Durham, Orange officials rank transit, road projects

Aug. 13, 2014 @ 05:18 PM

Elected officials from Durham and Orange counties signed off Wednesday on a set of rankings they hope maximizes the chance of securing funding for major transportation projects like a new light-rail line.

Their vote supplied the “local” input the N.C. Department of Transportation needs under a 2013 law before setting spending priorities for roads, public transit, railroads, bikeways and sidewalks for the next 10 years.

Wednesday’s vote ratified a series of tradeoffs designed among other things to boost the chances of securing a state subsidy for a light-rail transit connection between Durham and Chapel Hill.

Crucially, that project is receiving the maximum possible support in the rankings from both elected officials and DOT’s division engineers, which under DOT policy have an equal say in the required local input.

There was similar cooperation on other tradeoffs.

“It looks like there was great collaboration with the division engineers,” said Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who chairs the cross-county Transportation Advisory Committee. “We were able to work together and get a reasonably good outcome.”

The ranking effort is a byproduct of the moves Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. General Assembly made last year to rework the state’s system for funding transportation projects.

The change was supposed to make the choice of what to fund that’s of statewide importance relatively data-driven, giving progressively more weight to local input the more a project matters only to one region or one DOT operating division.

By General Assembly fiat, transit projects like the Durham-to-Chapel Hill rail line can’t qualify for the statewide tier of projects, which receives the biggest share of the money expected to be devoted to transportation-related construction.

Legislators also capped the amount of regional money that can go to transit projects, which means the most the Durham/Chapel Hill line can get from the state over a decade is $134 million.

Planners had assumed the $1.8 billion project would need $455 million from the state.

Even the full $134 million may be out of reach, as the line didn’t fare particularly well in the in-house rankings DOT released in May.

But the local support gives it a “chance of funding,” given the way the full ranking system should work, officials say, adding that it “appears likely” the project will get “at least $82 million.”

The support from the area’s DOT division engineers boosts the chances of it getting “close to the maximum” the 2013 law allows, city Transportation Department officials said in a memo to the cross-county committee.

The tradeoff there is that local officials and the Durham-area division engineer agreed to score another rail project, a reworking of a N.C. Railroad siding in east Durham, in a way that makes sure it will rank below the light-rail line in the final listing.

The siding scored higher with DOT, but didn’t show up as a high priority when engineers looked over the last couple of years at how to improve a series of rail/road crossings in Durham, the city Transportation Department said.

Similar tradeoffs occurred on the highway side of things.

For example, DOT’s division staff didn’t want to throw its support behind a proposed $131 million conversion into a freeway of U.S. 15-501 between Interstate 40 and the U.S. 15-501 Bypass.

That project could have been “ensured funding” with division support, but the local engineers shied away because it’s expensive enough to crowd out a number of other projects in the region.

So instead, they and local officials threw their support among other things to a $22 million proposal to widen N.C. 54 between Hope Valley Road and Fayetteville Road, making them at least “competitive” in the battle for funding.

The most expensive road project officials think is likely to receive funding thanks to the new ranking system is a conversion to a freeway of U.S. 70 between Lynn Road and Miami Boulevard. That has an estimated cost of $109 million, and would complement the soon-to-be-built East End Connector.

Transit-wise, officials also figure they’ll get state funding to build new bus hubs in the Southpoint and Patterson Place areas.

DOT is supposed to release its proposed 2016-25 funding plan by Dec. 1. Projects funded in the first five years of the plan in theory are a lock to receive money and actually get built. Those falling in the second half of the decade are subject to “re-prioritization” – a second look – as the agency prepares its follow-on 2018-27 plan.