Reckhow questions DOT maintenance spending

Jan. 29, 2013 @ 07:58 PM

State Department of Transportation engineers got a grilling this week from a county commissioner who’s worried the agency’s budget is shortchanging repair work on Durham’s back roads.
The questions from Commissioner Ellen Reckhow came as she and her colleagues were getting ready to sign off on $587,995 worth of projects the state proposes.
Reckhow noted that the list subject to the county’s approval had shrunk significantly in recent years, dropping from $1.4 million in fiscal 2008-09 and $1.1 million in fiscal 2010-11 to what it is today.
“There must be road repair and maintenance needs that aren’t being addressed with [this] quantity of money,” she said.
But DOT officials said the apparent shrinkage masks the decisions the General Assembly has made in recent years to free up funds for bridge repairs and paving projects across the state.
Legislators in the process are taking money out of a pot that was subject to local control, said Joey Hopkins, deputy division engineer for DOT’s Division 5.
“Our overall maintenance budget is about the same over the last few years. The concern Ellen had that Durham is seeing less is really not true,” Hopkins said, adding that it is true that because of the budget shuffles, fewer projects are subject to county review.
The lion’s share of the General Assembly’s budget moves came in 2011 and 2012, as chambers led by Republicans moved money into bridge work and paving.
The changes put more of the decision-making about where to spend money in DOT’s hands and less in those of county boards, particularly when it comes to paving gravel roads.
That’s a bit of a sore point for commissioners, who in recent years insisted that DOT replace a washed-out bridge in northern Durham County along State Forest Road, contra the advice of agency staffers.
Hopkins’ boss, Division Engineer Wally Bowman, recalled the dispute during Monday’s commissioners meeting, saying the now-under-construction bridge is in “one of those areas that was a very, very low need” because of its lack of traffic.
But Reckhow said commissioners wanted it replaced because volunteer firefighters were worried the lack of a crossing there would hinder the response to emergency calls in the Rougemont area.
“We felt it was a health and safety issue,” Reckhow said.
Decision-making authority aside, there were also state budget reductions for fiscal 2012-13 that came because legislators opted to cap North Carolina’s gasoline tax at 37.5 cents a gallon.
The decision headed off a likely increase of the gas tax, and in the budget, the General Assembly acknowledged making cuts to “meet [a] new revenue target.” Funding for secondary roads was among them.
Overall, the two funds that supply DOT most of its state monies are providing it $75.3 million less than they did in fiscal 2011-12.
But at a combined $3.1 billion, they still are supplying nearly $129 million more than they did in fiscal 2007-08, the state’s last pre-recession budget.
Hopkins said inflation has eaten into the agency’s purchasing power.
But fiscal 2012-13 allocations to DOT from the state’s highway fund and highway trust fund – allocations that help pay for all the department’s programs, not just maintenance – are 4.4 percent larger than they were in fiscal 2007-08.
Nationally, construction costs dropped by about 4.2 percent in that time, according to an index published by the New York-based Turner Construction Co.
Crude oil prices – a key driver of the cost of asphalt – also dropped by about 4.3 percent in the past five years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.