Initial road rankings could help Triangle

Apr. 03, 2014 @ 07:55 PM

The Triangle could benefit from a reshuffle of highway funding instigated by Gov. Pat McCrory, if the N.C. Department of Transportation’s initial evaluation of its project backlog holds up.

The agency this week released a spreadsheet that shows how engineers are sizing up 1,278 road projects using the “quantitative” evaluation criteria that McCrory and state legislators agreed on last year.

Projects in Wake, Durham and Orange counties hold 11 of the top 20 slots in the first-cut rating of initiatives with enough “statewide impact” to qualify for the single largest pot of future construction money.

The very top slots go to several proposed upgrades to the road network around RDU, including a renovation of the Interstate 40/Airport Boulevard interchange.

On the western side of the Triangle, an expansion of the “superstreet” intersection changes on U.S. 15-501 in Chapel Hill holds sixth place in the statewide-impact rankings. It would target crossings from Sage Road east to the town limits, using a sort of traffic circle to eliminate left turns as DOT previously has at U.S. 15-501 and Erwin Road.

DOT analysts listed it as a $2.1 million project.

“I’m assuming that one got a really high ranking because it interacts with the [boulevard’s] I-40 interchange, and the Federal Highway Administration really likes you to keep those interchanges working and not blocking their freeway,” Chapel Hill Town Councilman Ed Harrison said. “That stuff tends to get some help.”

State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata last week told business leaders that the spreadsheet would offer a “snapshot” of how the project-evaluation process is going.

It’s still very much a work in progress, for starters not including the local input allowed by state law for projects having only regional or local significance. The initial list also omits 500 or so new road projects that communities around the state have asked DOT to rank, and doesn’t yet factor in transit, bicycle or pedestrian projects.

All that means it’s “hard to draw any definitive conclusions about” how the rankings will eventually shake out, said Ellen Beckman, a senior transportation planner for the city of Durham.

But the initial list did back up something former Durham mayor and DOT Chief Deputy Secretary Nick Tennyson told business leaders last week, namely that the agency has a longer to-do list than the state has money to pay for.

The 1,278 projects in the spreadsheet have an estimated cost of $55.6 billion.

State legislators reworked DOT’s funding-allocation last year on the assumption it would spend about $1.5 billion a year on construction. At that rate, it would take 37 years to do everything on the spreadsheet.

And even though the law did away with the old “equity formula” that forced DOT to spread its money around the state, legislators did make sure the agency still can’t spend it all in one place.

For example, even though “statewide impact” projects are supposed to be ranked and funded purely on a quantitative basis, the law bars DOT from spending more than 10 percent of the money reserved for them in any given five years on one road corridor in a single area.

That means the agency can’t build one high-ranking Triangle project – a proposal to add “managed” express lanes to I-40 from the Durham Freeway to Wade Avenue – all at once, or likely even in a single decade.

Engineers think it would cost $726.6 million; the statewide-impact allocation was thought likely to generate about $600 million a year for all of North Carolina.

The initial ratings also included a host of projects deemed to have only regional or local impact. There again, Triangle projects scored favorably “pretty well across the board,” Beckman said.

In Durham, a proposal to add lanes to the intersection of U.S 501, Latta Road and Infinity Road rated highly. Also scoring well was the idea of replacing the intersection of Hope Valley Road and University Drive with a roundabout.

Those figure as $4.1 million and $1.0 million projects, respectively, their place on the list squaring with Beckman’s observation that the rating scheme seems to reward relatively low-cost projects that promise significant congestion-reduction benefits.

But it also favors some complex, high-dollar possibilities, among them a potential $23.9 million move to convert the U.S. 15-501/Garrett Road intersection into a freeway-style interchange.

Designers there would the need to deal with nearby businesses and homes, and reckon with the possibility of Triangle Transit’s someday running a light-rail connection from Durham to Chapel Hill along the boulevard.

Even though all the proposals DOT has scored are on local governments’ long-term wish list, “there may be projects where we’d want to look at multiple alternatives before committing to a certain one,” Beckman said.

But overall, “my own viewpoint is that if they’re going to deal with highways, they need to deal with congestion,” Harrison said. “And this appears to do that.”