The dream of an Interstate 70 is two stoplights closer because of a five-mile N.C. Department of Transportation project in Wilson’s Mills.
The DOT plans to replace two intersections there with interchanges, meaning U.S. 70 in Johnston County would be stoplight-free from Interstate 40 to Princeton. Last week, the DOT held an informational meeting on the Wilson’s Mills project, allowing residents and users of the highway to ask questions, voice concerns and offer suggestions.
The proposed changes would affect the highway’s intersections with Wilson’s Mills Road and Swift Creek Road, with the DOT offering two alternatives for each. The plans vary in scale and impact, with $5 million separating the most and least expensive, and each claiming a different number of homes and businesses. One plan would move Swift Creek Road to the west, and all of the plans include overpass constructions.
The DOT expects to settle on its plans this spring, with right-of-way acquisition to begin in 2018 and construction starting in 2020.
At last week’s meeting at Wilson’s Mills Elementary School, attendees milled about in the cafeteria, leaning over 10-foot-long maps of a highway they know well but never see from above. They pointed out their homes or their neighbor’s, found their workplaces or farms and wondered aloud how drastic the DOT’s changes would be.
Regardless of which plan the DOT pursues for Swift Creek Road, Wilson’s Mills Councilman Kenneth Jones will likely lose land he leases to a car lot. But Jones thinks freeway status could bring economic development to his hometown.
“Progress is going to come,” he said. “We don’t need those stoplights. Replacing them with interchanges could be what makes this town survive. When you have 80 to 90 acres of freeway, it makes this land ideal for commercial and industrial businesses.”
The DOT’s Jay McInnis, project engineer for the U.S. 70 work, said the proposal began as a way to reduce accidents at the two intersections. “It originated as a safety project,” he said. “It’s an area of the highway where cars are going 70 miles per hour, and then all of a sudden, here’s stoplights.”
Last year, the DOT added converting U.S. 70 to an interstate to its five-year highway plan. McInnis said beyond the ease of travel, interstates tend to stimulate economic development. He added that the designation also draws more federal funding, increasing from an 80-20 split between federal and state as U.S. 70 to 90-10 as I-70.
While industries might look for interstates to locate their companies, the DOT’s plans for U.S. 70 in Wilson’s Mills will close or alter a number of existing businesses, including Family Dollar and White Swan Bar-B-Q. Brian McLean, who works off of Uzzle Industrial Drive, said a freeway will force him and other workers in the small industrial park to get to and from work along service roads.
“We don’t even need these road changes,” he said. “It’s not a good solution for us.”
The necessity of the changes puzzled others in attendance. Joe Briles said U.S. 70 doesn’t have safety or traffic problems.
“I’ve lived here for 25 years, and I don’t recall that many accidents,” Briles said. “This is a waste of money. I don’t see the validity of it. There’s not really any congestion. This money could go to other projects. The streets of downtown Raleigh are crumbling; it could go there or I-95.”
The DOT report for the meeting said fatal accidents at the two intersections were higher than for other four-lane highways but did not reach a “critical” level.
The DOT’s plans would affect few people more than George Case. If the DOT moves Swift Creek Road to the west, he would lose his home. The DOT’s other idea for Swift Creek Road would put Case’s home just beyond the concrete fray.
For his part, Case seemed resigned to the change.
“They probably know what they’re going to do,” he said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson