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Which way do we go?

The line in the sand has been drawn.

Better make that a line in the asphalt.

While the future of transportation needs in the Roanoke-Chowan area have been the topic of several recent meetings, this much is known n Bertie and Hertford County government officials have different opinions on which local major highway should sit at the top of the list in regards to becoming a four-lane road.

Bertie County officials are favoring US 13 while their Hertford County counterparts are pushing for NC 11 improvements. The North Carolina Department of Transportation is urging officials in both counties to decide which project would be best for the region as a whole.

“We’re not saying to eliminate either of the two projects,” Hertford County Commissioner Johnnie Ray Farmer said. “We’re just saying the NC 11 project should be the first one we do.”

Farmer, who is a member of the Peanut Belt RPO n a planning group comprised of Bertie, Halifax, Hertford and Northampton officials, emphasized that four-laning NC 11 from Ahoskie to just north of Oak City would be the most effective way to spend transportation dollars in the local area.

That plan calls for NC 11 to become a multi-lane, 29-mile divided highway from Winton to NC 903. Another plan in an adjoining transportation district calls for widening NC 11 to four lanes from NC 903 south to Bethel.

Farmer said although the NC 11 project is currently unfunded in the DOT’s Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), he and Hertford County officials have devised a way to pay for the road improvements.

Backed by the Hertford County Board of Commissioners and the Town of Ahoskie, Farmer said they could swap the $102.4 million currently approved in the TIP for the US 13 Ahoskie Bypass for funds to be used on the NC 11 four-lane project.

“We were under the impression that we could not swap the two pots of money,” Farmer said in reference to federal dollars for the bypass in exchange for state dollars for NC 11. “However, we are now learning that may not be the case. We may be able to turn over the federal dollars for the bypass to the state for them to use on another project. In return, we’re hoping the state can find the money to use on NC 11.”

According to Farmer’s figures, the state would only have to come up with an additional $21 million for the NC 11 project. He said the $102.4 million earmarked for the Ahoskie Bypass would encompass 13.2 miles of new and existing roadway from US 158 at Winton to NC 42 at Powellsville. Meanwhile, the cost of the 29-mile NC 11 project is estimated at $123.1 million.

“Because the majority of the right-of-way for the NC 11 project is already owned by the state, our region would receive twice as much road for a fraction of what it would cost to start from scratch,” Farmer noted. “If the state accepts the Ahoskie Bypass money and in turn uses it on NC 11, they would only have to come up with an additional $21 million to four-lane 29 miles of road. That’s a bargain when you think of the staggering price to build highways these days.”

Farmer added that while funded on the TIP, the Ahoskie Bypass has apparently hit a major snag. Approved in 1996, construction on the bypass was scheduled to begin in 2000. To date, not one shovel full of dirt has been turned on the project.

“Environmental issues have forced DOT to begin looking at alternative routes for the Ahoskie Bypass which has further delayed this project,” Farmer said. “Even if it is constructed at a later date at another location, perhaps taking a southern route around Ahoskie, it will not join any other four-lane roads.”

In an Aug. 30 letter sent to local and state elected officials, the Hertford Co. Board of Commissioners requested support in its efforts to reprioritize funds from the Ahoskie Bypass to the NC 11 project. In that letter, the commissioners stressed NC 11 would make the greatest impact on the region as it would connect to an existing four-lane portion of NC 11 at Bethel as well as intersecting with US 64. Both of those major four-lane routes travel to major markets in Greenville, Tarboro, Rocky Mount and Raleigh.

Additionally, the letter pointed out that Bertie County stood to gain nearly 20 miles of a four-lane road (from Aulander south to the Roanoke River) if the NC 11 project is approved.

On the other side of the coin, the US 13 four-lane project is currently unfunded, but is included on the TIP. Its estimated price tag is $81.2 million (right-of-way and construction) for 17.2 miles from NC 42 at Powellsville to the existing Windsor Bypass. From there, US 13 is a four-lane, divided highway, running with US 17 to Williamston and then with US 64 to Bethel.

During an Oct. 12 meeting, the Windsor Board of Commissioners followed the recommendation of Mayor Bob Spivey to adopt a resolution supporting the four-lane project for US 13 between Bethel and Ahoskie.

Spivey told the board there had been several meetings about moving money from the project on US 13 to a four-lane project of NC 11. After the meeting, Spivey reinforced his earlier statements that the town of Windsor supported the project on NC 11, but said he couldn’t support it at the cost of the US 13 project.

The Bertie Board of Commissioners has also discussed the two projects, but has yet to throw their support behind either. At their Oct. 16 meeting, the Bertie Commissioners appointed a committee to study the issue.

According to the minutes from a June 26 meeting attended by Bertie, Hertford and state DOT officials, no one has made a strong case for the potential benefits of either project. Those minutes also urged officials in both counties to jointly define the purpose they are trying to achieve and then look at both projects subjectively to determine which route best meets that purpose.

State DOT officials stressed that achieving purpose and need for both projects concurrently may be difficult.