Recent studies find that motorists in North Carolina are stuck in some of the worst congestion in the United States, wasting more than 47 hours a year in traffic jams. And at a time that one-quarter of North Carolina’s major roads are deteriorated, nearly a third of the state’s bridges are in need of improvement and traffic congestion continues to choke major roads, North Carolina faces a $65 billion transportation funding shortfall through 2030.
Next time you’re stuck in traffic wasting expensive gas getting no where fast, you can turn your thoughts to the empty 27- mile four-lane superhighway that may soon be built with nearly $400 million taxpayers dollars through the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge in Tyrrell and Dare counties.
The official justification for turning U.S. 64 into an expressway has nothing to do with existing traffic congestion on this roadway. Except for the occasional bear or red wolf, it’s a lightly traveled roadway most days and there’s rarely a need to slow down except to avoid getting a speeding ticket.
Evacuating the Outer Banks from Whalebone Junction in Nags Head south to Ocracoke in 18 hours is the major justification for building the new road. A 2005 modeling study concluded that by 2030, it would take nearly 40 hours to get every vehicle that would need to use U.S. 64 out of Dare County if the existing road is not improved.
Other reasons given are to bring the existing highway into conformance with a highway plan that the state has imposed on itself, and because the bridge over the Alligator River will someday need to be replaced. Those justifications by themselves would never warrant spending so much money on this project when more modest highway and bridge improvements would suffice.
Digging deeper into the hurricane evacuation justification reveals that the estimated future evacuation time that’s projected is based upon faulty assumptions that don’t reflect reality.
Dare County evacuates visitors the way they came to the county. That means nearly 70 percent of the vehicles evacuating leave by U.S.158 and not U.S. 64. Even if there was a dire emergency, and more cars were directed to use U.S. 64, the fact that evacuations normally begin up to 72 hours prior to a storm for Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands was not factored into the model that calculated clearance times.
Many people and their vehicles will have already left Dare County before the critical 18 hour clearance time since early mandatory evacuation orders are always given for Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. These areas need to be vacated early because of the ferries and the vulnerable situation along Highway. Even if all these cars were directed to leave by U.S. 64, most will be long gone before more easily vacated areas of the county begin their evacuations.
Take away this “evacuation” justification for building this massive and expensive highway, and it’s tough to conclude that the significant tax dollars and environmental damage and social upheaval the project will cost can be justified.
State leaders should use these highway dollars elsewhere. There are plenty of congested highways that need improvements, or the funds could be used to avoid having to raise $5 million in ferry tolls annually for the next 200 years.