Triangle beachgoers would no doubt welcome a stoplight-free U.S. 70 from Raleigh to Morehead City. So too would companies that use the highway to ship goods.
But as former Gov. Jim Martin noted at a gathering recently in Morehead City, a true freeway could devastate the stores and restaurants built along the existing highway. Many of those businesses are in Johnston County.
To determine what impact a freeway would have on the economies of Johnston, Wayne, Lenoir, Craven, Jones and Carteret counties, the N.C. Department of Transportation has commissioned a study. Among other things, the firms conducting the study will talk to stakeholders, including industries and small businesses, to gauge the impact of a freeway on their bottom lines.
Johnston County should be an instructive place to visit. In Johnston, U.S. 70 bypasses Clayton, Selma and Smithfield. But it slows for stoplights in Wilson’s Mills, Pine Level and Princeton, three towns where businesses have opened to be close to the highway.
Clayton should be particularly useful to the study. Because the bypass is far south of town, it cannot possibly benefit businesses along what is now U.S. 70 Business. It would be useful to ask stores and restaurants there how much, if any, the bypass affected their bottom lines. (The traffic we see on the way to and from work suggests that Clayton shops and restaurants are doing fine.)
On the flipside of the freeway coin, those conducting the study should talk also to the likes of Grifols and Novo Nordisk, the pharmaceutical companies that together employ hundreds of Johnstonians. Has the Clayton bypass reduced their shipping costs by reducing their delivery times? Would easier access to Interstate 95 via a Wilson’s Mills bypass reduce shipping costs even more? What about a stoplight-free freeway all the way to the port at Morehead City?
We trust also that those conducting the study will spend some time talking to business owners and town leaders in Wilson’s Mills, Pine Level and Princeton, the three Johnston towns where businesses depend heavily on U.S. 70 traffic. In those towns, the loss of jobs and sales-tax revenue is a real threat.
In our experience, the outcome of studies is often predictable. No one was surprised, for example, when a state-commissioned study said the pros of tolling Interstate 95 outweighed the cons.
But even if the U.S. 70 study has an agenda, we would encourage Johnston County industries, businesses, commuters and government leaders to make their voices heard. Without them, the study is certain to arrive at its own conclusions.