Road Worrier

Road Worrier: US 64 plan features animal underpasses, East Lake bypass

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comAugust 19, 2013 

Rosemarie Doshier is happy about the state’s new plan to finish widening U.S. 64 to four lanes, and about what it will mean for her neighbors in the Dare County mainland community of East Lake.

Federal wildlife officials are even happier about what it will mean for black bears, red wolves and box turtles.

Happy? How can this be? This time last year, as state Department of Transportation engineers aired their options for widening the last two-lane stretch of U.S. 64 between Raleigh and the Outer Banks, they seemed sure to please no one.

We’re talking about 27 miles of the highway from Columbia to Manns Harbor. It crosses the Alligator River and splits the 240-square-mile Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, home to endangered red wolves and one of the most plentiful populations of black bears on the East Coast.

It also runs through the rural Dare community of East Lake, home to nearly 150 retirees and primarily blue-collar workers. Residents protested last year that if DOT widened U.S. 64 on its present path, it would wipe out the community center, both churches and about one-fifth of the homes in East Lake.

DOT engineers settled on an alternative suggested by community residents themselves. Now they plan to move a 1.5-mile stretch of U.S. 64 about 200 yards to the south – giving tiny East Lake one of the littlest bypasses in North Carolina.

“We studied it and we said, yes, your idea is the best one,” project engineer Ted Devens said.

Devens was preparing to announce the decision at public meetings on the U.S. 64 project Monday in Manns Harbor and Tuesday in Columbia, at 6:30 p.m. at St. John’s Baptist Church on U.S. 64.

With a price estimated at $392 million, the project includes a new four-lane, three-mile bridge across the Alligator River. It’s not clear when the money to build it will be available.

Doshier, a real estate agent who has lived in East Lake for 40 years, was delighted to hear that DOT has opted for the mini-bypass.

“It sounds like we’re going to get exactly what we have fought for from the very beginning,” she said. “This should help us keep our little community just like it is. It’s secluded, but a way of life we enjoy.”

Better for wildlife, too

An East Lake bypass would push U.S. 64 deeper into the wildlife refuge. But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials like this plan, too, because it includes a collection of wildlife crossings. These are highway underpass bridges and culverts of different sizes, intended to provide safe passage beneath the road for creatures as small as turtles and possums, and as large as wolves and bears.

“Ultimately, this project can be better for wildlife than what we have right now, on the two-lane road,” said Scott Lanier, deputy manager of the Alligator River refuge. “The wildlife crossings they have planned are going to be a real boon for wildlife.”

Drivers on the widened part of U.S. 64 west of Columbia have seen stretches of the highway lined with chain-link fences, designed to keep big animals from crossing the road. Bears, raccoons and white-tail deer travel along the fences until they come to openings that funnel them safely under the highway.

That’s how the added crossings through the national wildlife refuge will work, DOT and wildlife officials said.

“More importantly, they’re going to provide safe passage for people,” Lanier said. “If you’re in a car and you hit a 400-pound bear crossing the highway, it kills the bear but it also can kill the person. And we do have bears that are hit out there on that highway.”

Normally, widening a highway across a national wildlife refuge is not a good thing, Lanier said. “But it’s going to make a better highway for people, and it’ll make a better highway for wildlife,” he said.

Challenges remain

DOT still must come to terms with federal wildlife officials on questions about how the U.S. 64 project will affect a number of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers that live between Columbia and the Alligator River.

“The issue with the woodpeckers is huge,” said Kym Hunter, an attorney for the Virginia-based Southern Environmental Law Center, which has an office in Chapel Hill. “That’s a potential show-stopper. You can’t build a wildlife underpass for a woodpecker.”

And the next question is whether the project will win approval under DOT’s new Strategic Mobility Formula, approved by the legislature this year. It’s the state’s new method for setting spending priorities and balancing a project’s cost against its benefits.

DOT officials say that widening the last two-lane section of U.S. 64 will upgrade a major coastal hurricane evacuation route. Hunter said there is not enough traffic on U.S. 64 to justify the project cost.

“What’s it really for?” Hunter asked. “You go there and you never see another car on the road.”

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