North Carolina spending a lot to pave its last dirt roads

The push to provide asphalt to all, launched in 1989, nears an end with new questions about whether it’s worth the cost

acurliss@newsobserver.comMay 27, 2012 

  • From gravel to asphalt If the legislature provides enough money, DOT has big plans over the next two years for covering unpaved roads with asphalt. In seven Triangle-area counties, 30 miles of gravel roads with 334 houses are to be paved.
     County Roads  Miles  Homes  Daily traffic  Cost
    Wake 8 5.4 60 766 $1.91 million
    Durham 3 1.2 23 130 $542,000
    Johnston 5 1.8 5 178 $425,000
    Franklin 4 2.0 39 279 $761,000
    Chatham 14 8.5 56 605 $3.61 million
    Harnett 14 6.2 121 871 $1.48 million
    Granville 6 5.3 30 408 $1.71 million
    Source: N.C. Department of Transportation

Mark Teague Road near Pittsboro in rural Chatham County is a half-mile-long strip of gravel that cuts through some woods and then dead-ends at a vacant brick ranch house surrounded by farmland.

The state road looks more like a driveway for Elizabeth Hopp, whose family lives in one of three houses off the lane. When crews showed up recently to widen the road bed, build erosion control for a pond and get ready to pave the road with asphalt, she wondered why the state was upgrading a road that goes nowhere. The cost to taxpayers: $225,000.

“I don’t really see the need for this,” Hopp said. “Maybe this is some kind of progress, but it seems sort of strange to me.”

The state’s deputy chief roads engineer, Jon Nance, said the Department of Transportation is just following orders from the General Assembly.

Indeed, DOT will spend millions this year in an ongoing mission, launched in 1989 by lawmakers and then-Gov. Jim Martin, to improve and pave every state-maintained dirt and gravel road in North Carolina.

The state has spent hundreds of millions in the past two decades to blacktop 13,000 miles of roads, bringing asphalt to the driveways of nearly 200,000 homes, DOT records show.

Crews are still at it and now are reaching the bottom of the list, with only 1,842 miles still eligible for paving. They are working in the most rural and least populated spots, such as Mark Teague Road, and in hard-to-pave, mountainous terrain in the west, such as at Lower North Fork Road in Jackson County near the Tennessee border.

Crews there have nearly finished widening work and are preparing to pave a 2.5-mile dead-end road that climbs up the side of a mountain. It has about 30 houses, half of them considered “part-time” or second homes. There are no churches and, except for a bed-and-breakfast, no businesses.

Taxpayers are spending nearly $3.8 million on the project.

Betty Dyer, whose family has lived for 55 years on what locals call “North Fork,” said she can’t wait.

“The dust is so bad,” Dyer said. “You have to hose the house and everything off to sit out on the porch. We have waited years and years and years and years for this.”

Lawmakers who oversee pinched budgets have not taken a hard look at the unpaved road program in several years, but they have reduced funding for it.

Last year they siphoned off some of the paving money to beef up bridge repair and road maintenance. Last week, House budget writers proposed to cut $40 million from the rural paving budget in order to minimize spending reductions for popular rural and urban transit programs.

Still, the money flows. In DOT’s current work plan, which extends through the next two years, more than $130 million will be spent to pave 325 miles of roads that serve a combined 2,488 homes.

Something for everybody

North Carolina’s commitment to leave no road unpaved is the result of a classic political compromise.

Martin, the Republican governor, and the legislature, controlled by Democrats, devised a big transportation package in 1989 that had something for everybody: urban loops for the cities, a greatly expanded network of four-lane highways for the entire state – and a layer of asphalt for every dirt and gravel road across North Carolina.

After 23 years, the state has seen mixed progress toward the goals set out in the Highway Trust Fund Act. DOT has built 78 percent of its planned four-lane intrastate highway system, but only 42 percent of the planned urban loops.

By comparison, the campaign to pave gravel roads is a resounding success.

DOT lists 1,927 miles of roads that are not eligible for paving because of environmental issues or because landowners have refused to donate the necessary right of way. With only 1,842 miles left on the work list, that means North Carolina has blacktopped nine of every 10 unpaved miles that are available for paving.

“I know there are some areas of the country – Michigan, for example – where they’re actually letting paved roads go back to gravel because they can’t afford to keep them up,” said Gene Conti, the DOT secretary. “I don’t think we want to go in that direction.”

Other states have joined North Carolina in paving their dirt and gravel roads. The Federal Highway Administration says the nation’s unpaved road inventory fell from 1.5 million miles in 1998 to 1.3 million miles a decade later.

Rep. Phil Shepard, a Republican from Jacksonville, persuaded House budget writers Thursday to ease planned reductions in public transportation grants and instead to cut an additional $6 million from funds for paving gravel roads.

“We have paved most everything that is eligible for pavement,” Shepard said. “I’m not aware of many that haven’t been paved.”

That’s true in Shepard’s Onslow County near the coast, where all but 2 percent of the secondary roads are covered in asphalt. Most of North Carolina’s remaining unpaved roads are in the mountains, and political leaders there have championed the state’s paving campaign.

In the 25 counties that make up DOT Divisions 11, 13 and 14 along the state’s western border, 14 percent of all secondary roads are still dirt and gravel – many of them just one lane wide.

“There’s still more to be paved,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, a Mars Hill Democrat. “The job is not done. Let’s not declare victory, because it’s not over.”

Residents whose roads are paved talk of smooth rides, safer travel, cleaner air and improved property values.

But even after the initial cost of turning a narrow gravel path into a two-lane asphalt road, paved roads are more expensive to maintain. Potholes form. The asphalt wears out. Resurfacing is needed every decade or so.

“The maintenance cost is higher due to the machinery needed and the materials used,” Nance said.

Diminishing returns

The program costs have increased sharply over the past 23 years, and the benefits have diminished.

More miles were paved, on roads serving more houses, before 1997 than during all the years since, according to DOT figures. During those first eight years, the paving program served 18 homes for every mile of asphalt. DOT’s upcoming two-year work plan calls for paving roads that average 8 homes per mile.

Fast-rising prices for fuel and asphalt have pushed up construction costs for all kinds of road projects. DOT’s average cost for paving gravel roads has increased from $250,000 per mile in 2007 to $350,000 today. At that price, it would cost the state $644 million to pave those remaining miles.

All that money and effort have led to questions over the years about North Carolina’s transportation spending priorities.

In 2005, lawmakers gave DOT new flexibility to use some of this money to widen and improve existing rural paved roads, instead of just building new ones.

In 2008, a statewide study commission on transportation funding made a number of recommendations that were quickly adopted – and two that fell flat. Commission members wanted the legislature to borrow money to finish urban loops, upgrade interstates and fix bridges. And all that money no longer needed for paving dirt roads could be used instead to cover the debt payments, they said.

Doug Galyon of Greensboro, then chairman of the DOT board, replied that more study was needed on whether the borrowing was a good idea. He was clear, though, in his determination to protect the rural paving program.

“We do not support the proposal to use the existing Secondary Roads Program funding to pay debt service,” Galyon wrote in a May 2008 letter.

Last year, lawmakers shifted money away from dirt roads amid budget tightening. Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Republican from Gastonia who is co-chairwoman of the Senate’s transportation appropriations committee, said in an interview that she wants to cut more.

“I do not subscribe to the theory that every dirt road in North Carolina needs to be paved,” Harrington said.

Rep. Ric Killian, a Charlotte Republican who co-chairs the House transportation appropriations subcommittee, said it might be time to reassess the unpaved road program.

“That is something we need to look at further,” Killian said. “At what point do we declare victory and say that’s over, if we’re doing more than is needed?”

Mountain legislators are not alone in defending the program. Road-building contractors, from asphalt companies to erosion control specialists, also form a powerful special interest that represent jobs and have clout.

So far, road builders have taken a cautious approach to any talk of possible cuts. Mostly, that’s because any reductions probably would simply shift money to other road-building efforts, such as widening and congestion-relief in urban areas, said Berry Jenkins, a lobbyist for Carolinas Associated General Contractors, which represents road builders.

He said the rural paving program has been good for many small businesses.

“If we had our preference, we’d like to see it continue,” Jenkins said.

‘Pure-T ridiculous’

In the DOT’s current funding plan, there are 478 roads on the list to get work in the next two years.

That includes Sand Road near Hatteras – a road with 13 houses that dead-ends into a beach dune. Taxpayers will pay to pave the tenth of a mile at a cost of $49,000.

The list includes the top of Wesley Creek Road in the Haywood County mountains west of Asheville, a stretch that runs for 1.8 miles into a national forest. At DOT’s last count, it had four homes on it. The cost to pave: $2.5 million.

“It does get some use by hunters going to the forest,” said Jonathan Woodard, the DOT engineer for that area. “I do think there might be some more development up there, or coming in.”

Residents and real estate brokers in that area said two developments are planned along the unpaved part of Wesley Creek Road, both in the works for years and already subdivided. One, Wolf Creek Ranch, is described as a “gated equestrian community” where one- to 11-acre plots are listed at $78,000 to $395,000.

DOT’s list is replete with short stubs that are dead-end roads serving one or two homes.

One of them is Cub Road near Benson in Johnston County. Crews recently showed up on the L-shaped, half-mile lane that splits two farm fields and ends alongside Interstate 95.

Dale Norris has the only home on the road. He is “tickled to death they got to me,” saying he won’t miss the dirt and grime at all. Paving his road will cost taxpayers $80,000.

Norris also sees reason for concern. Cub Road doesn’t connect to anywhere and is used only by himself and his family – and perhaps some tractors; even the mail is delivered on a nearby road. He wonders why the entire road is being paved, when his home is only one-tenth of a mile from the adjoining asphalt road.

“Some of what they’re doing here is pure-T ridiculous,” Norris said. “But let me tell you, I am going to be glad to see it right here.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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