ELIZABETHTOWN —On the surface, the massive amount of work being done in the vicinity of the U.S. 701/Hwy. 87 intersection might resemble the start of a “spaghetti junction” — a confusing tangle of roadways. But the area has gotten and continues to get plenty of thought in an effort to plan for growth in the immediate and distant future.
When all is said and done, the work being done now could be seen down the road as the lighting of the wick for additional development.
The process of improving any state highway, according to N.C. Department of Transportation District Engineer Drew Cox, who oversees projects in Bladen County, is a lengthy one — about seven years.
“If you go back before that, though — back in the late 1980s or early 1990s — there were a lot of projects where roads needed to be widened because there was not enough lane capacity, but there was not enough money to build them all,” Cox explained. “So what they did was build a lot of roads that didn’t have interchanges but addressed the capacity issues, and it was an effort to do it in a hurry.
“What we began to see — not just in Bladen County or even just in North Carolina — was that anywhere you had these roads, you were seeing certain types of accidents at the crossings,” he continued. “In addition, any time there is a fatality on a state highway, (DOT) investigates to determine if there are safety concerns on the roads, and when highway patrol does an accident report, (those reports) end up being filtered into a database that ties accidents to a location on the road.”
Once the bypass came to the attention of DOT as being a troublesome spot, based on the higher-than-average number of accidents, the seven-year process began.
Only one option
A study was conducted on the bypass, and it was determined that the overwhelming majority of the crashes and fatalities occurred in the second two lanes. For example, cars leaving Elizabethtown and stopping at Cromartie Road to cross the bypass would safely cross the two northbound lanes of Hwy. 87 but would be likely to be in an accident in the two southbound lanes, possibly because drivers were underestimating the amount of time required to clear all four lanes plus the median.
Engineers decided to build offsets off Cromartie, Mercer Mill, Peanut Plant and MLK roads. U.S. 701, however, presented another set of problems.
“It was crazy the number of accidents it had relative to the amount of traffic,” said Cox.
Since it had already met the criteria for requiring a stoplight based on the amount of traffic, downgrading to the type of exchange at the other intersections was not a possibility for DOT.
“You don’t have a lot of options if you improve from a signal,” said Cox. “In fact, the only possibility for that intersection was an interchange.”
The plans include tunneling out and lowering U.S. 701 so that traffic on that road will flow under bridges that will be constructed on both the northbound and southbound lanes of Hwy. 87. Exit ramps off of Hwy. 87 will provide access onto and off the bypass. Because it would be too close to one of the ramps, Hwy. 242 will be rerouted to the south side of Sampson-Bladen Oil.
The entire project, including landscaping around the area, comes with a hefty $14 million sticker, and construction began last spring.
“Houston, we have …”
Not everyone is happy with the way things are shaping up, however.
“Not only will it be a dangerous intersection,” said Ron Taylor, who is in the process of building a new manufacturing plant for his company, D’Vine Foods, on U.S. 701 just north of the bypass, “but it will deter anyone going around the bypass from coming into Elizabethtown. The new road devalued my property and hurt prospects for my processing plant, and it’s going to devalue all property on the south side of Elizabethtown.”
Taylor’s new plant, in addition to manufacturing, will include numerous public amenities, such as a retail outlet for D’Vine Foods’ jams and jellies and produce from local farmers, a gift shop, a restaurant, and kitchens that will be utilized for seminars and demonstrations.
“I always wanted to put something there on that piece of property that could provide income and jobs for the community and for my family,” he continued, “but now any future development in this area will be limited. In my opinion, it was designed to make sure no traffic comes into Elizabethtown by the 701 corridor.”
Cox not only asserted that commerce had no role in the design or construction of the intersection, he went so far as to say that he believed the reverse would be an incidental effect for town businesses.
“Aesthetically, it should be a nice addition to the landscape there,” he said. “Some people won’t stop on a bypass unless it’s a lit interchange. When you see that kind of investment in infrastructure, it stands out that there’s something substantial there worth getting off the highway for.
“There will be the opportunity for logo signs and other things that people pay more attention to,” he added. “Typically, when you get a well-designed, nice-looking area where people can get off the highway, people are apt to use those areas.”
What about Walmart?
Every so often, the Walmart rumor arises and begins recirculating, and a $14 million investment in one intersection, coupled with the replacement of water and sewer lines, certainly got tongues wagging about the topic again — with some people speculating that Walmart’s deep pockets were the impetus behind the bypass transformation to set up a move to the Hwy. 87 Bypass.
“I can tell you that we do not have any applications whatsoever for a Walmart of any kind,” said Town manager Eddie Madden. “In fact, no contact has been made with our office in terms of applications for development at all on the south side of 87.”
Madden added that the town’s jurisdiction extends to within 1,000 feet of the south side of Hwy. 87.
“I don’t think the interest is as great as some have suggested,” he said. “and that is not because of zoning ordinances, but because of the economy.”
Lighting that wick
Regardless of whether or not any plans are in the works for developing the area, the argument can be, and has been, made that added attention — albeit in the form of road construction — is just what the U.S. 701/Hwy. 87 intersection needs in order to get developers thinking in that direction. Again, however, that prospect is not enticing to everyone.
“The attitude at one time was that we didn’t want a Super Walmart,” said Leinwand’s owner and town Councilman Ricky Leinwand. “We’re not discouraging any business. If they have an option on a piece of land beside the nursing home, I would love to have them. But what I don’t want is to have them outside the city limits.
“If business goes out there (to the Hwy. 87 Bypass), we’ll lose the tax base in this town,” he continued. “We’ll have to raise taxes in order to compensate.
“People say all the time that Elizabethtown is by far the most impressive small town they have seen, and in order to keep it that way, we need a tax base,” he added. “We definitely want commerce, but we want it right here in town.”
The desire for business to remain in town isn’t the only uphill battle developers would face. Cox said that DOT purchased not only the property, but the right-of-way access to the project so that driveways wouldn’t be allowed.
“When you make an investment of $14 million — a project that’s more expensive than what you would normally see because of grading — when you make that kind of investment, you want to protect it,” he said.
The project was designed to accommodate expected traffic on the system 25 years from now, and any developer would have to pay for improvements to the system that would be necessary for their construction.
“In my opinion, it’s a really good project,” said Cox. “I think it will be a nice gateway for Elizabethtown, and it will certainly be safer.”
Construction is set to be complete in September 2017, with finishing touches such as vegetation being complete in March 2018.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.