NCDOT Gives Local Agencies Say in Spending Ozone Money

Wed November 24, 2004 - Southeast Edition

CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) Local agencies will have more say in how to spend millions of federal dollars meant for projects to ease ozone-forming traffic congestion.

In the past, the state Transportation Department has used the money mostly for roads, even though it’s meant for an array of uses, including programs that encourage flexible work schedules and building bike lanes.

The DOT now says it will loosen its grip on how the money is spent, sharing more decision-making with local transportation planning organizations.

The word went out to the local agencies last month in requests for project applications. Projects other than road improvements would be a “perfectly good” use of the money, said Lori Cove, assistant manager of DOT’s transportation planning branch.

Mecklenburg and Union counties would get the largest piece of the $140 million “congestion mitigation” money allocated to North Carolina over the next seven years.

The Charlotte Chamber recently touted Mecklenburg-Union’s $28 million share as a way to help finance voluntary, incentive-driven alternatives to the mandatory ozone rules that have been proposed to Mecklenburg commissioners.

But since 1996, the DOT says, the money has helped pay for Mecklenburg intersection improvements, interconnected traffic signals, turn lanes, freeway message boards and a railroad grade crossing.

Federal guidelines say such traffic flow improvements are allowed.

“We investigated [anti-congestion] money the first time it came up, years ago ... and never received any,” said county air-quality director Don Willard. “We never got past, ’We’re not going to give you money for [ozone] education.’”

Projects that get the federal money have to be matched by 20 percent in local money. The money can be used for operating expenses of new programs, but only for three years.

Under the new application process, Cove said, local transportation planning groups will set project priorities before sending them to Raleigh by January.

A committee of state, federal agencies and local transportation officials will make recommendations to the state transportation board.