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Road Formula Still Spurs Frustration

By Reggie Ponder

Chowan Herald

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

EDENTON — Area officials continued to express frustration this week with a new state road-funding formula they say favors urban projects over rural ones.

Elizabeth City Public Works Director Paul Fredette and Edenton Town Manager Anne-Marie Knighton were among the officials who attended a state Department of Transportation meeting held in Edenton Wednesday to receive public input on DOT’s transportation improvement plan for Division One.

The road-building formula, known as the Strategic Mobility Formula, was established as part of the 2013 Strategic Transportation Investments Act.

The new formula assigns points to thousands of proposed road-building projects across the state, and DOT is currently accepting public input on those projects. The feedback will then be factored in with the points already assigned to each project before DOT develops a new TIP in June of next year.

Everyone at Wednesday’s meeting in Edenton acknowledged that the new system generally favors projects in higher-population areas, which tends to make less money available for projects in rural areas such as the Albemarle.

But DOT officials explained that projects also are able to score points for regional impact and for the importance placed on them by DOT’s division offices.

Division One Engineer Jerry Jennings said state highway funds have dwindled because the greater fuel efficiency of newer cars has meant lower gasoline tax revenues. While the improved fuel efficiency is obviously a good thing, it does have a negative side effect because it reduces funding available for highway projects in the state.

Jennings explained that North Carolina’s highway funding comes entirely from three user-based sources: taxes on gasoline, taxes on automobile sales, and Division of Motor Vehicles fees.

Knighton said she was especially interested in the prospects for bicycle paths, which have been a high priority for town officials in Edenton in recent years.

Knighton said a proposed bicycle-pedestrian path to the Chowan River fishing pier, for example, is a great project. But it’s hard to get the project funded, she said.

“This whole system is just another example of how rural North Carolina just can’t compete for infrastructure,” Knighton said. “Everything is going to the urban areas. It’s just very frustrating, but we’re going to keep pushing and keep trying and keep fighting.”

According to the most recent TIP, the multi-use bicycle and pedestrian path from Twiddy Avenue to the Chowan River fishing pier has an estimated cost of $400,000. It scores zero points on statewide mobility and regional impact, and 5.41 out of 50 on division needs.

Fredette described the statewide impact of the current funding formula as a bizarre permutation of the “Field of Dreams” mantra, “If you build it, they will come.”

Since the money follows population under the current scheme, those areas with the highest populations will get the most road construction, Fredette noted. But since if you build highways, people will come, then those areas with the most highway construction will see a growth in population, he said.

For that reason, according to Fredette, the whole system becomes a self-perpetuating cycle in which money, road construction and population become more and more centralized in a few urbanized areas of the state.

When Fredette ran that idea past Jennings, the Division transportation chief acknowledged the basic logic of Fredette’s premise. However, he noted that everyone in the state Division of Highways — including those, like him, working in rural and less-populous areas of the state — acknowledges that there are problems with congestion in the state’s urban areas.

That urban congestion clearly needs to be addressed, Jennings said. But because of a shrinking pot of state highway needs, building roads in rural areas tends to take a backseat to the urban projects under the current arrangement, he explained.

The following is a partial list of area projects in the state Department of Transportation’s current transportation improvement plan, or TIP. The list contains each project, its cost and its ranking scores on several measurements under the state’s new Strategic Mobility Formula:

• Widening the 15.57-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 158 from Sunbury in Gates County to Morgan’s Corner in Pasquotank is estimated to cost $116.9 million. The project scores 10.17 out of 100 on statewide mobility; 9.85 out of 70 on regional impact; and 6.56 out of 50 on division needs.

• Upgrading the 6.82-mile stretch of N.C. Highway 343 in Camden County from U.S. 158 to Shiloh scores 14.28 out of 70 on regional impact and 11.19 out of 50 on regional needs. It scores zero on statewide mobility. The project cost is listed at $17.9 million.

• Widening the 10.28-mile stretch of U.S. 158 from N.C. Highway 34 just east of Belcross in Camden to N.C. Highway 168 in Currituck County has a price tag of $124.5 million. The project scores 12.92 out of 100 on statewide mobility; 15.32 out of 70 on regional impact; and 11.88 out of 50 on division needs.

• Upgrading the 18.32-mile stretch of N.C. 168 in Currituck County from the Virginia line to N.C. 158 is estimated at $122.6 million. The statewide mobility score is 9.26 out of 100; regional impact is 10.46 out of 70; and division needs is 7.81 out of 50.

• Upgrading the 19.23-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 17 from North Broad Street in Chowan County to Okisko Road in Pasquotank to freeway/expressway standards is estimated at $362.3 million. The project scores 12.23 out of 100 on statewide mobility; 9.98 out of 70 on regional impact; and 7.47 out of 50 on division needs.

• Upgrading the 9.19-mile stretch of U.S. 17 in Chowan County from North Broad Street to the Chowan River Bridge from freeway to interstate standards has an estimated cost of $39.9 million. The project scores 8.75 out of 100 on statewide mobility; 13.2 out of 70 on regional impact; and 10.47 out of 50 on division needs.

• An Edenton multi-use bicycle and pedestrian path from Twiddy Avenue to the Chowan River fishing pier has an estimated cost of $400,000. It scores zero points on statewide mobility and regional impact, and 5.41 out of 50 on division needs.

• A proposed 2.77-mile connector in Chowan County from N.C. Highway 32 to U.S. 17 bypass has a price tag of $24.7 million. The project scores zero points on statewide mobility; 12.13 out of 70 on regional impact; and 9.75 out of 50 on division needs.

• Widening and repaving Perry’s Bridge Road in Perquimans County from N.C. Highway 37 to State Road 1213 – a 1.75-mile stretch – is estimated at $1.48 million. The project scores no statewide mobility or regional impact points but has a score of 7.89 out of 50 on division needs.

• A proposed 4.5 mile connector from Hughes Boulevard to U.S. 17 bypass is estimated at $37.6 million. It scores no state mobility or regional impact points but merits 7.49 out of 50 points on the division needs scorecard.

Don’t see a project on this partial list that you’re interested in? You can look for it on DOT’s interactive map at www.ncdot.gov/strategictransportationinvestments/.

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