A recently released study found that upgrading highway 70 could bring economic prosperity to eastern North Carolina.
People from Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston Salem and points west will use Highway 70 to travel to the Crystal Coast this summer. But for many who live here in eastern North Carolina, we use this thoroughfare every day. That heavy use has led to a new study on Highway 70 and its potential to be a major economic driver for the region. Director of the US 70 Corridor Commission Durwood Stephenson says a recently completed year-long study explored the economic opportunity that would come by expanding Highway 70 to a freeway.
"Governor Martin in 1984 said every household should be within 10 miles of a freeway. That’s true for a lot of areas, but in eastern North Carolina, that is not true for most of our citizens. We’re got about 2.6 million citizens east of I-95 that don’t have access to a freeway. US 70 used to be considered the main street of commerce in eastern North Carolina. And it has kind of deteriorated, it’s become congested, it’s become unsafe.”
Stephenson says car crashes along the 135 mile corridor have drastically increased from 2011 to 2013.
“The crash rate along that corridor is 465 percent higher than the crash rate on I-40. It’s 65 percent higher than any US highway in North Carolina. So it’s become unsafe and inefficient.”
In an effort to improve safety, the Highway 70 corridor from Raleigh to Morehead City will be upgraded to freeway or interstate standards, with the elimination of at-grade intersections and railroad crossings, wider paved shoulders and higher speed limits.
The findings from the report, compiled by Sanford Holshouser Economic Development and Cambridge Systematics Inc., were released last month. It found that improving the highway to interstate standards would also prove to be beneficial by adding $1.2 billion dollars to the region’s economy and saving $56 million for existing businesses by the year 2040. Stephenson says the change would make the area more attractive to companies looking to locate here.
“It’s about jobs and moving people and goods. And you’re not going to get jobs to come when people…. It’s just like the Global TransPark. We put the Global TransPark down there. And I dare say most people west of I-95 don’t know how to get to it. We’ve had some major employers to take a look at the Global TransPark and say they’ve got everything we need except an ability to get in and out and move goods and people in and out.”
Upgrading Highway 70 to a freeway would increase the mobility of goods to major interstates I-95 and I-40. In addition, the improved corridor would be more efficient for the deployment of troops and equipment from the three military bases located along Highway 70. Stephenson says it would also provide easier access to the state ports in Morehead City and Wilmington.
“People that are looking to locate commerce look away because there’s no efficiency of travel. The vehicle mile traveled and the time distance is more important than the mileage.”
If the entire Highway 70 corridor is expanded to a freeway, the study estimates that an additional 1,900 jobs could be created, with 600 jobs being added annually in communities outside the corridor. Short term construction jobs would also be generated. Stephenson says new companies that decide to locate to the region will provide lasting job opportunities to people retiring from the military and young adults returning from college.
“15 of our 41 counties have been losing population for three or four years. And we’re losing population because there’s no jobs to keep people and our young are not returning when they go off to school. They’re not coming back because there’s no opportunity for them.”
According to the Highway 70 Corridor’s website, the report also examined the potential impact of not improving the corridor. It found that job growth would be slowed, with 350 fewer jobs created each year.
The expansion of Highway 70 started with the completion of the Clayton bypass in June 2008. Currently, a bypass in Goldsboro is under construction and slated to be finished by late next year, two decades ahead of schedule. The plan also calls for a bypass around Kinston and Havelock, and improvements already underway in Beaufort to replace the Gallants Channel Bridge.
According to Stephenson, the only sections of road currently built to interstate or freeway standards – in the Highway 70 corridor- are the Clayton bypass, and the stretch of road between Kinston and New Bern.
“Deputy Secretary Nick Tennyson who attended our meeting on June 19th, what he told us was transportation is a long term and highly expensive process. Keep working and be patient. You can’t get to a destination unless you start. So we’ve started, and we recognize that it’s not going to happen overnight and we got to stay after it.”
This week, the House passed a bill that adds 10 months worth of money into the Highway Trust Fund. The account will run dry by August 1st if Congress doesn’t allocate $11 billion to sustain the fund until new funding or a new transportation bill can be enacted. NCDOT Secretary Tony Tata says if funds go broke, the Department of Transportation will be forced to stop construction on 108 projects across the state, employing more than 20,000 workers. This includes the work currently being done on the Goldsboro bypass. I’m Jared Brumbaugh.