Arguments for Freeway Don't Make Sense
By Stephen Later
Special to The Pilot
"Tis a lesson you should heed - try, try again. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
So wrote American educator Thomas H. Palmer in 1840, and so proceeds the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) in 2012 in its drive to impose a U.S. 1 freeway on southern Moore County.
NCDOT has served up a range of ration-ales for the construction of a U.S. 1 freeway. But clearly, none justifies this testament to one-size-fits-all transportation planning.
Samuel Johnson observed that (false) patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. And yet, "national security" was the first argument rolled out by NCDOT to rationalize its U.S. 1 freeway plan and its $150 million price tag. This contention was, however, short-lived after Fort Bragg officials disclaimed the freeway. Col. Stephen Sicinksi, the Fort Bragg garrison commander, said a U.S. 1 bypass provided "no national security benefits."
NCDOT pointed to "freight" and claimed that U.S. 1 is "vital to the economic welfare of the entire state" and its "global competitiveness." Of course, neither Hoffman nor Rockingham is a significant freight center, and U.S. 1 runs as a two-lane local road for miles into South Carolina. NCDOT even pointed to "industry headed for Global TransPark." The Global TransPark, a state-sponsored industrial park near Kinston, hosts a total of 14 tenants and 370 employees and is located 117 miles from U.S. 1.
NCDOT argued that a U.S. 1 freeway is critical since Moore County is within "the 50-mile evacuation zone" for the Shearon Harris Nuclear Generating Station. Progress Energy officials confirm, however, that there is no state or federal 50-mile evacuation zone for Shearon Harris. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission establishes evacuation zones for nuclear facilities, and the national standard, in force for more than three decades, is 10 miles.
NCDOT contended that a U.S. 1 freeway through southern Moore County is necessary because U.S. 1 is a "national road from Maine to Florida." U.S. 1 carries a notable route number, yet its designation is a mere relic of its historical importance before the construction of Interstate 95. There are no federal mandates for construction of a U.S. 1 freeway in Moore County, and U.S. 1 is a minor local road in countless locales between Maine and Florida, including many areas in South Carolina and Virginia.
NCDOT offered the Orwellian claim that a U.S. 1 freeway will "enhance the environment." During the past nine years alone, NCDOT twice drew bypass routes through the Walthour-Moss Foundation, a 4,200-acre nature preserve between Southern Pines and Fort Bragg.
The preservation of our natural environment thus compels us, according to NCDOT, to bulldoze thousands of trees and lay miles of steel and pavement through a pristine longleaf pine forest. We must, to paraphrase a perhaps apocryphal Vietnam-era spokesman, destroy the environment in order to save it.
NCDOT adapted the six-degrees-of-separation concept to hurricane evacuation routes and, conceding that the "major hurricane evacuation routes" are located in eastern North Carolina, argued the need for a U.S. 1 freeway in southern Moore County on the grounds that "those routes to the east ... intersect highways that intersect with U.S. 1."
U.S. 1 intersects with highways that intersect with highways in southern California so, according to this logic, a freeway in southern Moore County is important for earthquake evacuation plans in Los Angeles.
NCDOT contends that a U.S. 1 freeway through southern Moore County is essential because "each corridor has an established vision" (albeit a vision established by NCDOT).
The posted speed limits on most roads in the state vary, of course, but NCDOT claims that "consistency" is critical, and it is unsafe for drivers to be distracted by changes in speed limits.
Therefore, NCDOT argues, U.S. 1 needs to be built to freeway standards from Rockingham to Raleigh. Indeed, to Raleigh, but not in or through Raleigh.
There are sections of U.S. 1 in Raleigh that are designated as expressways, rather than freeways, in the Strategic Highway Corridor vision plan.
There are, further, other Strategic Highway Corridors with sections that range from thoroughfare (the most unrestricted road classification) to freeway (the most restricted road designation). NCDOT thus asserts that, although this arrangement is part of the established NCDOT plan in other parts of our state, it is "unsafe" in southern Moore County.
The latest claim by NCDOT is that a U.S. 1 freeway through southern Moore County is "required" under "state and federal law."
The NCDOT freeway plan is simply a result of the designation of U.S. 1 as a freeway by NCDOT in its Strategic Highway Corridor Plan in 2005. The Strategic Highway Corridor Plan is, however, merely a planning document adopted by the Easley administration without the approval of the General Assembly and marked by the political priorities of its proponents.
Compelled by Growth?
There is no specific requirement in state or federal law that compels, much less addresses, changes to U.S. 1 in Moore County. (A 1989 state law prioritized efforts to four-lane U.S. 1 throughout the state, including Moore County.) In fact, just nine years ago, an NCDOT supervisor stated under oath that NCDOT staff planned to recommend the deletion of the Southern Pines-Aberdeen bypass project from the state transportation plan.
NCDOT also tells us that "growth" compels construction of a U.S. 1 freeway and points to increasing average daily traffic counts in Aberdeen. NCDOT interestingly contended, through one of its contractors, that 35 percent of the traffic on U.S. 1 in Aberdeen is "through traffic" rather than local traffic.
The contractor conceded that its calculations were based on generic models rather than local traffic patterns or studies.
NCDOT, although it subsequently disclaimed any reliance on this flawed model, thus called for - and continues to call for - a bypass before the conduct of an origin and destination study on this corridor (a study used to determine traffic patterns in which motorists are asked about their travel origins and destinations) and despite the logical conclusions of its own traffic data.
Traffic data surveys by NCDOT underscore that the congestion on U.S. 1 is not "through traffic" that can be moved at freeway speeds through or around our communities on a freeway.
NCDOT counted between 31,000 and 36,000 cars per day on U.S. 1 near U.S. 15-501 in 2010 - and yet, just 11,000 on U.S. 1 at the Lee County line and just 7,500 at the Richmond County line.
Therefore, if NCDOT is correct, all traffic passing over the county lines is headed through, rather than to, Moore County. We know that southern Moore County is a regional destination for educational, service, and retail activities and, of course, most of this traffic is headed for destinations on or near the U.S. 1 corridor.
Creative Plans Needed
Further, as through traffic tends to be more spread out over a 24-hour period than retail and commuter traffic, less highway capacity is needed to carry the same amount of daily traffic.
NCDOT talks about "context-sensitive" planning, but its singular focus on a U.S. 1 bypass betrays a mindset in which, whether congestion problems result from local traffic or through traffic, a freeway is the only solution.
However, improvements to U.S. 1, in a manner that preserves its character as a local road and commercial thoroughfare - and to the adjacent street network - will address traffic needs and enhance efficiency in the corridor.
The limited resources available to state government underscore the need for creative and thoughtful transportation planning.
We Moore County residents, and the taxpayers of this state, must continue to work together to ensure that efforts to remove this freeway designation, as set forth in resolutions adopted by the Moore County Commission and the councils of Aberdeen, Pinebluff, Pinehurst, and Southern Pines, are successful and that the brakes are put on the NCDOT drive for a U.S. 1 freeway.
Local attorney Stephen Later is vice chairman of the Walthour-Moss Foundation.
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