October 29, 2009
|More Means Less In Road Construction|
The government giveth, and the government taketh away.
While the federal government is, with one hand, giving states billions in stimulus money for highways, it is, with the other hand, taking away billions in regular federal highway money.
For the High Point Transportation Advisory Committee's Technical Coordinating Committee, that's not an academic question. The budgetary fast one by Congress is forcing the city to reconsider road projects already being planned and may hamper road building for the next 18 months, until the next large federal highway bill takes effect.
The Transportation Advisory Committee includes mayors and city councilmembers from High Point, Archdale, Jamestown, Thomasville, Trinity and Wallburg and county commissioners from Davidson, Forsyth, Guilford and Randolph counties. The Technical Coordinating Committee is made up of department heads and other staff members of the cities involved.
North Carolina is getting $734 billion in stimulus money, but at the same time is losing $249 million in budgetary authority – permission to spend federal highway money – that had been approved but was taken back on Oct. 1 after Congress failed to act to correct a provision in the law removing $8.7 billion in spending authority when the current highway bill expired. That's called a rescission of budgetary authority, which states and cities say makes no sense at a time when the feds are trying desperately to stimulate the economy. An effort to fix the problem by Sept. 30 died when the health care debate captured the attention of both houses of Congress.
In other words, the stimulus money was supposed to be extraordinary funding outside the normal budgetary process – but, because Congress didn't fix a technical problem in a bill, normal highway funding will be cut, eliminating much of the actual stimulus effect the stimulus funding would have had.
For High Point, that means that the city will get about $1 million in highway stimulus money, but will lose at least $500,000 in regular highway funding. The city, through the High Point Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) gets $500,000 in direct budgetary authority from the federal government and sometimes as much more indirectly through competition among North Carolina cities of similar size.
The money in question is used primarily for purchasing rights of way, engineering and construction. To High Point Transportation Planning Administrator David Hyder, it's a real loss, potentially affecting numerous projects under consideration. "I just lost $500,000," he said, looking at his balance sheet.
Whether or not the cut to spending authority eliminates any particular projects is a complicated question. High Point has numerous projects underway or in the planning stage, including a redesign of the US 311 Bypass/NC 68 interchange, a new set of intersections to accommodate increasing traffic at Davidson County Community College (DCCC) and a project to shift Deep River Road at its intersection with NC 68.
The US 311 Bypass/NC 68 interchange project won't be affected by the loss of funds, as it is being funded with stimulus money. The interchange is one of the city's worst traffic problems, and is saddled with a design that just doesn't work, according to Hyder. The affected section of US 311 carries up to 28,000 vehicles a day and that section of NC 68 carries up to 42,000 vehicles a day. City officials say that, despite operational improvements made over the years and the addition of a southbound turn lane, there are slowdowns at the intersection during the morning and evening rush hours.
The Deep River Road intersection with NC 68 is considered a mess, a sharp-angle junction that feeds drivers from Deep River Road onto NC 68 with fast traffic in their blind spot. The plan is to feed Deep River Road into NC 68 at a point further south that would allow drivers to make right turns onto the state road.
High Point passed a city bond five years ago to pay for the Deep River Road project, then lucked out, as it was within three weeks of being shovel-ready when stimulus funding became available. The stimulus money allowed it to switch the money targeted for the interchange to other projects.
Hyder said the DCCC intersection is infamous for having the longest double left turn lane in the state, at about 1,000 feet, and is full every day with students and teachers driving from Lexington.
Several committee members said the DCCC problem is only going to get worse. The college also has overloaded streets and parking lots on campus, although those are the college's responsibility.
"They don't have even enough room to park all the cars," said Hanna Cockburn, the representative from the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments. "The place is going gangbusters."
Hyder gave each representative a copy of a map showing the 2008 traffic levels throughout the MPO. The color-coded map shows red high traffic areas, which are at more than 90 percent of capacity, along interstates 85 and 40, but most of the roads in the MPO are well within capacity.
Hyder said, "Congestion levels, when you get right down to it, are not bad right now except for I-40 and the 40-85 business junction."