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Editorial: Gateway effort to downtown has other options

Revised on: 07.17.2018 at 10:46 a.m.

Posted on: 06.22.2018 at 07:00 a.m.

Even though it will be about 18 months before major construction starts on the Powell Boulevard, U.S. 701 By-pass widening project, it’s a constant source of conversation around town.

Right-of-way acquisition is currently underway, which will be followed by utility work and demolitions.

Even in the grand scheme of major DOT projects, this is a big one – roughly $50 million dollars.

The reason, which isn’t lost on anyone who lives here, is the increasing traffic and number of wrecks on Powell Boulevard. On some Saturdays, which are rental turnover days at the beaches, traffic backs up onto U.S. 74-76 trying to exit onto U.S. 701.

The project has its detractors because it will become a divided highway with a wide median and limited access only at high-volume intersections. The project will also take approximately two years to complete.

On balance, though, the project has become necessary. DOT says the trend for Powell Boulevard and U.S. 701 is not good if traffic patterns remain the same. The biggest threat to doing nothing, DOT says, is that automated mapping systems from the likes of Google, Waze, Apple and others will send travellers in other directions if there is congestion. With the Soules Swamp bridge over the railroad in need of replacement, it was now or never for a project of this scope.

A group of businessmen has diligently tried to find a solution to shifting more traffic off Powell Boulevard and U.S. 701 Bypass into downtown Whiteville. Pulling just 5 percent of the cars that travel along the highway each day could see 5,000 vehicles head toward downtown, supporters say.

One goal, which has been in place for a number of years, was to ask DOT not to rebuild the bridge over the railroad at Main Street and create an at-grade crossing to give motorists a direct route into downtown. Main Street would, in effect, become a main street again.

DOT, however, says that any highway in close proximity to Soules Swamp would have to be elevated because U.S. 701 Bypass is a hurricane evacuation route and flooding would threaten to close the highway.

Also, R.J. Corman Railroad wants to keep its right-of-way through Whiteville in case the old Wilmington-Manchester line is reopened due to increased traffic at the state port. Though the line has been abandoned east of Whiteville to near Leland, railroads have significant power to condemn land for new routes. It’s not likely to happen in the near future, but it could one day. DOT says if a major rail corridor were to reopen through Whiteville, a bridge over the tracks would be mandatory.

We hope the effort to convert the bridge to an at-grade crossing will give the city and downtown business owners some say-so in finding an alternate, attractive “gateway” into downtown.

Strong downtowns are crucial economic development tools, so finding an effective gateway helps everyone.

DOT has said it will work with the city to create a gateway that will give a good first impression. Signage isn’t great now and could be improved.

We also encourage the city and DOT to also look at making Washington Street from Powell Boulevard to the courthouse a gateway. The county, one day, will have to renovate the historic courthouse – hopefully in the full glory it deserves. Burying unattractive overhead power lines and installing decorative lighting is expensive, but it’s a difference-maker in other towns. A Washington Street corridor would help uptown businesses, show off the courthouse and Courthouse Square, plus send traffic down Madison Street to highlight an attractive part of the city.

Granted, turning off Powell Boulevard won’t appeal to the average tourist, but for those who prefer the road less travelled and perhaps are looking for a nice town in which to retire, the money would be well spent.

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