03/13/14 — Tata eyes future of roads, rail, BRAC

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Tata eyes future of roads, rail, BRAC

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 13, 2014 1:46 PM

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N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata, left, speaks with Andy Anderson after the Transportation Hot Topic Luncheon at the Goldsboro Country Club.

North Carolina Transportation Secretary Tony Tata was in Goldsboro on Wednesday to talk about the state's new formula for prioritizing and funding projects.

But when it came time for questions, local leaders were more interested in Tata's thoughts on extending I-795 to I-40 in Sampson County and replacing a missing section of rail between Wallace and Castle Hayne.

They also were interested in Tata's view of what needs to be done to enhance the state's ports and how infrastructure could play a role in the next round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).

Tata was the keynote speaker for the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce's Hot Topic Luncheon held at the Goldsboro Country Club.

He said that the state had been putting about $1 billion into capital projects, but departmental changes had been able to boost the amount to $1.5 billion.

House Bill 817 that created the new formula received strong bipartisan support to create the new system that is more transparent to the public and replaces politics with data for driving the projects, Tata said.

It is not perfect, and more tweaking can be expected, he said.

Three levels of projects were created, state, regional and divisional, he said. The idea is to encourage people to work more closely on cooperative efforts and not focus just on projects in their respective highway divisions. There are 14 such divisions in the state, he said.

The state is currently in the process of scoring 1,400 projects that already were in existence when the new law went into effect. Another 500 new projects will be scored after that, he said.

Tata said that the process has been so "pristine" that even he has not been allowed to look at it. He said he expects to look at the list next week for the existing projects.

Scoring on the state level is based entirely on data, there is no subjective input, he said. It will tell what the No. 1 project is and what the 1,400 project is, he said.

Regional scoring is based 70 percent data. The remaining 30 percent is subjective based on input from Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), Rural Planning Organizations (RPOs) and division engineers, he said.

Scoring of division projects is 50 percent data and 50 percent subjective, again from the MPOs, RPOs and division engineers.

While requirements vary somewhat by tier, the basic criteria are the same, he said.

They are:

* Does the project reduce travel time divided by cost?

* Does it increase safety? "Safety is of paramount importance to us," Tata said.

* Does it create jobs? "We have a simulation that will show that if you build road 'X' and connect 'A" and 'B' cities, you will attract wide businesses that will create 'Z' number of jobs. So we have a transportation economic development simulation."

* Does it reduce congestion? "That is 30 percent (of the scoring) and reducing travel time is 30 percent," he said. "So there is a heavy weighting of trying to clean up bottlenecks around the state."

* Does it connect? "Does it connect to a military base?" he said. "How much freight does it carry, and will the new project carry more freight? Does it connect to a multi-modal airport?"

Gov. Pat McCrory is expected to release his 25-year transportation and infrastructure vision in June or July that will include a "heavy look" at eastern North Carolina, Tata said.

"When you think about base realignment and closure, you think about Goldsboro, right?" he said.

As a senior Army officer, Tata said he had been involved in a BRAC. There are two kinds, he said.

One is a "soft BRAC" where a service just moves things away, he said.

"Then all of a sudden, there is nothing left here so it is an obvious hard BRAC," Tata said. "My guidance (to the governor) is that we need to circle the wagons and do everything we can (to protect the bases)."

McCrory has been to Washington, D.C., and the Pentagon on many occasions to talk to top military leaders trying to reinforce how important Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the state's other military installations, big and small are, Tata said.

"But our No. 1 red flag right now is what is happening with Seymour Johnson, the air wing here and what is going on," he said.

That is one reason improving the highways is so important, he said.

State Sen. Louis Pate of Mount Olive asked Tata about the I-795 project.

"I am hopeful that is a project that we are evaluating now," Tata said. "If it is not, we need to. But I am pretty sure it is already in there. We will see where it scores. That is where this subjective piece comes in.

"The good thing is, if it does not make the cut of money on the statewide tier, it gets another bite at the apple on the regional tier. This is where the horse trading comes in. 'I tell you what. You support this project for me, and I will support that project for you.'"

That "horse trading" would come into play between MPOs, RPOs and Department of Transportation division engineers as they decide on their specific top projects, he said.

"It could become a regional project, and truly that is probably where it belongs," Tata said. "The division could decide to do it if it doesn't make it on the regional level. So really you get three bites at the apple for some of these projects that qualify for a state project.

"Not every project qualifies as a state project -- it has to be an interstate or state road or a connection to one of those as a highway."

Dave Quick asked Tata about the missing rail section.

Quick said a 2007 study indicated that replacing that 26-mile stretch would create more than 12,000 permanent jobs between Wayne County and Wilmington.

"I am a big supporter of the project," Tata said. "It competes in the rail division of the formula so it is probably Steve Troxler's, the ag commissioner's, No. 1 project. It may be my No. 1 pure rail project. It is more of a freight than a passenger deal."

Tata said he expects the project will come out "pretty high" on the priority list because of its connections to the ports and military bases.