AT NCDOT it’s time for less asphalt, more transit

DOT has been much in the news in recent weeks. Rightly so, it seems. The Map Act, a longstanding land grab that has shackled some property owners for decades, has been declared unconstitutional. A billion dollars in settlements could ensue. Two hurricanes have hit eastern North Carolina in the past two years, sending repair and maintenance costs soaring to over $500 million and counting. And Dorian’s drive-by, with damage estimated at around $50 million, reminds us that frequent and intense storms continue to be the new normal.

These budget reckonings have sent over 500 DOT employees and contractors home. Numerous projects have been pushed back or put on hold. Now, affected groups — engineers, developers, business interests — are lobbying the legislature for a bailout. A number of around $600 million from the rainy day fund and other accounts has been floated. Though these groups are right to try to keep the jobs pipeline flowing, this will be a mere patch on a leaky tire if another storm hits anytime soon.

Rather than writing a massive, taxpayer-funded check and hoping for good weather, perhaps it is time for the legislature and DOT to pause, reflect, and update our transportation priorities.

First, let’s reconsider the current game plan, which is to plow ahead with massive expenditures like the 440 Beltline widening and the beleaguered 540 south extension.

In the case of 540 in particular, The highway does not exist yet, nor does the population that it will supposedly serve. Delaying or canceling it will do little harm. Ditto the massively expensive widening of the Beltline, which will bulge to 12 lanes at Hillsborough Street and Wade Avenue. Both of these projects endured protracted community resistance and legal battles, adding millions to their costs; perhaps DOT should begin to realize that these suits are not mere nuisances, but clear signals that their approach has fallen out of step with the community’s values.

Short on cash? Let’s table just these two unpopular projects. DOT will find the better part of $3 billion under its’ pillow. Or, redesign them to cut their scope and scale down by half, and find $1.5 billion. Plenty to renew eastern NC and still save some for the next storm events, which should be our first priorities. And there are dozens of other projects in the queue that should be evaluated for their relative merit, economy of design, and community priority. Some will emerge as vital. Many others, not so much.

And, really. The era of the big commuter highway should be behind us by now. Every study and survey shows that by a wide margin, peoples’ preferences now are for more compact, walkable and urban centers, with less driving and commuting in their lifestyles. A long commute on a wide highway is nowhere to be found on the wish list of the current generation. Our community’s desire for being a 21st century innovation center, and an eye toward a healthy, sustainable future should be informing a rebooted DOT.

Let’s try to manage traffic without all the costs, asphalt, and destruction. For example, If cameras to collect tolls were aimed at the Beltline, and fees charged at rush hours, drivers would start to think differently about their habits. Even if only commercial carriers were charged and began to redirect their fleets to off-hours travel, traffic would be considerably reduced.

Longer term, rail transit is key to offering resilience and real alternatives to driving. We have tracks leading in and out of Raleigh’s new train station to Durham , Apex, Clayton, Knightdale, Cary, RTP — and all over the state — shouldn’t some of our resources be focused on commuter and regional rail? Right now, NC DOT’s annual budget stands at $5 billion, of which a puny $37 million is for rail.

The money tap is running dry. Climate events are intensifying. People don’t want to drive if they don’t have to. Eastern North Carolina needs our help. We need more than one option for our mobility. This is the moment to hit the reset button and get things on a more sustainable and financially healthy track. Let’s put the ‘transportation’ back in DOT, plan for the future, and put the era of big highway building behind us. Commuters might grumble for a while; our kids and grandkids will thank us.

Ted Van Dyk is an architect and principal of New City Design Group of Raleigh.