cole said. Most suggestions were implemented already, he said. But it is no true comparison with a freeway-type road.

“From Marshville to Stallings, in 2035 the bypass is designed to result in a time savings of 30 to 50 minutes,” Cole said. “So you can imaging trying to carry all of that traffic on U.S. 74.”

Cole stated that widening 74 would cost millions and cause closure of businesses along the road.

He also commented that if the money assigned for the bypass is not used, the transportation dollars will go somewhere else.

Union County Chamber of Commerce President Pat Kahle echoed Cole’s assertion that the bypass would improve the county’s quality of life. It will also benefit business, she said.

“For the chamber, I think it is a good thing,” Kahle said.

She objected to groups opposed to the bypass.

“I’ve sat in on some of those meetings and it’s unfortunate that we’re using those tactics on our population,” Kahle said.

The council majority agreed. They voted to invite only pro-bypass groups to speak during the meeting.

For the half of Union County workers employed outside of the county, they face an average commute time of 28 minutes according to 2010 census data.

“One in five travels more than 45 minutes one way on their way to work,” Kahle said.

Kahle mentioned faster access to Wingate University, the beach and to Wilmington. Along with access to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, the port of Wilminton is a strong product shipping hub. Highway 74 is a route to Wilmington. Tractor trailer traffic makes up more than 20 percent of the highway’s traffic. Getting those trucks onto the bypass would make 74 safer.

Chris Platé, director of Union County Economic Development, said the bypass is vital to the state.

“It is probably the most significant road project in North Carolina,” he said. “It affects all of the state’s assets and trying to estimate its imact is very hard to do.”

Without it, the port at Wilmington cannot compete with Charleston and Savahanna, he said. Traffic to and from the port would remain bottlenecked in Union County. The bypass would speed up that travel time, which is important to business in North Carolina.

It would also fortify the viability of our military bases. The federal government looks at connectivity to bases like Fort Bragg and will weigh that when considering closure.

“Right now, we have a little gauntlet that people have to run,” Platé said. “We have about 44 stop lights in Union County.”

With better access, the eastern side of Union County will be more attractive to manufacturers and other businesses.

Growth will happen, he said. Unless the county plans for ways to accommodate it, the extra traffic will overflow onto Old Monroe Road, Highway 218 and other roads.

“We need that access,” he said.