It’s not exactly the Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone National Park, or even a drive-through safari in the tame reaches of central Florida. But a 27.3-mile stretch of U.S. Route 64 in eastern North Carolina may be a lot wilder than most travelers realize.
The last remaining two-lane section of U.S. 64 between Raleigh and the Atlantic coast bisects the 240-square mile Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, home to one of the largest populations of black bears on the East Coast. There are also the namesake alligators, red wolves, box turtles, river otters, and flocks of inland and shore bird species.
For the most part, critters, drivers, and pockets of human residents coexisted quite well with U.S. 64’s existing limitations. But with more motorists relying on the road to reach the Outer Banks and other nearby recreational attractions, plus the need to bring a key east-west corridor into compliance with the state’s Strategic Highway Corridors Plan, any approach to upgrading the two-lane road would seem to require that something in this peaceable kingdom has to give.
This week, the North Carolina Department of Transportation unveiled a new four-lane widening plan that has drawn praise from local residents and federal wildlife officials alike. A less-constricted roadway is also sure to please beach-bound motorists by eliminating a sometimes frustrating bottleneck, and help emergency managers breathe easier by providing another, much-needed evacuation route for the hurricane-prone region.
The plan includes incorporating fencing and a variety of wildlife underpasses along the route, an approach that has been successfully applied for highway projects in suburban and remote settings. Along with greatly reducing the risks of vehicle/animal collisions, the underpasses will help compensate for a small bypass around the 150-resident community of East Lake—an alternative residents themselves offered to NCDOT as a way to avoid demolishing homes and other buildings.
NCDOT also plans to create and restore approximately twice the number of wetlands than will be disrupted by the widening.
Though NCDOT appears to have struck an often-elusive balance between the built and natural environments, several wildlife protection issues remain to be reconciled, particularly safeguarding the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers that nest in the cavities of the refuge’s mature pine forests.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the woodpeckers now occupy less than 3 percent of their original habitat. Though conservation efforts have increased their numbers across the Southeast, the species remains highly vulnerable due to their non-migratory, territorial nature.
And , there’s the matter of finding the approximately $392 million NCDOT estimates will be needed to pay for the design-build widening and replacement of a 3.1-mile structurally deficient drawbridge across the Alligator River at East Lake. The project has yet to be prioritized under North Carolina’s new Strategic Mobility Formula, designed to direct transportation dollars to projects with the greatest potential benefit.
NCDOT hopes to begin property acquisition for the widening next year. With controversy dogging so many other infrastructure projects today (among them, the nearby Bonner Bridge Replacement), the agency at least has the satisfaction of achieving buy-in among stakeholders who are sometimes at odds over development in sensitive areas.
We’ll wait and see what the bears and wolves think.