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New plan will drastically reshape JK Powell Blvd

U.S. 701 Bypass in Whiteville will have a radically new appearance within a decade, and be more pedestrian friendly as well.

City council on Tuesday approved a plan that will bring sidewalks on both sides of J.K. Powell Boulevard from the U.S. 74-76 Bypass to South Whiteville. The sidewalks are part of a Department of Transportation “Super Street” project that will streamline traffic through the city.

Powell Boulevard was originally designed for 12,000 vehicles per day, according to DOT. Recent traffic counts indicate that more than 20,000 per day use the highway through Whiteville, without taking into account beach traffic.

Funding for the project has been approved by the state Board of Transportation, and surveying of the route has been going on for more than a year.

A number of areas along the highway have no clear pedestrian access, requiring people on foot or bicycles to either walk in the roadway, or on private property. Under the sidewalk plan, the city will provide around $123,000 in Powell Bill funds toward sidewalk construction in areas where there are no pedestrian pathways along Powell.

DOT will provide $495,094 of the $618,000 cost, City Manager Darren Currie said. “DOT will start right of way acquisition in 2018, and let bids in 2020,” Currie said. “It won’t take long after that for construction to begin, and they need to know if the city wants the sidewalks along the highway.”

Since new bridges will be installed over Soules Swamp, the sidewalks had to be approved by the city council to include the walkways in the preliminary design work, Currie explained. “This is going to completely change the appearance of the 701 corridor through the city,” Currie said.

Public Works Director Travis Faulk told the board that the project’s route through town is just over four miles. “That’s going to be more than eight miles of sidewalks,” he said. Powell Boulevard – officially U.S. 701 Bypass – will be expanded to four lanes as far as South Whiteville as part of an ongoing project to four-lane the entire length of the highway in Columbus County.

The new road will have less access from side roads as well as improved crossovers that eliminate intersections. The expansion of the highway will also require new 23-foot wide medians for the entire distance, Currie said.

The medians are needed to provide sufficient room for the so-called “Michigan turn” crossovers. DOT will provide simple landscaping for the medians, Currie told the city council, but the city will be responsible for maintenance of the landscaping. If the city opts for irrigation systems for the medians, that work will also be completed by DOT, but before construction of the highway is completed.

“This is a large project with a lot of parts,” Currie said to the council. The wider rights of way along the project route will require moving some city utilities, Currie said, but DOT is financing and handling that work. In some areas, new lines will have to be installed, while in others there will be utilities on both sides of the highway.

One part of the project that is still unresolved is lighting along the roadway. Currie said Progress Energy has been contacted about options, but the city council will have to decide what kind of lighting, how much and where it will be installed. The city will also have to pay for streetlights, although traffic signals will still be the responsibility of DOT.

Any lighting along the road would be an improvement in some areas, Currie said. “If you ever drive out there at night, and we all do, you know it’s really dark when you get past the few lights that are there,” he said.

Mayor Terry Mann and other members of the board suggested that streetlights and traffic signals could be suspended from poles, rather than from wires above the road. “You see those in a lot of places, and they are really attractive,” Mann said. “It seems to me that installing them from poles would be safer and save money over stringing wires across the road.” Currie said the use of freestanding poles with lights at the end of arms was one of the items Progress Energy has been asked to consider.

Not all council members are as enthusiastic about the project. Councilman Tim Blackmon said he is concerned the “Super Street” will prevent customers from getting into local businesses, among other problems. “It seems like they’re trying to drive business out of Whiteville,” Blackmon said. “A lot of our businesses will be losing some significant property to the right of way. You can’t have a retail business without parking.”

Councilwoman Sara Thompson also asked if the railroad bridge would be reduced, removed or replaced. “I understand it’s going to be a flat crossing,” she said. Currie said the railroad intersection with Powell has not been “settled just yet. “They’re looking at what to do,” he said. “The railroad is very adamant about keeping the tracks through town, so they don’t want that cut off yet. What happens to the railroad bridge remains to be seen.”

The council approved the sidewalk offer as well as agreeing to maintain the median landscaping. Lighting options will be discussed at a future meeting.

Story by: Jefferson Weaver, The News Reporter

Stuart Rogers