Town leaders say a light rail project in Durham took precedence over several other projects vying for grant funding from the state, including a sidewalk project Zebulon had planned for this fiscal year.
The town will continue to seek funding from the N.C. Department of Transportation to build a sidewalk along East Stronach Avenue and a connected portion of North Whitley Street, but it will be another two years before Zebulon can reapply for the same grant.
“The project is now on a two-year hold,” said Zebulon Planner Julie Spriggs. “In the two years we are waiting, we are going to try to strengthen our project so we can improve our score.”
Spriggs compared the grant process to the NCAA Tournament.
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Zebulon’s project passed through the first two assessment rounds – from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the DOT’s Strategic Planning Office of Transportation – but was never included in the Dec. 4 draft of the State Transportation Improvement Program.
“It was kind of like making the Sweet 16, but not making the Final Four,” Spriggs said.
The town’s project consists of 1,165 feet of sidewalk – 260 on North Whitley Street from East Stronach Avenue to the south, and 905 feet on East Stronach connecting Whitley to Shepard School Road. Its’ estimated cost is $130,000.
Zebulon had applied for an 80-20 matching SPOT grant, a prerequisite for being considered for 100-percent funding from the Safe Routes to School grant program, which is also administered by the DOT.
“If you scored well enough in the first category you might get approved at the second level for 100 percent,” said Zebulon Public Works Director Chris Ray. “We had high hopes and very strong indications, as I understand it, that we were going to get (the 80-20 grant), but at the end of the day, we didn’t get it.”
Interim Town Manager Sidney Perry told commissioners at a meeting Dec. 17 the Durham rail project had taken on a higher priority and plucked money from several other projects up for consideration for funding. He said he found out the same week as the meeting.
“We were one of those others,” Perry said. “We called about (the grant), expecting it was about time to do it. That’s when we found out it had changed.
“It’s one of those deals where I guess you can’t count on (the funding) until you get it.”
Zebulon Planning Director Mark Hetrick had a sense of the uncertainty of the process back in March, shortly after the town submitted for the grant.
At the time, Hetrick said Zebulon’s sidewalk project was ranked No. 8 among 21 projects seeking SPOT funding.
“Of those 21 projects, I just don’t know how many SPOT projects are applying or going to be considered for Safe Routes grants,” Hetrick said last spring.
Spriggs said the town is already taking steps that will make its next grant application for the sidewalk project more attractive.
“One way is through a bicycle and pedestrian plan, which the town is currently applying for a grant to create,” Spriggs said. “Another way is to increase the length of the project for more connectivity. If it increases the strength of the project, it’s worth increasing the cost.”