Status Of Highway Projects Uncertain

At one point it appeared the Interstate 40 business improvement project would see construction begin as soon as 2016, but a new system of prioritization implemented by the North Carolina Department of Transportation last year has complicated things.

In an email from Southwest Ward Council Member Dan Besse last month, he said the project had been dropped from the DOT’s list of funded projects.

“That puts in jeopardy years of planning and public input work on a project which had been scheduled to start in 2016,” he wrote. “The city, other local governments, and business and community leaders will be working to address this problem, including the possibility of getting the project into the DOT regional funding priorities.”

The project, estimated to cost the DOT over $63 million, aims to repave stretches of a 1.2-mile stretch of business 40 between Fourth and Church streets in downtown Winston-Salem. It also involves the replacement of two bridges on 40 business, nine bridges which extend over the interstate, and improving entrance and exit ramps. The highway was constructed in 1957 and was the main route through Winston-Salem until 1992, when a new bypass was built for I-40.

Last year, the General Assembly passed House Bill 817, which put in place a scoring system for determining which transportation projects should receive funding. Scores are based on factors such as accessibility, cost, congestion and safety. Each project receives three scores; division needs, regional impact, and statewide mobility. The 40 business project received a statewide mobility score of 38 out of 100, a regional impact score of 33 out of 70, and a division needs score of 26 out of 50.

Besse said under the new system, none of Forsyth County’s major highway construction projects have been prioritized, calling the formulas set in place “black boxes.”

“It made no sense to me. It made no sense to any of our local analysts,” he said.

“When you see results like that, it’s clear there’s some major bugs in the system.”

DOT project development engineer Michael Penney said he recognizes the importance of the project but is unsure of its timetable since plans are being reviewed.

“We’re still working toward a 2016 construction schedule,” he said while noting that the DOT would have a better idea of where the project stood by mid-August after the 90-day public comment period has passed.

Another project that has experienced delays is the extension of Interstate 74 around Winston-Salem, known as the Winston-Salem Northern Beltway. Chamber of Commerce president Gayle Anderson said plans have been in place since 1987, but were pushed back because the DOT did not properly conduct its environmental study, which lead to lawsuits from business owners that lasted over 10 years.

She said the DOT’s current funding model for highway construction is ineffective because the strategic plan ranks the I-74 project as one of its top 10 projects but the funding plan ranks it near the bottom of a list of 1500.

The construction of the highway is expected to create 33,000 jobs and bring in around $2 million.

Anderson said she thinks the project ought to be funded by the NC Mobility Fund, which the General Assembly created in 2010 to fund statewide projects such as the I-85 Corridor Improvement Project.

“It should be taken out of the formula so that it doesn’t penalize other projects that need to be done,” she said.

“To bump us down into the regional category is a joke because there’s not as much money to fund the road.”

Winston-Salem leaders discuss anticipated revenue losses

The Winston-Salem City Council is searching for answers when it comes to meeting the city’s needs for services in the face of changes to the state’s tax structure.

Council members are concerned about a potential loss of $1.8 million in revenue from stormwater fees as a result of legislation from the General Assembly being considered for Fiscal Year ’15-’16. The fees are used to fund Winston-Salem’s seasonal leaf collection progam, which councilwoman Denise Adams says could become jeopardized down the road.

“Somone decided, or felt, or saw that the stormwater funds were being used inappropriately, and what it has done is caused a ripple that money can no longer be used discretionarily by the cities,” she said at Monday’s finance committee meeting.

Adams, along with council members Dan Besse, Jeff MacIntosh, Robert Clark, and Mayor Allen Joines were in Raleigh last Wednesday where they met with the Forsyth County delegation of the legislature. They articulated their concerns about the effect newly adopted state laws may have on the city’s ability to raise funds. Among these consequences is a $400,000 decrease in revenue from taxes on business privilege licenses. Next year, only businesses with a physical location within Winston-Salem will have to pay the tax. The following year the tax will be repealed entirely, which is expected to lead to an additional loss of $2.6 million.

Adams says she does not know if last week’s legislative meeting will produce tangible results, but thinks it was necessary in sending a message.

“We may not get everything we want, and everything we ask for, but this gives you face time where you’re actually communicating with your representatives, the needs of the citizen,” she said. “If you don’t do that then they won’t know what you want.”