By Ivey Schofield
Mark Bronski wants to ride his bike to work, like he used to before moving to southeastern North Carolina.
But it wouldn’t be the safest way to get there. Drivers routinely ignore the 55 mph limit on the winding state highway that travels through the backroads of Columbus County, home to his family and business. There’s also no bike lane.
Bronski’s dreams could become reality under the latest comprehensive transportation plan under public review in Columbus County.
The plan, commissioned by the N.C. Department of Transportation, outlines projected needs for the county for transportation improvements, including bypasses, sidewalks, public bus routes, multi-use paths and bike lanes. It is also the key to securing grants and coordinating land use plans with elected officials for at least the next decade.
The plan was originally crafted in 2019, but concerns over safety and broadband access during the pandemic delayed the public comment hearing until this month.
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Bronski was one of only a handful of Columbus County residents who attended one of the four public comment meetings. Until Aug. 26, the state is hoping for more residents’ input on the plan – before it’s too late.
“This is the guiding document,” said Ken Clark, DOT district engineer for Bladen and Columbus counties. “Now’s the time to receive the comments, not when it’s time to start designing the project.”
Recommendations include constructing bypasses near Cerro Gordo and Chadbourn, widening U.S. 701 in Tabor City, reestablishing an abandoned freight rail from Whiteville to Leland, adding multi-use pathways near roads, connecting bike trails across the county and establishing a fixed bus route in Whiteville.
The most controversial recommendations, Clark says, are in Tabor City and Chadbourn. Locals don’t want to redirect traffic away from their businesses and their livelihoods.
The state doesn’t get involved in local economies, said Patrick Flanagan, regional planner for the Cape Fear Council of Governments.
“We don’t try to steer it one way or the other,” he said. “We try to be neutral and just provide a safe network so that there are no issues. Then the businesses can grow where it’s natural to grow.”
The state’s main focus, Flanagan said, is getting travelers safely through Columbus County to their destinations: the beaches of North and South Carolina.
Local economy, environment
More than 40% of Columbus County residents say they want transportation improvements that will ultimately attract and expand businesses, according to a community survey conducted by the state.
Bronski’s business, Pierce & Co. General Store, is off N.C. 214 – the back way to Interstate-74/76 and N.C. 211, two thoroughfares that lead to the beaches.
Bronski said he doesn’t think DOT projects will increase traffic to his store. With its hardware, knick knacks and food, the store has been a staple for locals and passersby for more than a century.
But Bronski’s own innovation might get more travelers to stop and bring their money to Hallsboro, an unincorporated community between Whiteville and Lake Waccamaw with fewer than 450 people.
Earlier this year, Bronski installed two charging stations for electric vehicles – the first and only charging stations in the county. He said it’s not unusual to see vacationers occupying both stations and then coming inside to get sandwiches.
About 35% of Columbus County residents want the environment, including reducing pollution and protecting land and wildlife, to play a role in transportation decisions, according to the community survey.
That’s why Bronski supports bike trails, which the state is proposing to establish around municipalities and connect to others in neighboring counties.
“Around here there’s a lot of nature, but it’s not really easy to get to nature,” Bronski said. “I think any way that the county and the state can help improve people’s access to nature and encourage them to get outside and enjoy themselves would be phenomenal.”
Access to public transportation
However, being a large county geographically presents other challenges, including lack of easily accessible public transportation.
Columbus County has a public transportation system, but it’s on demand. Residents must call the transportation office, wait for a bus to arrive, travel to their destinations and call the office again to travel back home.
“That’s pretty typical of a rural county like this,” Flanagan said. “But this being a 30-year vision, we do want to look at the possibility of establishing a (bus) loop route in Whiteville.”
The buses would travel to places like grocery stores, schools and the hospital on an established route with established times, making transportation more accessible to more people.
Approximately 55% of people in Columbus County think community members lack reliable transportation, according to a 2019 health assessment conducted by the local health department.
The state is also hoping to bridge the gap for traveling to places such as Wilmington, Fayetteville and Raleigh through bigger transportation services like Greyhound and Amtrak.
“We may not have a regional transit system here, but we want to be able to connect you,” Flanagan said. “It would be nice to make your trips a little more efficient.”
The state’s proposed rail between the Industrial Park and Wilmington could also provide efficiency for the delivery of goods.
“Anything and everything you can think of travels by rail,” Flanagan said. “We just have to have the opportunity to go after a company and say this is probably an ideal place to locate.”
State representatives encourage county residents to be vocal about the aspects most important to them – whether that’s a railway or a bike lane. They say they’ve made changes to design plans based on public recommendations before.
The proposed transportation projects will take years to come to fruition, if they ever do, state representatives say. Demonstrated need, funding and local support will determine their outcomes.
In the meantime, some people might be willing to ride their bikes on the side of highways without bike lanes – like former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Bronski jokes, with a slightly serious undertone, that he will pull a Lance Armstrong and ride his bike to work one day. Maybe there will be a bike lane by then.