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NCDOT official: 'We're running on fumes'

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 9, 2009 1:46 PM

North Carolina's Department of Transportation might find it tough to complete too many road repair and construction projects this year, a representative told the Wayne County commissioners Tuesday.

"I have been with NCDOT for about 25 years and nothing in those first 25 years has prepared me for where we find ourselves today," Ricky Greene Jr., an engineer with the state Department of Transportation, said.

"We are pretty much running on fumes right now," said Greene, who represents District 4, which includes Wayne. "We are experiencing an 11 percent drop in our revenues, gas and diesel tax revenues are down 4 percent and highway use tax on vehicles is down 22 percent, DMV fees are down by 5 percent."

Greene said Wayne officials can expect a reduction in road resurfacing and a hold on the paving of dirt roads this year.

Greene did have some good news for county officials -- work is progressing on the first leg of the U.S. 70 Goldsboro Bypass and new, bigger signs will be placed on Interstate 795 directing traffic toward Goldsboro. But his overall presentation was gloomy.

Because state government is in the red, DOT has been under a hiring freeze since last fall, Greene said. He said 70 temporary workers have been laid off in the division and statewide 1,200 have lost their jobs.

"That was very difficult," Greene said. "I have never been in that position before. More telling is the Transportation Improvement Program. Typically, we have had years where we run as much as a billion dollars across the state and now we are finding ourselves in a position of $15 million to $20 million per month -- about $600 million compared to the billion. Times are lean."

Despite that bad news, Greene said the department is doing everything it can to ensure potholes will be patched, low shoulders fixed and necessary bridge repairs made. Grass growing along highways will still get mowed this summer, he said, but it might be allowed to get a bit higher between mowings to save money.

There is some good news, he said, including Gov. Beverly Perdue's directive to prioritize roadwork.

Greene said Gov. Perdue's executive order is intended to reform the highway project improvement approval process to ensure the plans and projects are developed and delivered in a professional manner.

Future project priorities will be based on criteria people will be able to understand -- crash data, traffic volume, road conditions, environmental measures, cost benefit analysis and others, he said.

"You will see a bigger push to make sure we are involving RPOs (rural planning organizations), MPOs (municipal planning organizations), mayors and county commissioners," he said.

Another positive is the $838 million the state has received in federal stimulus funding for highways and bridges and transit -- $735 million of which is set aside for highways and bridges.

Division 4, which encompasses Wayne, Wilson, Johnston, Edgecombe, Halifax and Nash counties, received $43.5 million.

"Trying to spread it around, it is very difficult to make $43.5 million go so far," Greene said.

The top priority was the Booker Dairy Road extension in Johnston County.

"It was pretty much ready to go," he said.

The second wave of funding will come within the next two to three weeks, Greene said.

"They (projects) are not set in stone yet, but I think one that will get strong consideration is Goldsboro's computerized traffic signals," he said. "That is one that I hope will make the final cut."

The system would synchronize traffic signals to help traffic flow more smoothly through the city and reduce stopping time.

The $63 million first leg of the U.S. 70 Goldsboro Bypass between Wayne Memorial Drive and I-795 is under way and on schedule for completion in 2011 Greene said. However, it is only one-fourth of the project and the remainder is not funded in the TIP that runs through 2015, he said.

The bypass, he said, is probably one of the most important ongoing projects and is regionally important.

Commissioner Steve Keen said he recently read a newspaper article in which state Rep. Van Braxton (D-Lenoir) said he did not think, "any of us will live to see the (U.S. 70 Bypass) work completed."

He asked Greene for his thoughts on the comment.

Greene said he could not speak for Braxton.

"I agree that it is critical," Greene said. "I would hope in some form or fashion we could figure out a way to look for new funding."

Greene noted that the increasing importance of roads in light of the state's growing population. In 20 years the growth will be like moving the current population of South Carolina into the state, he said.

Greene did bring some good news about I-795 -- the small shoulder signs directing traffic toward Goldsboro will be replaced with the large overhead signs found on major highways.

Commissioner Andy Anderson said there also is a need for signs directing traffic to I-795 from I-95.

"This project should take care of that, too," Greene said. "Goldsboro will now be up in the air."

Eight area bridge projects are coming up over the next 5-8 years, including Lake Wackena Road at Walnut Creek in 2011 and Arrington Bridge Road in 2012, Greene said.

Anderson told Greene he would like to see the DOT look ahead to ensure that future road right-of-ways are protected.

Greene agreed and said that a good case in point is U.S. 117 south to Faison that could eventually be part of I-795.

Commissioners have been discussing the need for right-of-way protection for the past few months, but have reached no agreement. One proposal would require property owners who know that a road will one day cross their land to set aside that land and not develop it. The proposal has raised property right concerns among some commissioners. Currently there is no such requirement and last year the Planning Board approved a subdivision that could lie in the path of a rerouted U.S. 117 south.

Commissioner Sandy McCullen asked Greene if discussions about possible toll roads are serious.

He noted that most of the traffic on I-95 is from out of state.

"I think everything is on the table," he said.