05/19/06 — Transportation panel discusses money shortage

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Transportation panel discusses money shortage

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on May 19, 2006 1:47 PM

The North Carolina Department of Transportation's budget shortfall and the development of strategic highway corridors were the topics of discussion Thursday morning during a meeting of the Eastern Carolina Rural Transportation Planning Organization at the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce.

The Eastern Carolina RPO is one of 20 such organizations around the state dealing with rural transportation, while metropolitan planning organizations serve cities with more than 50,000 residents.

The local organization consists of a Transportation Coordinating Committee and a Transportation Advisory Committee. Members of both committees listened as NCDOT Division 2 Engineer Neil Lassiter explained the department's funding situation.

Lassiter said each division is under tight spending constraints because of a projected $500 million cutback in funding through 2008, which affects everything from highway pavement projects to fixing potholes.

Although more people are moving into North Carolina, Lassiter said gas consumption and vehicle purchases are down. These problems, along with the rising cost of inflation, has caused the department to look at other sources of revenue.

"We are losing ground. We're not even holding steady," Lassiter said.

The best option for the department, Lassiter said, is to eliminate $80 million from the general transportation fund transfers, delay major projects for a minimum of four months and begin delaying projects for a year in June.

"For the next 36 months, we're going to be in a bind," he said.

So the situation doesn't worsen for the department, Lassiter said the gas tax must remain in place. If the 2.9 cents gas tax was eliminated by legislators, he added it would severely limit the department's ability to fix smaller problems on roads throughout the region. The tax costs drivers an average of $15.40 per year.

Cost could become an issue with strategic highway corridors in the future, said David Wasserman of the NCDOT's Transportation Planning Branch.

Local officials have developed regional commissions and committees to gain support for a U.S. 70 corridor from Raleigh to Morehead City.

Wasserman said he hopes the corridor will become an interstate-type freeway.

Although the vision plan for the strategic highway corridors has no timetable or secured funding, Wasserman said the corridors his department have studied are vital to the state's prosperity.

"The corridors make up 7 percent of the state system, but carry about half of the state's traffic," he said.

The highway corridor plan includes all kinds of roads, whether it is a freeway or boulevard, like U.S. 70 from Clayton to Goldsboro, Wasserman said. Wasserman has presented the department's information to organizations throughout the state to raise awareness and to get local organizations involved in land use and access management planning.

"We want consistent and compatible land use throughout the corridor, so we can all work together," Wasserman said.

The RPO's next meeting will be held Sept. 21 at 10 a.m. at the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce.

Meetings are open to the public.