2013 law has con­trib­uted to build­ing boom for Tri­an­gle roads

The Herald-Sun (Sunday) - - Front page - BY RICHARD STRADLING rs­[email protected]­sob­server.com

A change in the way the state al­lo­cates money for road projects is help­ing fuel a high­way build­ing boom in the Tri­an­gle.

The N.C. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion has more than $6 bil­lion in ma­jor high­way projects un­der­way or in the works in Wake, Durham, Orange and John­ston coun­ties. They in­clude the $2.2 bil­lion ex­ten­sion of the Tri­an­gle Ex­press­way across south­ern Wake County, but also more than two dozen ef­forts to widen high­ways or turn roads into free­ways that will have Tri­an­gle driv­ers squeez­ing be­tween Jer­sey bar­ri­ers and orange con­struc­tion bar­rels for years to come.

Th­ese don’t in­clude dozens of smaller state and lo­cal ef­forts to add lanes or im­prove con­gested in­ter­sec­tions in the com­ing years. Nor does it in­clude three ma­jor tran­sit projects that are meant to pro­vide al­ter­na­tives to driv­ing: the Durham-Orange light rail line, a bus rapid tran­sit sys­tem in Raleigh and a com­muter rail line stretch­ing from Gar­ner to Durham.

“It’s as busy or busier than I’ve seen in my more than 20 years here,” said Joey Hop­kins,

the chief en­gi­neer for the NC­DOT divi­sion that in­cludes Wake and Durham coun­ties.

Hop­kins said the vol­ume of work in the Tri­an­gle out­strips an ear­lier busy patch in the late 1990s, when the state planned and be­gan build­ing the Knight­dale By­pass and the north­ern arc of I-540 and widen­ing I-40 and I-85 in Durham.

There’s no sin­gle ex­pla­na­tion for the flurry of ac­tiv­ity, Hop­kins said, but the Strate­gic Trans­porta­tion In­vest­ments law pro­posed by for­mer Gov. Pat McCrory and ap­proved by the Gen­eral Assem­bly in 2013 is a big fac­tor.

The law was meant to re­move pol­i­tics from the de­ci­sions about where to build or widen high­ways and es­tab­lished datadriven for­mu­las for de­ter­min­ing where roads were needed most. It re­placed a sys­tem put in place in 1989 that was re­ferred to as the “eq­uity for­mula,” be­cause it spread high­way money across the state “like peanut but­ter,” said Eric Lamb, the trans­porta­tion plan­ning di­rec­tor for the City of Raleigh.

The new for­mu­las meant more money went to grow­ing ur­ban ar­eas where traf­fic conges­tion is worst, Lamb told an au­di­ence in Raleigh in late Novem­ber.

“It re­ally wasn’t a sur­prise to us that five of the top 10 projects in North Carolina were in Wake County,” he said, re­fer­ring to the first time the for­mu­las were ap­plied.

Af­ter years of plan­ning, those big projects are get­ting built, Hop­kins said.

“We’re start­ing to see the fruits of that a few years af­ter the law passed, be­cause it takes time to get the projects de­vel­oped,” he said.

NC­DOT has also tried to pick up the pace of devel­op­ment to fin­ish more projects on time and to pay down the fund for con­struc­tion and main­te­nance. The fund had bal­looned to $2.3 bil­lion at its peak in March 2017, said NC­DOT spokesman Steve Ab­bott. As of Dec. 1, it was down to just un­der $500 mil­lion.

The rush of work comes as NC­DOT strug­gles with an ag­ing work­force and short­age of em­ploy­ees. Bobby Lewis, the agency’s chief en­gi­neer, told a Board of Trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee this fall that nearly one in five jobs in the depart­ment is va­cant and that 45 per­cent of em­ploy­ees are age 50 or older. About 2,000 will be el­i­gi­ble to re­tire in the next five years.

But Hop­kins notes that NC­DOT is bet­ter able to weather the la­bor short­age now be­cause it re­lies on con­trac­tors for much of the plan­ning and de­sign work that was once done by state em­ploy­ees in Raleigh.

“We’re not slow­ing down,” he said. “If we don’t have the peo­ple do it in-house, we’re look­ing to go out to con­tract with it.”

Here are 10 of the ma­jor road con­struc­tion projects ei­ther un­der­way or planned in the Tri­an­gle. The cost fig­ures come from the lat­est State Trans­porta­tion Im­prove­ment Pro­gram list from De­cem­ber 2018.

Ex­tend the 540 Tri­an­gle Ex­press­way from N.C. 55 in Holly Springs 28.4 miles across south­ern Wake County to U.S. 64 near Knight­dale. NC­DOT has awarded a $314.5 mil­lion con­tract to build the first 8.6-mile leg, from U.S. 401 to I-40, and ex­pects work to be­gin next sum­mer. But it still needs en­vi­ron­men­tal per­mits, which four groups led by the South­ern En­vi­ron­men­tal Law Cen­ter have op­posed. To­tal cost: $2.2 bil­lion.

Widen I-40 from I-440 in Raleigh to N.C. 42 in John­ston County and re­con­fig­ure the in­ter­change at N.C. 42. Con­struc­tion got un­der­way this fall and is ex­pected to be com­pleted in 2022. To­tal cost: $463.3 mil­lion.

Widen the Belt­line be­tween Wade Av­enue in Raleigh and Wal­nut Street in Cary, in­clud­ing new in­ter­changes at Wade Av­enue, Hills­bor­ough Street, Western Boule­vard and Jones Franklin Road. The project also in­cludes build­ing a new un­der­pass to carry Blue Ridge Road un­der Hills­bor­ough Street and the N.C. Rail­road tracks near the N.C. State Fair­grounds. Con­struc­tion be­gins in 2019 and will take four years to com­plete. To­tal cost: $478 mil­lion.

East End Con­nec­tor, the 3.9-mile high­way that will con­nect the Durham Free­way with I-85 on the east side of Durham when it opens in late 2019. To­tal cost: $211.2 mil­lion.

Widen I-40 from U.S. 15/501 to I-85 in Orange County. The $161 mil­lion project will elim­i­nate one of the last four-lane stretches of I-40 in the Tri­an­gle, though con­struc­tion isn’t sched­uled to get started un­til 2023.

Re­con­struct the I-440 in­ter­change at Glen­wood Av­enue and other changes to Glen­wood and Blue Ridge Road. Con­struc­tion was ex­pected to get started in 2019, but NC­DOT has ex­tended the de­sign process at the urg­ing of res­i­dents along Ridge Road who worry about the project’s im­pact on their neigh­bor­hoods. To­tal cost: $231.3 mil­lion.

Con­vert U.S. 1/Cap­i­tal Boule­vard to a free­way, from I-540 to N.C. 98. Con­struc­tion is sched­uled to be­gin in 2021. To­tal cost: $464 mil­lion.

Over­haul and widen N.C. 54 from U.S. 15/501 to N.C. 55 in Chapel Hill and Durham. Con­struc­tion is sched­uled to be­gin in 2024. To­tal cost: $295 mil­lion.

Turn U.S. 70 into a free­way from I-540 to T.W. Alexan­der Drive in Raleigh, in­clud­ing a new in­ter­change at Brier Creek Park­way. Con­struc­tion is sched­uled to be­gin in 2021. To­tal cost: $95.4 mil­lion.

Turn U.S. 70 into a free­way from T.W. Alexan­der in Raleigh to Lynn Road in Durham. Con­struc­tion is ex­pected to be­gin in 2024. To­tal cost: $206 mil­lion.

Re­con­struct the I-40 in­ter­change at I-440/U.S. 1 near the Cross­roads area of Cary. Con­struc­tion is sched­uled to be­gin in 2022. To­tal cost: $151.8 mil­lion.

Re­con­struct U.S. 64 be­tween U.S. 1 in Cary and N.C. 55 in Apex. Con­struc­tion is sched­uled to be­gin in 2022. To­tal cost: $112.8 mil­lion.

N&O file photo

This May 2016 photo, taken from the Avent Ferry Road bridge in Raleigh, shows east­bound In­ter­state 40 traf­fic.

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