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DOT still planning on U.S. 701 RR bridge but willing to look at gateways downtown

By Allen Turner, The News Reporter

A meeting characterized as “good” by all parties was held at the N.C. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) office in Fayetteville Thursday to discuss the idea of eliminating the bridge over the railroad tracks at J.K. Powell Boulevard.By meeting’s end, DOT was still planning on maintaining a bridge instead of installing an at-grade crossing.

Whiteville Mayor Terry Mann, Councilman Tim Blackmon and City Manager Darren Currie represented the city at the session and were joined by local businessmen John Fisher, Kenny Barnes and Houston Barnes. DOT representatives taking part included Greg Burns, DOT’s division engineer; H.L. “Drew” Cox, a former resident engineer in the Whiteville DOT office who now is head of  DOT’s right-of-way office for Columbus and Bladen counties; and Ken Clark, current resident engineer in the Whiteville office.

The meeting was called to talk about the possibilities of creating a gateway into downtown Whiteville from the reworked U.S. 701 Bypass by eliminating the bridge over the railroad tracks and, instead, installing a crossing.

“It was a good meeting, but I just don’t know what’s going to come out of it,” Mann said Friday. “They (DOT) are willing to do something, I think.”

Burns said Monday that DOT currently is proceeding with plans to maintain a bridge instead of replacing it with a crossing. Part of the reasoning is that R.J. Corman Railroad, which owns right-of-way along Main Street, is not amenable to removing its tracks because it could in the future reestablish rail service running from Whiteville eastward. 

Another reason is that, even if a crossing were installed, it would need to be done with an eye toward possible future flooding. In the event of another hurricane like Matthew, an at-grade project would flood, cutting off a hurricane evacuation route. Any project through Soules Swamp would need some elevation to prevent even “routine” flooding.

Mann said DOT has done some preliminary schematics on what it would look like if the bridge is taken out and replaced with a crossing.

Burns agreed. “Even though it wouldn’t have to be as high as the bridge, a crossing would have to be above the 100-year flood plain,” he said, “so it would have to be up a lot higher off the ground than Main Street is. And if you run a drop off into Main Street, would that would further affect flooding? It’s real complicated.”

The division engineer, like Mann, characterized the session as a “good meeting.” He said, “They (city leaders and businesses) would like to see a gateway to downtown from the bypass and they want to keep the window open for opportunity.”

Although DOT still is continuing with plans for plans for an overpass bridge instead of an at-grade crossing, Burns said the idea such as creating a gateway to downtown from U.S. 701 at either Virgil or Columbus streets is something that DOT still will consider. 

“That was brought up in the meeting with the folks from Whiteville,” Burns said, “and we had some internal discussions in our office with various DOT staff about those ideas after the meeting Thursday. We are doing some investigation of various ideas that were brought up by the town and other interested people.”

Cost is not a factor in determining whether a bridge remains over the railroad instead of a crossing. DOT estimates that a crossing would cost about $600,000 more than a bridge, but in a $50 million project (the projected cost of the bypass renovation), sources say $600,000 would not be a “make-or-break” issue.

Stuart Rogers