MOREHEAD CITY — State and regional transportation officials, including former Gov. Jim Martin, announced on July 26 the start of a study that could have significant implications for economic development in Eastern North Carolina.
The study, announced at a gathering on the campus of Carteret Community College, will evaluate the economic impact of completing a freeway bypass system on U.S. 70 from Raleigh to Morehead City and completing the conversion of U.S. 117 to Interstate 795 from Goldsboro to Interstate 40.
The idea behind the study is to create a long-term vision for the economic future of the cities and towns that dot the corridor, and identify and remedy barriers to growth and the flow of commerce. The study is to be completed by the end of this year.
Gov. Martin, who is a member of the U.S. 70 Corridor Steering Committee, said the highway projects were supposed to have been completed already with money from the Governor’s Highway Trust Fund, which was created in 1989 during his term in office.
“But it’s not that simple,” he said. “It’s been complicated, so what we’re trying to do here finally is see if we can get together to find a way to solve it.”
Martin said the U.S. 70 and I-795 projects stand to produce “significant positive impacts” for the region’s economy, but they could also have negative implications. “We have to be sensitive and we have to understand those and see if we can find a way to solve them,” he said.
One potential negative is the impact that bypasses can have on existing businesses that have chosen their location because of access to the highway. But growth has also increased congestion that might be having a negative effect on existing businesses, Martin said.
“We need to do what is best for most people, but we need to understand the tackle shops, the other stores, the restaurants,” he said.
The study team
The N.C. Department of Transportation commissioned the study to evaluate all positive and negative impacts of the highway projects and how to mitigate the negative impacts.
Officials said the number of stoplights and traffic slowdowns along the current U.S. 70 corridor inhibit the ability to attract industry and limit the flow of freight to the Morehead City port.
The DOT hired a consulting team to complete the study. The team consists of Cambridge Systematics, a national transportation and logistics consulting company based in Cambridge, Mass., and Sanford Holshouser Economic Development Consulting of Raleigh.
Ernie Pearson, a managing partner of Sanford Holshouser, is former assistant secretary of economic development for the N.C. Department of Commerce during the Martin administration and now a Raleigh attorney who specializes in economic development. Pearson said the study would look at all aspects of economic development, including retail and tourism.
The study will include Johnston, Wayne, Jones, Lenoir, Craven and Carteret counties along the U.S. 70 corridor and Wayne, Duplin and Sampson counties along the U.S. 117/I-795 corridor.
The study will be based in part on interviews with county and municipal officials, including economic-development directors, chairmen of county boards of commissioners, chairmen of economic-development commissions, county managers, mayors and city managers.
Also on the interview list are representatives from Duke Energy, the N.C. Railroad Co., Norfolk Southern Corp., the Global TransPark, the State Ports Authority and North Carolina’s Eastern Region economic-development agency.
Questions will cover the current status of the U.S. 70 corridor, its role in economic development and any impediments to business recruitment and retention.
The study will also consider the impacts that completing the bypasses could have on business recruitment and retention, including retail businesses.
Dr. Paula Dowell leads the Cambridge Systematics team. She said the focus will be largely on freight and trade, with other aspects brought in for a wider view. Decreasing freight-travel times can have positive implications for local residents and businesses, she said.
“We are going to build upon the data that we already compiled from the I-95 study, which was extensive, and then from that we’re going to add some additional data from the newly-completed North Carolina statewide demand model that was not previously available to us,” she said.
“All of this is going to be ground-tested through the stakeholder interview and engagement process.”
She said local stakeholders are key in ensuring the interviewers “know the right people to talk to,” such as key manufacturers, shippers and employers.
The Clayton bypass was the first big improvement in years for the 135 miles of U.S. 70 east of I-40. A bypass around Goldsboro is under construction now, and work will start in 2016 on the Havelock bypass in Craven County.
The next big challenge is DOT’s plan for a U.S. 70 bypass around Kinston – as yet unscheduled and unfunded. A short loop south of town would deliver a faster drive from the Triangle to the coast. But some economists say DOT should choose a longer and more expensive loop to the north.
That would create a freeway link to the Global TransPark, an airport-centered industrial park created by the state in 1991. The park has struggled over the years. Some potential corporate clients have turned away because it lacks quick access to an interstate highway.
“We have fumed about it not producing the results everybody talked about when it started, but we haven’t given it the resources it needs to be successful,” said Durwood Stephenson of Smithfield, executive director of the Highway 70 Corridor Commission, which represents local governments in five counties along the way.
News & Observer reporter Bruce Siceloff contributed to this report.