Town leaders have approved spending about a quarter of a million dollars to apply for a federal grant that could save the town millions in the future as work begins to widen and repave Morrisville Carpenter Road.
Rush-hour traffic on the thoroughfare causes frequent congestion, but widening the road to four lanes between the Savannah neighborhood and N.C. 54 would cost more than $6 million.
On Oct. 28, town commissioners approved a federal grant application, that if approved, would pay for 80 percent of the total cost. Morrisville would spend about $1.4 million for the work.
But the decision to approve the initial $240,000 to design the project was met with controversy, and a 5-2 vote. .
“I think it’s premature to go ahead and submit this proposal,” said Morrisville Town Council member T.J. Cawley.
He said he’s afraid that by spending $240,000 now, council members would tie up the remaining $1.2 million anticipated for the project.
The grant says funded projects must be finished within 10 years.
If a more pressing road project pops up in the meantime, Cawley said, the town’s ability to react could be hurt by having so much money tied up elsewhere.
“I feel pretty strongly that we should wait,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll lose anything by waiting.”
Cawley and Council member Vicki Scroggins-Johnson cast the two votes against the project.
Ben Howell, Morrisville’s transportation planner, told the council that if they move forward on the project, there’s a chance the town could receive other grants in the future, for this and for other projects.
The 10-year window for Morrisville Carpenter Road, he said, will allow ample time to look for more outside funding. The project also would add sidewalks to parts of the road and resurface it between Davis Drive and N.C. 54.
Mayor Pro Tem Liz Johnson said she previously “had heartburn with this project,” but the possibility of future funding persuaded her to approve it.
“What we’re doing is moving forward on a project for a design that will then give the road a higher priority for funding that the town will not get today,” she said.
Cawley said he realizes the town’s approval would give higher priority, for grant purposes, to the Morrisville Carpenter Road improvements.
But he said that doesn’t mean that the road itself is the highest priority for drivers in town.
“I don’t think it’s necessary, at this time, to commit our future town funds as well,” he said.
Council member Michael Schlink, on the other hand, said the town already has scaled back the designs for this project once and could do so again in the future, further reducing costs.
“We’ve shown flexibility going into this,” Schlink said. “We’ve cut back the scope.”
Howell agreed, advising the council to move now – and possibly cut back later if needed – rather than to wait.
He said if the project costs decrease, the town could lower its budget and return some of the grant money.
If the town receives the grant, administered by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Locally Administered Projects Program, funding could arrive by February or March, Howell said.
Then the 10-year clock would start next October, counting down to when the work must be finished.
Johnson said even if drivers don’t think Morrisville Carpenter Road is the highest priority for road improvements, the road needs work.
“This Morrisville Carpenter Road has always, always desired to be improved,” she said. “This is not something we just thought about yesterday or today. It’s something that, for years, we’ve had in the transportation plan.”
Mayor Mark Stohlman said even though the grant opportunity came up quickly, with no chance for public hearings before the deadline to apply for the funds, he thought most Morrisville residents wouldn’t mind the town applying to widen and repave one of the town’s major roads at an 80 percent discount.
“The general concept of improving Morrisville Carpenter Road has been around for a long, long time,” Stohlman said.