A new state emphasis on tackling urban traffic jams is reflected in a 10-year transportation spending plan released Thursday, and that could be good news for commuters who clog Triangle freeways every workday.
It’s the first transportation plan to be shaped by Gov. Pat McCrory’s Strategic Mobility Formula, which gives priority to road and transit projects that cut congestion and promote safety and economic development. The formula was written into law in 2013 with bipartisan legislative approval, replacing a 1989 law that assigned less priority to the growth-related needs of North Carolina’s urban centers.
In the Triangle, the draft 2015-2025 State Transportation Improvement Program includes the state Department of Transportation’s commitment to:
• Help pay for a 17-mile light-rail line from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke University and downtown Durham, with construction tentatively pegged to begin in 2020.
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• Add lanes to 30 miles of Interstate 40: From Interstate 85 to U.S. 15-501 in Orange County; from Wade Avenue to Lake Wheeler Road in Cary and Raleigh, and from the Raleigh Beltline to N.C. 42 in Johnston County.
• Convert Raleigh’s Capital Boulevard (U.S. 1) to a freeway between the northern 540 Outer Loop and N.C. 98 at Wake Forest. A freeway conversion also is planned for South Miami Boulevard between T.W. Alexander Drive and Lynn Road in Durham. Other clogged intersections in Durham and Wake counties will be upgraded to freeway-style interchanges.
“We’re seeing some very important projects for this region move forward,” said Joe Milazzo II, executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business advocacy group.
A more competitive N.C.
The state Board of Transportation is to adopt the 10-year plan in June, after a public review period. Speaking Thursday to the board, most of whose 19 members he appointed, McCrory said the new transportation spending plan is part of his effort to make North Carolina more competitive with other states and regions.
“We’re developing a vision not just for here and not for the next election, but for the next generation,” McCrory said. “It will be a vision that we will sell jobs about.”
He thanked legislative leaders attending the meeting for moving quickly last year to replace the “equity formula” that balanced spending between rural and urban areas since 1989 and, critics said, was vulnerable to undue political influence.
McCrory said drivers have been frustrated by piecemeal improvements that widen busy highways for a few short miles here and there, leaving scattered narrow stretches he called chokepoints.
“One of our goals now is to deal with these chokepoints that we have throughout the state, that have deterred the economic potential of small towns and large cities alike,” McCrory said. “And we’ve got to unleash those chokepoints.”
Among the highway corridors to be improved in the new plan are U.S. 70 in Eastern North Carolina and U.S. 74, seen as an underused route from Asheville through Charlotte to Wilmington. McCrory and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata also pointed to projects that would improve highway connections to economic centers in neighboring states, including an interstate upgrade for U.S. 17 to Virginia’s Hampton Roads area.
Tata cited the Virginia connection when he promoted another big project in the 10-year plan: construction of the Mid-Currituck Bridge primarily for northern tourists who visit the northern Outer Banks. That project has struggled in recent years as legislative leaders signaled little support for a partnership with private developers, proposed by the N.C. Turnpike Authority, to build and operate the bridge as a toll project.
Tolls are planned for completion of the 540 Outer Loop in southern and eastern Wake County. The new DOT plan schedules construction on the southern section, but it stops short of promising that the eastern leg will be built before 2025.
Perry Safran, a Raleigh attorney who chairs the turnpike authority, noted that the plan includes projects to finish toll-free loops around Fayetteville, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. He said the state should not hold back on a project DOT calls “Complete 540.”
“That is my disappointment,” Safran said. “A loop is a loop, and it needs to be finished in its entirety as soon as possible.”
The 10-year plan also includes setbacks for other Triangle projects. Near the state fairgrounds in West Raleigh, DOT had planned to start work in 2019 on a $28 million tunnel to bury Blue Ridge Road beneath Hillsborough Street and nearby railroad tracks. The new plan doesn’t mention the tunnel.
DOT is building a Rolesville bypass in northern Wake County as part of a plan to widen U.S. 401 farther north to Louisburg in Wake County. The most recent schedule called for construction to start in 2017 on the last 10.4-mile leg of U.S. 401, but this work is delayed indefinitely in the new plan.
“There are some losers in the plan,” said Joey Hopkins, DOT’s Division 5 engineer, who oversees DOT work in Wake, Durham and five neighboring counties. “U.S. 401 is real big to the folks in Franklin County, and that’s one that just missed the cut and didn’t score well enough to get funded north of Rolesville.”
The new formula ranks projects in tiers of statewide, regional and division-level importance. DOT evaluated project costs and benefits based on objective criteria, and local elected leaders who serve on rural and metropolitan planning boards also contributed to project scores.
On a project to widen Interstate 40 south from Raleigh’s Beltline, DOT officials had proposed to postpone the southernmost leg from the Johnston-Wake county line to N.C. 42 in Johnston County. But after Johnston County officials said the entire project was important, DOT agreed to start work in 2018 on the widening for all 11 miles from the Beltline to N.C. 42.
McCrory and Tata said the new formula enables DOT to spend money more efficiently on road and other improvements. But gas tax and other transportation revenues are flattening out as the state continues to grow, and McCrory said he will ask the legislature next year to consider new ways to raise money for transportation needs.
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed.