May 19, 2014

Road Worrier: NCDOT tries to compare road and rail spending

With the state’s new Strategic Mobility Formula, NCDOT is trying to set up a fair competition across all modes of transportation – ferries and buses, sidewalks and trains, runways and toll roads as well as bridges and highways – for tax dollars.

The state Department of Transportation’s “data-driven” ratings of 3,100 projects, released last week, do more than just reckon which road improvements would deliver the most benefit for North Carolina’s money.

The new scores also mark DOT’s first try at setting up a fair competition across all modes of transportation. Ferries and buses, sidewalks and trains, runways and toll roads will contend with bridges and highways for the same tax dollars.

This may sound sensible, but it isn’t simple. The scores are objective, based on things that can be measured in numbers. But are they fair? That depends on what DOT decides to measure.

The new scores are not the last word. When local officials add their input this fall on regional and DOT division projects, they’ll have the power to move some of their pet projects higher on the list. And DOT is expected to revise its scoring criteria before it rates projects again in 2016.

For now, let’s look at a pair of apparent losers in the early ratings.

The proposed $650 million, seven-mile Mid-Currituck Bridge from the mainland to the northern Outer Banks did not score high enough to earn a likely place on DOT’s construction calendar.

This Turnpike Authority project would cut 37 miles and as much as two hours from the drive for tourists who come mostly from northern states to Corolla. Vacationing families would pay tolls as high as $25 per trip – a price that might seem like a bargain in mid-July – to cover part of the project cost.

The bridge would relieve traffic jams that clog an existing bridge farther south, and U.S. 158 through mainland Currituck County, from May to late September. But in its congestion ratings for this and other bridge and highway projects across the state, DOT figured average traffic counts for the whole year.

On average, U.S. 158 isn’t so busy.

“The traffic thins out over those remaining seven months that aren’t part of the heavy tourist season,” Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said in an interview. “That degrades the score for Mid-Currituck.”

Also, Tata said, DOT elected not to give points for another claimed benefit: the new bridge would provide another hurricane evacuation route. The top safety ratings go to projects that are likely to reduce crashes.

“Should we provide safety points for something large-scale like a hurricane?” Tata said. “We’re not convinced we should.”

The Mid-Currituck Bridge probably won’t get built unless its backers find a way to reduce the cost to the state. Or unless DOT decides to make favorable changes in its scoring criteria.

Transit is another area where DOT will consider tweaking its evaluations.

The Triangle’s proposed $1.8 billion light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill earned a mediocre score in the new ratings. The project scored barely above zero for congestion relief – because DOT figures the trains would not do much to shorten the travel time for folks who drive their cars between Durham and Chapel Hill.

As with the Outer Banks toll bridge, these DOT ratings don’t play to the strengths of the light-rail proposal. They don’t reflect some of the reasons Triangle commuters crowd onto Triangle Transit’s express buses now.

“How about the human being who benefits from being on transit?” said David King, Triangle Transit’s general manager. “Who uses that travel time productively, who doesn’t get the stress from driving, doesn’t have to pay for the parking space – who is healthy because he is walking more, and doesn’t add to the air quality problems of the region?

“All those benefits, which are hard to quantify, how do you get them into the mix?” King said.

The Strategic Transportation Investments law, enacted last year by the legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory, empowers DOT to adjust its scoring criteria in the future. Legislators told DOT to reserve at least 90 percent of the construction money for roads and bridges, and at least 4 percent for other projects. That leaves 6 percent in the middle, which could go either way.

Mecklenburg County is starting construction this year on its second state-supported light rail line. Tata noted that the Federal Transit Administration has authorized Triangle Transit to start the engineering work on the Durham-Chapel Hill line, and Wake County leaders also are beginning to consider rail options.

DOT officials will keep this in mind as they prepare to receive public feedback this summer on the first round of ratings.

“Transit is something we’re looking hard at,” Tata said. “Of course with Orange and Durham having that FTA approval to move forward – and whatever happens in Wake – we’re looking at how we’re going to address that under the current law.”

Looking back toward the Outer Banks, Tata noted the underlying goal of the new transportation funding law: to promote economic development across the state. Perhaps the Mid-Currituck Bridge, designed with tourism in mind, will earn a second look.

“The important thing is, is it good for tourists?” Tata said. “We certainly want to invite those visitors to our coastline.”

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