Road Worrier

Road Worrier: More jobs and fewer stoplights mark a highway’s economic value

July 29, 2013 

— State Board of Transportation members got acquainted last week with a mysterious computer model the state will start using to evaluate big highway projects, according to their expected economic benefits.

A better highway can reduce traffic jams and get everybody where they’re going more quickly. How much of a boost will this mean for the local economy, and how many new jobs will it create over the next 30 years?

DOT will pose these questions to a computer program called TREDIS. The answers will produce an “economic competitiveness” score and help determine which road we build next, and which road we build after that.

Board member Hugh Overholt, a retired Army general and New Bern lawyer, wondered whether the TREDIS software model could gauge the job-creating power of road improvements in rural Eastern North Carolina.

“Our biggest economic impact is agriculture,” Overholt told Brian Alstadt, an economic analyst for the Boston-based Economic Development Research Group, creator of TREDIS. “We live off contract farming. In this model, did you look at the swine industry, which is based on contract farming?”

Alstadt rose to the challenge.

“Um, there are no pigs in the model,” Alstadt began.

His software model figures that some businesses depend more heavily than others on trucks and travel times – so when roads are improved, they enjoy more economic benefits. Although hogs “are going to be lumped with cows and whatnot,” Alstadt said, the TREDIS program will actually come up with a number to predict how many livestock farm jobs will be created if DOT decides to build a particular road.

Overholt lives on U.S. 70, a major route through Eastern North Carolina and the subject of a different kind of study commissioned last week. DOT and the nonprofit Highway 70 Corridor Commission hired two consulting firms to calculate the economic benefits of building out a series of freeway bypasses on U.S. 70 between Interstate 40 in Johnston County and the state port at Morehead City.

Of course, the general outcome of this study is not in doubt. It will conclude that beefing up U.S. 70 is a good idea.

“This part of our state could be one of the primary growth areas in North Carolina’s future, if these infrastructure projects are completed,” former Gov. Jim Martin declared at a Morehead City gathering. Martin will help oversee the study.

The Clayton Bypass was the first big improvement in years for the 135 miles of U.S. 70 east of I-40. A bypass around Goldsboro is under construction now, and work will start in 2016 on the Havelock bypass in Craven County.

The next big challenge is DOT’s plan for a U.S. 70 bypass around Kinston – as yet unscheduled and unfunded. A short loop south of town would deliver a faster drive from the Triangle to the coast. But some economists say DOT should choose a longer and more expensive loop to the north.

That would create a freeway link to the Global TransPark, an airport-centered industrial park created by the state in 1991. The park has struggled over the years. Some potential corporate clients have turned away because it lacks quick access to an interstate highway.

“We have fumed about it not producing the results everybody talked about when it started, but we haven’t given it the resources it needs to be successful,” said Durwood Stephenson, executive director of the Highway 70 Corridor Commission, which represents local governments in five counties along the way.

DOT planners haven’t done the TREDIS math on the Kinston bypass. But they gave transportation board members a few examples to show how their new computer model evaluated recent projects across the state.

Take the recent I-40 widening in West Raleigh and Cary, which opened up the Triangle’s worst rush-hour bottleneck. Somehow, TREDIS figures that this project will add precisely 1,278 jobs to the local economy over the next 30 years.

By comparison, the U.S. 70 Goldsboro bypass gets credit for 971 new jobs. Not bad.

But because Goldsboro’s economy is smaller than the Triangle’s, the U.S. 70 project is credited with a bigger percentage increase in overall economic value – a whopping .2348 percent boost, compared to a merely respectable improvement of .0959 percent for the Raleigh I-40 widening.

Thus spake TREDIS.

At his office in Smithfield, Stephenson uses simpler numbers to gauge progress on U.S. 70.

He can drive down I-40 from Smithfield to Wilmington in about an hour and a half. Morehead City is just a few miles farther away, but the drive on U.S. 70 takes more than an hour longer.

That’s because of all the stoplights on U.S. 70.

“At one point you had 116 stoplights between Morehead City and I-40 in Johnston County,” Stephenson said. “We’re down to 86 now. I think we’ll be at 77 by 2015. Some folks won’t be satisfied until we’re down to zero.”

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