Raising the right question

Apr. 28, 2014 @ 12:44 AM

Ten years ago, the N. C. Department of Transportation and the city of Durham agreed to share an estimated $600,000 cost of fixing a badly aligned intersection of Riddle Road, Fayetteville Street and Buxton Street.

Certainly, that was not a bad idea. It would have been, in the scheme of the city and NCDOT budgets, a fairly modest sum to eliminate a 100-foot offset of the points where Riddle and Buxton connect with Fayetteville.

Fast-forward a decade, and the project, like many highway undertakings, is still inching its way toward reality. The intersection still challenges motorists, and that still is awkward, but a couple other things have changed.

The estimated cost has ballooned to $5.3 million. And NCDOT is out of the picture -- as the costs crept up, the state’s contribution was frozen at $300,000. Eventually, that became such a minor portion of the cost that the city concluded it wasn’t worth the trouble to secure it.

So last week, the City Council did something governments too seldom too when faced with the seemingly inexorable momentum of a long-planned project. They at least temporarily put the brakes on the idea.

The immediate catalyst was the council’s bemusement at the cost of some land and easements required for the project.  The city is looking at a price tag of $275,000 to acquire a substantial chunk of a parking lot for a convenience store at Riddle Road and Fayetteville Street.  That’s just over a quarter-acre -- so the cost works out to the equivalent of about $1 million an acre.

The high cost stems from the fact the loss of the parking spaces would scuttle an already-approved plan for an expansion of the building.  As Councilwoman Diane Catotti put it, “it’s clearly a highly inflated real estate value” because of what economists term the “opportunity cost.”

We’re glad the council is raising the cost concern on that plot. But we hope his colleagues also ponder a larger concern raised by Councilman Steve Schewel -- maybe the whole realignment idea isn’t worth it.

“I understand the state wants” the realignment, Schewel said as the council pondered the issue. “But I don’t want it that much. That doesn’t seem like a wise expenditure of city funds.”

The city has a long list of unmet needs and citizens’ desires, he pointed out, and that $5.3 million could pay for higher priorities than straightening out a slightly off-kilter intersection.

That’s exactly the sort of deliberation we expect elected officials to apply when considering any project – are the costs commensurate with where it fits in our overall priorities.

The council may yet conclude the intersection realignment is important enough to press forward -- but we’re glad they are taking the time to consider a potential reset.