RALEIGH — In the town of Albemarle, busy restaurants and shopping strips line N.C. Highway 24 as tractor-trailers bustle up and down the highway leading to Charlotte.
Thirty miles to the south, in Wadesboro, it’s a different story. The Anson County town looks a lot like it did a few decades ago. The big textile mills that operated for years have closed, and Anson is one of 18 North Carolina counties whose unemployment rate exceeds 11 percent.
There is another difference between Albemarle and Wadesboro.
NC 24 is a modern, four-lane highway for its entire stretch from Albemarle to the Interstate-485 loop around Charlotte. The corresponding highway from Wadesboro to Charlotte, U.S. Highway 74, is not. On many days, it is congested, sluggish mess.
State Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican, pointed out the disparity at a recent meeting of a legislative oversight committee.
“Time-wise, they (Wadesboro residents) are farther from Charlotte than Hickory,” Brawley said.
Brawley and his legislative colleagues hope that a new road-building formula sought by Gov. Pat McCrory and approved by the legislature earlier this year will help the dozens of Wadesboros around the state, whose economies could benefit from modern transportation corridors leading to transportation hubs and job centers like Charlotte.
Brawley says it is about more than allowing commuters access to employers in big cities. It is also about encouraging manufacturing, which requires access to airports and ports, in those outlying communities, he says.
It’s not yet clear that will happen, though.
The formula puts more emphasis on projects of statewide importance, but the scoring criteria that will determine what roads will be built is still being developed and will only be put to the test over time.
Brawley and some of his colleagues worry that emphasis on “accessibility and connectivity,” as called for in the plan, might get pushed aside in favor of other aspects of the criteria.
Even if they don’t, there are no guarantees that every Wadesboro will become Albemarle.
Every community has its own, unique impediments to economic development. And not every town wants one-size-fits-all development associated with either being a bedroom community for a larger city or even being a home to small manufacturing.
Regarding Wadesboro, existing plans to improve U.S. 74 with a bypass around Monroe have been caught up in fights over tolling the road and in a lawsuit challenging the project due to environmental concerns.
Arguments can and have been made that building roads that encourage sprawl, without any overall economic benefit, is not a wise expenditure of money.
Still, effective and efficient transportation corridors — whether they were rivers, plank roads or railroads — have always encouraged economic growth.
North Carolina’s bigger cities, as job and economic centers, need good roads, but so do the Wadesboros of the state.
Balancing those needs and spending road dollars effectively has never been easy.
But a lot people in a lot of places are depending on the changes in the distribution formula making it a little easier.