Hampstead bypass exchange foe right, DOT says

By Bill Walsh
StarNews Correspondent
Published: Sunday, August 30, 2015 at 1:00 p.m.

HAMPSTEAD — Depending on who you talk to, Mike Nadeau is a concerned and involved citizen, or, if you happen to be chatting with most elected officials in Pender County, he is the main obstacle to a much-needed U.S. 17 bypass around Hampstead that continues to languish on the drawing board.

After Nadeau was invited to a long-awaited meeting with N.C. Department of Transportation officials and engineers recently in Raleigh, it appears that the first estimation may be closer to the mark.

Nadeau, who founded and leads a group called Citizens for the Hampstead Bypass (C4HB), has been fighting to support the proposed and mapped but unfunded roadway, but without a planned third interchange midway along its route. The $30 million midtown interchange was wrongly calculated, Nadeau has insisted, and nowhere near the amount of traffic the DOT tabulated would exit and enter along its pavement.

Nadeau, according to Patrick Norman, N.C. DOT manager of transportation planning, is right on that count, is probably close to accurate on his much-maligned estimate of the cost of the interchange, and, despite allegations launched by several county commissioners, not responsible for the roadway’s failure to secure state funding.

The problem began, according to Norman, when engineers and designers first started to work on the bypass design in 2008, when they were provided Pender County plans for a massive residential and commercial development that never panned out, the permit for which is, in fact, now expired.

“It’s not an error that we created,” Norman was quick to point out. “When we do our traffic forecasting, we rely heavily on local data for future development. In doing so, there was a proposed development shown that would have added a significant amount of new trips to that area. It never came to fruition, but at some point in time it had to have had some kind of permit for development from the county.”

As far as the cost of the interchange, “it’s hard to say,” Norman said. “I don’t know that it would necessarily add $30 million to the project; if you take the ramp out, you’ve still got other roadway infrastructure that is going to be there. Depending on the complexity of the design, it could cost $30 million. I don’t think we will have a definitive answer until we get further into the process. But, yes, it could reach $30 million.”

Finally, “all the projects going on a statewide tier are scored on a quantitative basis,” Norman said of the allegation voiced most recently by county Commissioner David Piepmeyer and commissioners’ Chairman David Williams.

Williams characterized C4HB as small, disruptive, inappropriately named and driven by personal agendas. He also questioned whether N.C. DOT has ever “overbuilt” a road — whether that is even possible — especially in this congested part of southeastern North Carolina. He wonders how many other commercial and residential units have arisen since The Preserve at Bayberry project fell by the wayside. And who knows, he asks, when someone else might pick that project up, or propose similar intense development at that site?

“The issue that we have in Hampstead is that we do not have consensus,” Piepmeyer agreed. “At least that is the perception. The quicker that we change that perception, the quicker that we have the view that we have a united group that is in total support of the Hampstead bypass in this region, in this county, the quicker we will get funded.”

Not quite, Norman said. “They are all numbers driven,” he said of decisions about roads on the statewide level, all based on “quantitative data.”

The Pender County Commissioners have pushed hard to get the bypass project on Gov. Pat McCrory’s list of bond-funded highway projects, putting Hampstead back into a political arena, but that does not contradict Norman’s observation — nor does it diminish Nadeau’s campaign against the midtown interchange.

“I guess the big picture is that everyone wants to get this thing built,” Nadeau said early this week. “They did the re-rankings (of road projects) earlier this year, so that train has left the station. It is one perspective to say that we did, indeed, recognize a bona fide error, but at this stage it really doesn’t make any difference anyway.”

If, he added, “we had been accorded this meeting two years ago when we first started (questioning), the design could have been modified, the budget amended accordingly.”

Norman said it is possible the midtown ramp will disappear from the project, though it is far too early to tell. “That determination won’t be made until the project is actually funded and we get into the design, because there are so many factors that have to be considered,” he explained.

No one — not Mike Nadeau, not the commissioners, certainly not the commuters who use the road — question the need for a bypass around Hampstead. Whether that bypass requires an approximately $30 million investment of tax dollars for a midtown ramp remains open for debate.

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