Moore County commissioners have given their unanimous approval to a proposed countywide transportation plan that includes a Western Connector.
Also during their election night meeting Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to award a $280,000 contract Southeast Aquatics Group of Raleigh to build a 7,000-square-foot splash pad at Hillcrest Park in Carthage and another one for an architectural firm to design a new courthouse.
The controversial four-lane connector would span from N.C. 211 west of Pinehurst to U.S. 1 south of Aberdeen.
The idea of a bypass was first proposed in 1990 when a plan was adopted, but no specific action to design or further develop the road occurred.
A connector was put back in play in 2011 when work began on developing a countywide Comprehensive Transportation Plan. Debate has raged since then over whether it will do any good.
Supporters believe it will help alleviate congestion in and around Pinehurst, but opponents argue it will have little impact diverting through traffic and instead will lead to the destruction of the rural countryside by attracting unwanted growth. They believe most of the traffic is local.
Before the plan — which includes 40 highway projects, as well as a multitude of pedestrian and bicycle projects — goes to the state transportation board early next year, the county and its 11 municipalities must approve it.
A comprehensive transportation is the first step in proposing a project for possible funding in the future, said Scott Walston, a traffic planning with the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT). And in the case of the connector, it could be 20 or 30 years before it is ever built, based on future development.
The Western Connector and Carthage bypass are the only new highways in the plan. Others mainly involve improvements to existing roads and highways.
“These are concepts that still have to go through environmental review and planning,” Walston said. “There is still a lot of work for some of these.”
Walston said the adoption of a comprehensive transportation plan is “the birth” of many highway proposals. He said there are a lot of other steps to get to construction, which can take 10 to 12 years.
“One of the biggest (steps) is getting funded,” Walston said.
Walston said the plan looks at growth projections through 2040 to help identify where improvements are needed.
The Moore County Transportation Committee — which is chaired by Commissioner Frank Quis — approved the plan Aug. 29. Before endorsing it, Foxfire Village Mayor Mick McCue proposed adding a southwestern n truck bypass that is farther west than the connector would be, Walston told the commissioners.
A route is not shown on a map at this point, he said. That proposal would also require approval by officials in Montgomery and Richmond counties.
Walston acknowledged that of all the proposed projects in the plan, the Western Connector “seems to be the hottest discussion.”
Though not a part of the presentation Tuesday night, Walston previously told the Pinehurst Village Council projections show that it could reduce the amount of traffic on N.C. 5 and several other local roads that feed onto it by 3,400 to 5,400 vehicle a day by 2040.
He said that in effect, traffic on N.C. 5 “would be about the same or less ion 2040 than it is today,”
The connector, as currently proposed, would be a four-lane, median-divided highway with restricted access points and a two-lane connection to Linden Road.
“This has been on the transportation plan for Pinehurst for the longest time,” he said.
Walston said this is a long-range project and reiterated that it must go through a long process to get funded and approved. He said that “then and only then would you know exactly” where it will go.
Highway planners say a line needs to be on a map to help protect the corridor for the connector as growth occurs.
Before voting, the commissioners heard from two residents during a required public hearing.
Pinewild resident Jane Hogeman argued that because of the uncertainty of the route, the dotted line on the map should be removed “because nobody really knows whether or when we will ever need it and it if ever do need it, nobody knows where we should put it.”
“The underlying data that is supposed to support the concept of the future Western Connector is inconsistent, hard to track and projected so far ahead is really mere conjecture,” she said.
Hogeman said it has been stated that the connector is not intended to alleviate existing traffic volumes on N.C. 5 and is instead would carry traffic generated if the area between Pinehurst and Foxfire is ever “densely developed.” She pointed out that the county and Pinehurst have both designated that area for low density development.
“The area would have to change significantly before a Western Connector is needed,” she said.
Hogeman said that if a western truck bypass can be included in the plan without depicting the actual route on the map, that could also be the case for the proposed Western Connector, adding that the people who live “under the dotted line on the map don’t want want a Western Connector.”
She said the text of the plan can state that multiple routes for the connector “will be reviewed when a connector is needed to see what location makes the most sense at that time.”
Southern Pines attorney Marsh Smith said the words from a famous song from the television show “Hee-Haw” come to mind when he thinks about the Western Connector: “Gloom, despair and agony on me.”
“It is a huge waste of money,” he said.
Smith said that for more than 60 years, traffic engineers have known about a concept called “induced traffic.
“The more lane miles you have in a given corridor, the more traffic will use it,” he said. “It is sort of a built it and they will come theory. … We will generate all kinds of growth in one of the most pristine areas in southern Moore County.”
Opponents pointed out during a Pinehurst council meeting last month that it would go through a watershed area that provides drinking water for Southern Pines and is home to habitat of the endangered red-cocked woodpecker.
Smith said DOT officials have stated that “it really doesn’t mean a lot to adopt the plan” since it will take years to get the project funded and go through the environmental review.
“But once it gets on the (State Transportation Improvement Plan), it is hard to get it off,” Smith said. “It is even harder when the county endorses it. … It is a juggernaut that just won’t stop.”
Smith also citied a state law requiring that counties and towns must have land-use plans that have been adopted within the last five years to ensure that this type of transportation plan is based on up-to-date data. He said Pinehurst and Aberdeen have basically “rubber-stamped an old plan as their current plan.” He urged the county not to do the same thing.
“It certainly doesn’t meet the spirit of the statute,” he said. “There are all of these planning intricacies that need to be considered.”
Smith also urged the commissioners to continue the hearing at its next meeting on Nov. 20 because many people were unaware action would taken and that other opponents would have attended to speak. He also expressed concern that the board was holding the hearing on an Election Day.
After closing the hearing, Quis made a motion to adopt the plan as presented, and Commissioner Louis Gregory seconded it. The commissioners made no comments before voting.
The board also unanimously passed a measure “reaffirming” that its 2013 land-use plan is its current plan.
Walston said the adoption of the transportation plan by the county transportation committee was the result of “many years of work” and that they have received “tons and tons” of public comment and input.
Contact David Sinclair at (910) 693-2462 or email@example.com