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NC Transportation Plan Delays Many City Road Projects

Wed August 03, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Gary D. Robertson - ASSOCIATED PRESS

RALEIGH, NC (AP) A state panel approved a seven-year, $11.4-billion plan for road and public transportation construction July 7 that delays several urban projects and shifts money to eastern North Carolina.

Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett characterized the blueprint for the state’s road projects as “lean,” after the Board of Transportation agreed to push back scores of projects to keep highway coffers from drying up.

North Carolina would issue $650 million in new road contracts annually through 2007 under the plan, compared to a high of more than $1.1 billion in 2003.

And higher costs for asphalt, steel and concrete over the next three years could eat up $150 million more than planners expected to spend, even as traffic congestion grows and the public’s approval of added taxes shrinks.

“The next seven years are somewhat lean,” Tippett said. “Solutions seem to be further out than they have in years past.”

Following the General Assembly’s okay in 2001, the Department of Transportation DOT) boosted the number of contracts it awarded in an effort to reduce its cash balance. Now DOT bookkeepers said its cash holdings could drop dangerously low unless the number of contracts is curbed.

This year, the DOT also decided to change how it distributes money to underfunded regions get their deserved share under a 1999 law. The result is that 28 eastern counties now stand to gain $234.5 million more than what was previously planned through 2012.

The extra money has allowed projects such as the $230-million U.S. Highway 17 Bypass around Washington to move forward now, according to board member Marvin Blount III, of Greenville.

“We may have had some difficulty delivering this project if it was not for the TIP reallocation,” Blount said.

The big losers are the urban areas, particularly the Triangle and Charlotte, which will see some needed road widenings and improvements delayed. These regions had received more money than projected in recent years to accelerate projects such as U.S. Highway 64 Bypass around Knightdale. Environmental red tape delayed road construction in the east.

The seven-county area around Raleigh and Durham is slated to receive $311 million less than expected over the life of the plan. That means delays for construction of a portion of the Interstate 540 in Wake County and the widening of U.S. Highway 401.

Delays on improvements along Interstate 85 in Cabarrus County and Independence Boulevard in southeast Charlotte also are ahead. The improvements on a 1.4-mi. stretch of Independence alone would cost $111 million.

“It’s an incredibly expensive project,” said Charlotte board member Marion Cowell. “But obviously, we’ve got more needs in the entire state.”

The delays highlight again what DOT officials said is a $29-billion gap between expected transportation needs for the next 25 years and the money to pay for them.

Lawmakers are looking more closely this year at toll roads as one way to help pay for roads. The state Turnpike Authority already has the authority to build three pay-as-you-drive projects, but now legislators want to expand that to nine.

Some big-city mayors want permission to levy special transportation taxes such as Mecklenburg County has done. Tippett is working to get a greater share of federal gas taxes returned to North Carolina for use in highway construction.

The House Finance Committee also endorsed a bill that would allow the state to issue transportation bonds that would be financed by federal transportation money. The bonds would generate approximately $900 million to pay for projects faster, and ultimately at lower cost, Gov. Mike Easley said in a news release.

“We cannot afford to get caught behind the curve on transportation infrastructure,” Easley said. “Those states that have fallen behind have never successfully recovered.”

A special task force plans to meet later this month to discuss ways to finance transportation projects. The group also may address retooling the regional spending formula.

“The solution to funding is not to take from one area to give to the needs of the other,” Tippett said. “We’ve got to come up with a more palatable solution.”

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