New Bern, NC – When a group named the Southern Environmental Law Center expresses opposition to a bypass that would cut through a national forest, you can't be surprised. When that same group sends out a press release that leads off with a lack of expected economic benefit for the affected community, that tends to grab your attention.
"There have been a number of studies of bypasses in Texas and California that show when you build a bypass around an area where there are businesses that are built up and dependent on the highway that those economies suffer. A situation like Havelock where you have these businesses that have developed on 70 and serve the people traveling thru town and you build a bypass that by its nature is intended to move those people around those businesses without stopping you're going to see a decline in business income and activity."
Geoff Gisler is a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center's office in Chapel Hill. Granted, they're also concerned about the effect a bypass would have on the Croatan National Forest as all three of the proposed bypass paths would cut through the national forest.
"When you think of what national forests were set aside to do, they have a variety of purposes not including highways. They're supposed to protect some of these areas that have unique natural systems that aren't as prevalent as they once were like the long leaf pine ecosystem which once defined the coastal plain of eastern NC and has now been whittled down to a few remaining areas with good examples of the ecosystem."
The SELC feels the process so far has given short shrift to other alternatives, such as improving the existing Highway 70 that runs through Havelock or alternative siting.
"Obviously on the east side of 70 is Cherry Point MCAS which is pretty solid all the way thru there. So we studied expressway upgrades, freeway upgrades, and three bypass well, more than three but several bypass options on the west side of 70."
Mark Pierce, a project planning engineer with the North Carolina Department of Transportation. With Cherry Point blocking one area, that left cutting through the Croatan National Forest and upgrading the existing highway 70 as options for improving traffic flow through Havelock as part of D-O-T's plan to improve the Highway 70 corridor from Raleigh to Morehead City with projects such as the already underway Goldsboro bypass and proposed bypasses for Kinston and Havelock.
"We did study the upgrade existing 70. The relocations were incredibly high, which meant the footprint for the proposed roadway was so wide we would be taking some of the people we're trying to provide service for. You would have probably a 300-400 foot wide footprint with either an expressway or a freeway through Havelock. It's a linear community. We would be directly impacting all the businesses and homes adjacent to the existing 70."
How the bypass would affect Havelock businesses was part of a study examining the necessity for the bypass. Pierce says that prior bypasses made no difference before-and-after and some communities were vocal for a bypass. The Havelock Chamber of Commerce has said the 70 bypass has been in discussion for years and yet major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Wendy's and Goody's chose to come to the area or are coming soon. At the same time they note at a recent public hearing there were many voices saying now is perhaps not the best time to test the Havelock economy. Geoff Gisler with the Southern Environmental Law Center says that leaves the end of the improvement project Morehead City as the beneficiary, and he can't see the bypass making an impact there either.
"Those areas are already doing well so it's hard to see how this bypass will make a big difference there and there are certainly some alternatives when you look at, especially the port getting some of that truck traffic on rails and moving the products brought into the port to other areas faster. So it doesn't look like there's going to be a big benefit there."
There's still plenty of time to determine if the benefit is big enough to warrant going ahead with the project. Mark Pierce with the state D-O-T says a final Environmental Impact Statement is expected in 2013, right-of-way acquisition could start that year, with construction potentially underway in 2015, meaning the Havelock 70 Bypass "in discussions for many years" according to the Havelock Chamber of Commerce still has a few more years of discussion to go. I'm George Olsen.