Drive-by hit

First Posted: 1/15/2009

Merchants, city worried that U.S. 74 exit move will be costly

LUMBERTON - To widen U.S. 74 and bring it up to interstate standards, the state Department of Transportation plans to close Exit 14 and create a new high-speed off-ramp nearby.
But some Lumberton merchants and city officials oppose the plan.
Donivan Oliver, who manages the SunDo Kwik Shop at Exit 14 off Interstate 95, estimated that sales at his business might drop by 80 percent if the exit is moved. Oliver is one of nine merchants located at or near the exit who plan to write letters to the state and to U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre of Lumberton asking that the plans be changed.
“It is going to annihilate us,” Oliver said. “If you're going to take 95 away from us, you might as well build a fence around this place. We hope we can get the state to listen.”
But after years of planning and with the $150 million project set to go out for bid in October, it may be a little late in the game to begin making changes.
A county official, who asked not to be identified, said the effort to alter the project should have begun sooner.
“It's too late now,” he said. “Those folks are really up a tree without a paddle.”
Plans to improve U.S. 74 from the Maxton bypass to N.C. 41 near Lumberton have been in the works for about five years, although the effort to widen the two-lane stretch began years before that. The highway has been the site of countless fatalities and accidents, and six people have died on U.S. 74 this year.
Joe Bailey, DOT resident engineer in Lumberton, said the road will be widened to four lanes and eventually become part of the Interstate 73/74 corridor. Bailey said to do so will call for creating a new exit about 3,000 feet south of Exit 14. The new interchange will be a much larger, four-leaf clover exit designed to accommodate high-speed interstate traffic merging onto the ramp. The new interchange would be similar to the one at I-95 and I-40. The DOT plans to complete a new service road to businesses, the Southeastern Regional Agriculture Center/Farmers Market and Kenny Biggs Road.
“The businesses at Exit 14 will not have to move, but they will no longer have the same access from U.S. 74,” Bailey said. “There will be no ramps accessing that road.”

Petition drive
Donivan Oliver's father, Sonny, who owns Oliver Oil Company in Lumberton, said it would have been cheaper if the state had taken the gas station. Sonny Oliver said his business has paid more than $9 million in road taxes since opening in 1995.
“Is losing millions in road taxes going to help the state or hurt us?” he said. “And putting retailers out of business, what is that going to do for the county and the state? You take away that ramp and that is what you're going to do.”
The Olivers have started a petition to express their opposition to relocating the exit. They say they have collected more than 400 names.
“It is not just the businesses, the people who use that exit to come and go from work will have to use the service road, which wasn't really built to accommodate that kind of increased traffic,” Donivan Oliver said. “This is just going to be a headache for everyone.”
City Manager Todd Powell said the Lumberton City Council may consider a resolution opposing the move that would be sent to the state and federal officials.
“If those businesses are upset, I can see why,” Powell said. “From an economic standpoint, both commercial and industrial, there is no real reason to do away with the exit. All it does is make the properties less desirable because the access to them is less.”
Powell said his biggest concern is how the closing will affect traffic on West Fifth Street, Kenny Biggs Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
“It is going to change traffic patterns, in addition changing the commercial values at the current interchange,” he said. “People will start using Kenny Biggs Road as an access point to MLK. That is less ideal from a traffic standpoint. We will end up with more traffic on N.C. 41 and that road is in desperate need of widening.”
Councilman Leon Maynor estimated that traffic on West Fifth Street may triple in volume.
“There is already a mess on that road at certain times,” Maynor said. “There is no telling what will happen now.”
Powell said moving the exit would also reduce emergency response time.
“They will have an extra two miles to get to an accident scene inside the interstate,” Powell said. “Unless, of course, they cut a hole through the interstate fence.”
Mac Campbell, who represents Robeson County as the District 6 commissioner on the state Transportation Board, said he was unaware of the objections to the project.
“This is the first I've heard about that,” Campbell said. “But a project of this magnitude doesn't happen overnight. It is not like we're paving a dirt road. There have been a number of meetings and hearings where the plans and designs were discussed. This is sort of late to be objecting.”
Campbell called the current highway a “death trap” that is in desperate need of improvement.
“The major reason we've undertaken this is because of the number of fatalities on that road,” he said. “People's lives are at stake.”
Donivan Oliver said he attended some of the DOT meetings, but was unaware of the exit change until recently.
“We wanted U.S. 74 widened because of all the accidents and don't have a problem with that,” Donivan Oliver said. “We knew about it and supported it. But as far as the actual on-and-off ramps are concerned, we had no knowledge until the last little while.”

Stunted growth?
Donivan Oliver added that the four-leaf clover exit planned for U.S. 74 will not only hurt his business, but leave the road barren of any commercial growth.
“Just look at the same design on interstates 95 and 40,” he said. “There aren't any businesses there because of the way that thing is designed.”
Like Oliver, Greg Cummings, county economic development director, has expressed fears that a proposed four-leaf clover exit would stymie economic growth. Cummings said he has asked that DOT not to construct an exit similar to the one at the I-95/I-40 interchange. He would prefer that the interchange be patterned after the ones in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, which have nearby businesses.
“Our major concern, and we told the DOT, is that the exit be a friendly one,” Cummings said. “We want one that is not too fast like the one on I-95. That kind of high-speed ramp is not conducive to commercial growth.”
Cummings said he is hopeful that the DOT will scale down the exit design. If that happens, the new highway will bring “all kind of new growth” to the county, Cummings said. Officials from the county, the city of Lumberton, Lumber River Council of Governments and the state Department of Commerce began formulating a strategic plan about 18 months ago to stimulate commercial and industrial growth on the proposed new 74 corridor.
“I understand where Mr. Oliver is coming from,” Cummings said. “It will hurt those businesses, but that plan was put together at the state and federal levels. They decided where the exit would go. We're just trying to deal with the hand that we've been dealt.
“This corridor is going to play a critical role in this county's economic growth,” Cummings said. “I've already fielded several calls in past year from major real estate consultants asking about that highway and when it would be completed.”

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