Highway legacy

Leaving the last two-lane stretch of U.S. 64 to the coast as is would avoid troubling impacts.

July 14, 2012 

No artist wants to leave a masterpiece incomplete, and when it comes to highways, the N.C. Department of Transportation surely must think it has a masterpiece in today’s version of U.S. 64 between Raleigh and the Outer Banks.

What used to be a pleasant but slow two-lane through a panorama of small towns and the countryside stitching them together has been transformed for the most part into a sleek, four-lane expressway. Yet eastbound motorists come to the end of the expressway at the little Tyrrell County seat of Columbia, about two hours east of Raleigh. Then it’s back to two-lane blacktop through the most remote stretch of a trip to the coast.

The DOT now wants to bring those 27.3 miles between Columbia and Manns Harbor up to snuff. The artist can’t be blamed for feeling the urge to lay down his finishing strokes. But there are valid concerns about the damage such a widening project would do.

The N&O’s Martha Quillin reported Sunday from a community where those concerns run deep. Folks in tiny East Lake, on the east side of the Alligator River, look at possible routes for a new four-lane and anticipate losing cornerstones of their heritage – houses, a historic church and its cemetery, the East Lake Community Center.

Yet if the town and its structures were spared, the bulked-up road would have to intrude more deeply into sensitive lowlands connected to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

What’s the need? The DOT’s rationale involves creating a better Outer Banks hurricane evacuation route and improving safety. No doubt there would be gains in both areas.

But the majority of Outer Banks visitors, should they have to flee in advance of a storm, are expected to use four-lane U.S. 158 as they head back toward Virginia and points north. Safety on two-lanes is always an issue, but police patrols that hold people close to the speed limit can help keep accidents to a minimum.

U.S. 64, which famously links Manteo and Murphy as it spans the entire state, naturally was included when the legislature embarked 25 years ago on a major highway upgrade, with widespread four-laning the goal.

As the primary route from the capital to the northern Outer Banks, U.S. 64 was clearly in line for improvements, even if towns such as Bethel, Robersonville and Roper had to endure being bypassed. The state Senate’s long-time kingpin, Marc Basnight of Manteo, now retired, doubtless helped move the project along.

The masterpiece would be complete, save for that final leg east of Columbia. But this looks to be an instance where the DOT would do better to lay its paintbrush aside and save upwards of $350 million.

A rural community would be spared and a wildlife refuge left undamaged. And Outer Banks visitors, steering along that two-lane over the river and through the mystical woods, would continue to feel the coastal magic as they slowed down, looked around and marveled at a special slice of North Carolina.

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