Now that Congress has passed legislation to spend $305 billion over the next five years on the nation’s highways, railroads and transit lines, North Carolina can expect to get a little more money and a lot more predictability from Washington.
“This will provide North Carolina the certainty we need to continue to build the roadmap in our 25-year transportation vision,” Gov. Pat McCrory said in a news release last week, as the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The new law also will speed the eventual creation of two new interstate highway corridors across Eastern North Carolina: an interstate upgrade for U.S. 70 from Wake County to Morehead City combined with a leg of U.S. 117 from Goldsboro to Faison, and a freeway route from Raleigh to Norfolk, Va., now partly marked as I-495 or “Future I-495.”
North Carolina and other states have struggled over the past decade to make long-range plans, because Congress made transportation spending commitments for only a few months to two years at a time. Federal funds account for 20 percent of the state Department of Transportation’s overall $4.4 billion budget, and for 80 percent of most highway construction projects.
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The FAST Act will increase federal highway spending by 5 percent and transit spending by 10 percent next year, and then at lower rates in subsequent years through 2020.
“Hopefully it will increase enough to cover inflation for the next five years,” Calvin Leggett, DOT planning and programming manager, said this week.
DOT planners tended to make cautious predictions about federal funding in the past, when they weren’t sure how much they would get from Washington to help complete a five-year highway project.
“You may see us ramping up future projects a little more quickly now, because we’re not going to have to be so conservative in our projections,” Leggett said.
Highway contractors will appreciate the longer planning horizon, too.
“You’ll probably see them invest more in equipment and more training, and in hiring more people,” said Berry Jenkins of Carolinas Associated General Contractors, a construction trade group.
Republicans and Democrats had to make compromises in order to pass the FAST Act, and they did not come to terms on a stable, long-term source for transportation money. The federal gas tax, which has seen its buying power shrink since it was set at 18.4 cents a gallon in 1993, was unchanged.
Instead, Congress found a variety of short-term sources to pay for transportation. The legislation envisions selling oil from the government’s strategic petroleum supplies to raise $6.2 billion over the coming decade – a figure that relies on the hope of receiving double the current oil price, according to The New York Times.
The FAST Act designates as high-priority corridors and future interstates two routes that McCrory and DOT planners have been promoting in Eastern North Carolina. But it does not include money to upgrade the highways.
Part of U.S. 64 between Raleigh and Rocky Mount now is marked as I-495. East of I-95, planners also hope to post interstate markers on U.S. 64 and U.S. 17 through the state’s northeast corner to Norfolk.
U.S. 70 is pegged for interstate status from I-40 near Raleigh east to the state port in Morehead City. The FAST Act designation enlarges this corridor with an extra leg that turns south at Goldsboro, to extend the existing I-795 from Wilson along U.S. 117 to Faison at I-40.
“I am pleased that we were able to come together and pass a bipartisan long-term highway bill that will help ensure that the Raleigh-Norfolk and US-70 corridors soon become part of the Interstate system,” U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said in a news release.
The bypasses at Clayton, Goldsboro and New Bern were designed mostly to interstate standards and might be among the first parts of U.S. 70 to receive interstate markers.
State DOT officials have not picked interstate route numbers, set a timetable or estimated the total cost of upgrading both routes to full-length interstate highways.
FAST money for North Carolina
The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act will give North Carolina an estimated $5.524 billion in highway funding over the next five years, starting with $1.058 billion in fiscal year 2016, according to estimates from the Washington-based Eno Center for Transportation.
North Carolina can expect $608 million in transit funds through fiscal year 2020, starting with $117 million in fiscal 2016.
Separate highway funds are allocated directly to local planning organizations, without going through the state DOT. The Raleigh-based Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization can expect $69.9 million over the next five years, starting with $12.8 million in fiscal 2016.
source: Eno Center for Transportation