Bridge gap funds escape axe

By Cindy Beamon

The Daily Advance

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Gap funds for the proposed mid-county bridge appear to have escaped the axe in the House’s proposed spending plan for the upcoming year.

Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, said funding for the bridge in the House’s draft budget is encouraging although it’s still a long way from approval. The proposed budget will still need to wind its way through committee hearings in the House before final action, he said. The funding package could also be changed in the Senate, he warned.

Last year, the General Assembly approved yearly installments of gap funds needed to fund the project. However, the changeover in leadership has raised concerns that funding could be cut for the seven-mile span linking Currituck’s mainland to the Outer Banks.

The proposed budget delays funding for the project this year, but earmarks funds for the upcoming budget.

The first installment of $15 million in gap funds was scheduled to begin this year, but those funds have been diverted to another road project, said Owens. Instead, funds would start up next year under the proposed spending plan.

Owens said he’s not overly concerned about the possible delay because the state isn’t ready to bid out the project anyway.

“If the bridge was going for bid before July 1, it would be a problem on capturing that money, but that is not going to happen,” he said.

Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, said any delay in funding is unsettling.

“It causes great concern because the more you push something back, the more likely that something else could pop up,” said White.

A year’s delay in funding should not have a huge impact, but it’s hard to predict the effect, said Steve DeWitt, chief engineer with the N.C. Turnpike Authority. He said the state is now negotiating a contract with private developer ACS-Dragados, a Spanish bridge-building company, for building the $660 million span.

Currituck County Commissioners met with Senate leaders this week on their second trip to Raleigh to lobby for the bridge and against suggested cuts to the Knotts Island Ferry.

Commissioner John Rorer said the board emphasized the bridge’s importance to economic development in Northeastern North Carolina and its importance as the state’s first public-private partnership.

Rorer said the state leaders appeared receptive to the message, but he’s still wary about what could happen next.

“I have my concerns because of the nature of the political process,” said Rorer.

Chairman Vance Aydlett said he felt encouraged that the Knotts Island Ferry would not be eliminated but that some changes — like a toll charge or a cut in hours of operation — could result from state spending cuts.