NCDOT Backs Underpasses to Keep Animals Off Highways

Fri January 16, 2004 - Southeast Edition

ROPER, NC (AP) As engineers worked on an unopened stretch of U.S. 64, they sought to provide safe passage for bear, deer, coyotes and red wolves trying to cross the road.

They created three underpasses designed to funnel the animals under the road instead of across it –– at a cost of nearly $1 million each.

Some taxpayers are not sold on building animal crossings at the same time the state faces repeated budget crises. But transportation officials back their use, saying they make things safer for both animals and drivers.

“It takes the wildlife off the road and increases the safety of the public, which is what we’re trying to do,” said Phil Harris, chief of the Natural Environment Unit of the state Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

The doubters have included Gov. Mike Easley, who wrote to state Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight in 2001 to object before the crossings were built.

“I have yet to find out who is going to teach the bears that they are supposed to cross the road only at certain locations,” Easley wrote in 2001 to Basnight, who pushed to include the crossings in the road’s design. “Most wild animals that I have seen cross the road anywhere they want to and when they get ready.”

Officials say that similar “critter crossings” along I-75 between Naples, FL, and Fort Lauderdale, FL, have been used by black bears and panthers there. Studies of the Florida underpasses found that no bears or panthers have been killed near them since they were built in the early 1990s.

A report last year from the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., found that at least 23 states have built or planned wildlife underpasses.

To control animal traffic near the U.S. 64 stretch in Washington County, the NCDOT erected 10-ft. (3 m) fencing along the highway for .5 mi. (.8 km) in either direction from each underpass to funnel the animals toward it.

The three underpasses are spaced along a 7-mi. (11.3 km) stretch of the as-yet unpaved highway between Roper and Creswell. They are 120 ft. (36.6 m) wide and have dirt floors to make them seem more natural.

Basnight does not apologize for the animal crossings in his district. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could have stopped the U.S. 64 widening project unless the agency signed off on the disruption to the surrounding woodlands, he said.

“They could’ve stopped it, because you were disrupting the natural habitat,” Basnight said. With the man-made crossings, he said, “You’re keeping intact a part of the natural habitat that you’ve seriously disrupted.”

Highway-safety experts like the crossings as well. Eric Rodgman, a senior analyst of the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, said that the 14,000 collisions between vehicles and deer reported in North Carolina in 2002 accounted for 6 percent of all traffic accidents in the state.

Studies have estimated the cost of a single human traffic fatality at more than $3 million in lost income, medical costs and property damage, Rodgman said.

“If you could prevent just one fatal crash involving a deer or a bear, it does pay for itself,” Rodgman said. “The problem is documenting whether it does [prevent crashes] or not, because that part is really tricky. There’s no way to easily justify or document that these things are actually doing that.”

Officials said the animal underpasses along U.S. 64 are still considered an experiment. Mark Jones, bear biologist of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, said the commission intends to study animal migration patters after the new highway opens in 2005.

“There are going to be calls for more of these on highways all over the state,” Jones said. “A lot depends on what we find out here.”