Long-delayed upgrades to Interstate 95 in North Carolina would get a boost from the federal government under a draft list of 50 infrastructure projects compiled by President Donald Trump’s transition team – but details of the proposal are scarce.
The draft document notes only that I-95 improvements are “ranked by the Federal Highway Administration as a top priority. ... I-95 is the busiest interstate in the nation, and this section is a major freight corridor.”
Trump’s stated desire to use public-private partnerships to fund his infrastructure plan could indicate tolls as a possible funding source if a private company builds the I-95 upgrades. The list does not specify if the plan includes tolls.
Ernie Brame operates a large truck stop along I-95 in Kenly, and he’s lobbied against tolls because he fears it would prompt long-distance drivers to use another route. A drop in I-95 traffic would mean fewer customers for the hotels, restaurants and gas stations that rely on travelers.
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“Public-private partnerships scare us because how do you pay for it?” he said.
Brame said he’d prefer that upgrades be funded through the federal gas tax, and he notes that the state has been able to widen other interstates without tolls.
“I believe that when you are east of Raleigh, you find funding a lot harder to come across,” he said. “We really want to be treated like the rest of the state.”
The list from the transition team, which was obtained last week by McClatchy newspapers, includes two infrastructure projects in North Carolina: About $1.5 billion in improvements to I-95 as well as the planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas line connecting West Virginia and North Carolina.
The White House said Wednesday that the list is not an “official” White House document. A Washington-based consulting firm confirmed that it produced the document for Trump’s transition team, and the National Governors Association and a member of the U.S. House Transportation Committee said Trump’s team sent them copies.
Trump campaigned on promises to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure, and he’s spoken about a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan that would include public-private partnerships and create jobs.
The N.C. Department of Transportation has not received additional information about the transition-team proposal yet.
“While North Carolina would welcome resources to improve I-95 as well as other critical transportation needs, to our knowledge the prior administration (of Gov. Pat McCrory) did not submit anything to the National Governors Association,” DOT spokesman Robert Broome said Friday. “DOT leadership is working to identify funding priorities.”
While NCDOT has $173 million in paving and other minor projects scheduled for I-95 over the next decade, the agency has struggled to find funding for $4.5 billion in improvements needed, despite studying the issue for more than a decade.
Those plans call for widening the highway from four to six lanes from the Virginia to South Carolina borders, with an eight-lane section between Benson and Fayetteville. Multiple interchanges would get upgrades as well.
An NCDOT report in January 2016 determined that “North Carolina cannot depend on federal earmarks” to pay for improvements. It also found that the state’s current formula for allocating funding wouldn’t generate the money required for major I-95 projects.
The agency has studied the possibility of funding the project with tolls, but that option met with opposition from communities along the highway.
One option is to limit the burden of tolls by building “express lanes” where drivers pay to use the newly built lanes while the original ones remain free. The state is using that model for widening I-77 near Charlotte, but the approach has prompted outrage from commuters who use the highway.
Pipeline on the list
In addition to I-95, the draft Trump infrastructure projects include the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would transport natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, where it would stretch from Northampton County south to near Pembroke in Robeson County.
Dominion and several other energy companies are building the pipeline, and construction is scheduled to begin later this year. The document from Trump’s transition team doesn’t explain what role the federal government would play in the project.
Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion Energy, said the company can’t comment on the infrastructure plan documents because “we cannot independently verify their source.”
“However, we are very encouraged by the Trump administration’s recognition of the urgent national need to build critically important energy infrastructure projects,” Ruby said in an email. “The administration has taken several important first steps in recent days to clear the path for these projects, and we are eager to work with the president to ensure that projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are approved and built in a timely manner.”
In November, a group of residents and environmentalists known as the Alliance to Stop the Pipeline held marches in Cumberland, Nash and Robeson counties to protest the project. The protesters argue that the pipeline would endanger their health and property values.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing environmental impacts of the pipeline and is accepting public comments on its draft report until April, according to WMRA public radio.
FERC’s draft says the project would have “temporary and permanent … adverse effects” on the environment, but the impacts can be “reduced to less-than significant levels” if the utility takes specific actions.
McClatchy Washington Bureau Reporter Lindsay Wise and Kansas City Star Reporter Steve Vockrodt contributed to this report