News: CJ Exclusives

State Changes Road-Building Policy

New plan is a radical revision of state transportation priorities

Come perhaps a decade from now, virtually no new roads will be built on new sites in North Carolina. This was among the policy changes contained in the Statewide Transportation Plan, a radical revision of the N.C. Department of Transportation’s priorities recently approved by the N.C. Board of Transportation.

Federal law requires that each state have an up-to-date comprehensive transportation plan that looks 20 years or more into the future. The Statewide Transportation Plan is that report for North Carolina. The NCDOT determined that over the next 25 years, the state faces transportation needs of $84 billion, including $66.6 billion for highways, $10.6 billion for transit, and $3.5 million for passenger rail service. The NCDOT also projects a $30 billion gap between the needs it identified and the revenues it projects it will take in.

“The bottom line is that NCDOT’s currently available resources simply cannot address all of the state’s transportation investment needs,” the agency notes.

It is unclear what assumptions and value judgments the NCDOT used to arrive at its needs estimates or how rigorous the analytical process it used was. And that exactly is the problem, said UNC-Charlotte transportation expert David Hartgen.

“Every local government wants major transportation improvements, but we can’t afford them all,” Hartgen said. “Therefore, master plans and needs studies should contain objective project assessments prepared by the governments that would fund the projects. North Carolina’s Statewide Master Transportation Plan contains neither project assessments, nor sources of funds to do what’s needed.”

Strategic highway corridors

A critical element of the Statewide Transportation Plan is the creation of strategic highway corridors throughout the state. The plan establishes 55 corridors and associated highways covering nearly 6,500 miles of road. Though these corridors make up only 7.5 percent of the state highway system, they account for half of vehicle miles traveled.

A list of all strategic corridors is available here (it’s a PDF).

Strategic highway corridors is as much of a planning concept as anything else. Stated aims include improving multijurisdictional corridor planning and achieving a long-term vision for each corridor. By establishing what sort of road (freeway, expressway, boulevard, or thoroughfare) each corridor should be earlier on, it will be easier to address safety improvements and access management decisions in a more consistent manner.

The NCDOT also flatly states that an aim is to build far fewer new roads:

“The intent of the concept is to maximize the use of the existing facilities and give greater consideration to improvements, which achieve operational efficiency, enhanced mobility, and safety. The focus will be to implement changes in the existing corridor and limit (to the extent possible) construction on new location. By building upon an existing ‘footprint’ impacts due to construction to the surrounding natural, cultural, and social environment can be reduced. This may not be feasible in all cases, however the concept does lay the groundwork to support a long-term shift in how highway improvements can be made.”

Designation as a strategic corridor, however, is not a guarantee that a road will eventually be widened to four lanes. The department did not provide a time or dollar estimate to build all corridors to the facility type recommend in the plan.

Road projects under construction or for which right-of-way is being purchased are unlikely to be affected by the new concept. Projects that are still in the design or planning phase may be delayed or altered to meet strategic corridor considerations.

The NCDOT’s website notes that at this time strategic corridors will not receive a preference in funding over other road projects. The Statewide Transportation Plan makes clear, however, that the overwhelming majority of money will go for “statewide” routes, a category which largely overlaps with the strategic corridors. Roads of lesser importance are designated as either regional or subregional by the NCDOT.

The plan projects $22.3 billion of expansion needs over the next 25 years, $19 billion of it on major roads. Included in this amount is $3.4 billion to complete the state’s urban loop projects. Nearly $6 billion is targeted for addressing needs that will arise in the future, all for enlarging already existing roads.

The NCDOT projects spending $2.875 billion to address already identified expansion needs on regional and subregional highways, including $902 million for roads to be built on new locations. Once this backlog of existing projects is complete, the state would essentially get out of the business of adding capacity on all but strategic corridors. Only $320 million is budgeted to add capacity on regional and subregional highways for needs that are identified in the future. None of this future additional capacity would be on new locations. By comparison, the NCDOT has penciled in $12.9 billion for safety upgrades, intersection improvement, turn lanes, bridge work and the like to “modernize” these roads. More than $5 billion would go to address modernization needs that have not developed yet.

The Statewide Transportation Plan would also increase spending on road maintenance, which generally is acknowledged to be underfunded.

What the strategic corridor concept does not do is require that the NCDOT consider the cost effectiveness of proposed improvements. A recent study by David Hartgen for the John Locke Foundation found that the cost effectiveness of North Carolina highway projects varied greatly. Some projects were worthwhile, while others involved spending large sums on roads that few people used. By eliminating a small number of the least cost-effective projects, the state could address its maintenance shortfall.

“The recent review… of major highway projects shows that we can both improve and maintain the road system without raising taxes if we select the most worthy and stop sprinkling funds around by region,” Hartgen said.

Lowrey is a Charlotte-based associate editor at Carolina Journal.