Financial problems at the N.C. Department of Transportation will mean more delays for dozens of state highway projects in the Triangle over the next decade.
The delays will affect construction of new interchanges and additional lanes meant to better handle the growing volume of traffic, as well as repaving projects and upgrades to traffic signals. They’re reflected in the latest State Transportation Improvement Program or STIP, which lays out schedules for more than 1,700 projects statewide through 2029 and is expected to be approved by the State Board of Transportation on Thursday.
A draft of the STIP released last winter already proposed delays to a dozen highway projects in the Triangle, including the conversion of Capital Boulevard into a freeway between Raleigh and Wake Forest. At the time, NCDOT officials cited several reasons for the changes, including rising prices for materials and labor and faulty estimates that didn’t accurately reflect the cost of buying land in urban areas like the Triangle.
Since then, NCDOT’s financial picture has gotten worse. The department has spent nearly $300 million in the last year on cleanup and repairs following storms, including Hurricane Florence, which hit just two years after Hurricane Matthew. Meanwhile, NCDOT has spent more than $300 million settling lawsuits related to the Map Act, a law the state used to reserve land for future roads without actually buying it. The state Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional, and NCDOT says the cost to settle individual lawsuits could top $1 billion.
Those added expenses have forced NCDOT to delay construction projects across the state. Among the Triangle projects affected are:
▪ The redesign and reconstruction of the interchange where Glenwood Avenue meets the Raleigh Beltline, which would include changes to Crabtree Valley Avenue and Ridge Road. At one point, NCDOT had expected to start the project this year and now doesn’t expect construction to begin until 2028.
▪ The widening of U.S. 64 in Cary and Apex, including the conversion of intersections into interchanges, will be delayed three years, to 2025.
▪ The conversion of U.S. 70 into a freeway from between Lynn Road and South Miami Boulevard in Durham will be delayed 5 years, to 2025.
▪ The widening of Wade Avenue between the Beltline and I-40 near the PNC Arena will be delayed four years, to 2027.
U.S. 1 freeway
Amid all the delays, two projects will happen sooner than planned under the final version of the STIP.
Last winter, NCDOT proposed to delay turning Capital Boulevard into a freeway from Interstate 540 in Raleigh to Purnell Road on the north side of Wake Forest. Now the department has proposed to start building the first leg of the freeway, between I-540 and Durant Road, in 2022 as originally planned. That mile and a half of freeway would cost an estimated $124.7 million.
Construction of the freeway north of Durant Road would not begin until 2024 or beyond.
Joey Hopkins, NCDOT’s top engineer for the region that includes Wake County, said the department worked with regional transportation planners to juggle priorities and find a way to get at least part of the freeway built on time.
“It’s a great connection from the suburban areas of the northern part of the Triangle to the jobs that are in the Wake County area,” Hopkins said in an interview. “So we started looking at what we were able to do, and we were able to push that one back up to its original schedule.”
Lobbying for the U.S. 1 freeway was the Regional Transportation Alliance, a program of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. Joe Milazzo, the group’s executive director, said it is pleased at least part of the project won’t be delayed.
“We were very clear about what our top priority was, and others were as well, and I think the department has shown great responsiveness,” Milazzo said in an interview. “We would rather have the whole thing built yesterday, but any movement that gets rid of significant stoplight delays sooner is good movement in the view of the regional business community.”
The other project that was moved up is the state’s role in upgrading the software for Raleigh’s traffic signals, now scheduled for 2025. The new software is needed for the city’s planned bus rapid transit system, which will give buses along BRT routes green lights at intersections.
So far, financial problems facing NCDOT have not affected construction projects that are already underway, including the widening of the Beltline or Interstate 40 south of Raleigh, said spokesman Steve Abbott. And some new projects are getting underway as planned, particularly those paid for with federal money or bonds issued by the state. Bobby Lewis, the department’s chief operating officer, said NCDOT will likely award $2.5 billion in contracts for construction work in the next year or so.
Still, the cutbacks have reached all areas of NCDOT, including the suspension of non-essential travel, training and purchases and a reduction in hiring. The department is also reviewing the work of more than 1,000 temporary and contract employees to see how many it can do without for a while. So far, about 500 have been laid off or are no longer working on NCDOT projects, Abbott said.
Some of the construction projects that are being delayed were in the early planning stages and may not be anticipated by the public. Others, including the Glenwood Avenue interchange near Crabtree Valley Mall and the widening of U.S. 64 in Cary and Apex, have been the subject of intense scrutiny by the public.
Hopkins, the regional engineer, says all of them have their constituencies.
“To me, trying to deliver a transportation program that helps resolve some of the growing congestion and safety issues, they all hurt,” he said. “Depending on your commute or where you live, they’re important to everybody.”