The Winston-Salem Journal, Sept. 3, 2004

DOT Shifts Aim To Repairs
Slowdown on building roads is brought on by projected budget deficit

By Jim Sparks
JOURNAL REPORTER

North Carolina will spend more money on existing highways and less on building new ones under a new long-range plan approved yesterday by the N.C. Board of Transportation.

The redirection of resources called for in the 25-year plan represents a drastic shift in priorities for N.C. Department of Transportation.

It will help stretch state transportation dollars by directing more money toward preserving and modernizing existing thoroughfares, officials said. In recent years, the department has spent nearly half of its budget - 45 percent - on highway expansion. The plan adopted yesterday recommends limiting construction spending to 26 percent.

The plan is to help the department deal with an expected gap of at least $29 billion between its needs and its revenue over the next 25 years, said Nancy Dunn, Winston-Salem's representative on the state board.

Dunn led the committee made up of both DOT engineers and board members that wrote the plan, which was three years in the making.

She said that the state has a responsibility to its citizens to make sure it is directing its resources to the areas of highest priority.

"It doesn't make sense to build more new roads without taking care of the ones already built," Dunn said during a recent interview.

Planners say they can accommodate the highway needs of a fast-rising population in part by maintaining and upgrading existing roads and by increasing anti-congestion measures, such as synchronized traffic signals.

"It's almost like looking at how to get better life out of what you have," said Alpesh Patel, a DOT transportation engineer.

Patel said that rising construction costs, environmental challenges and a shortage of revenue make it necessary for the state to try to stretch its transportation dollars in more creative ways.

The department is responding to direction given to it by state legislators, Patel said, adding that the state will also pursue more federal financing for its needs.

The plan also pushes for the development of highway corridors across the state to improve safety, mobility and trade.

To relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 40, the plan calls for upgrades to U.S. 64 and N.C. 49 between Raleigh and Charlotte.

Other efforts will include widening roads - many in rural areas - and investing in other means of transportation, such as buses and trains, officials said.

Not everyone on the board was comfortable with the plan, however.

State Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County and a member of the chamber's transportation committee, said he is uneasy about parts of the plan he has read.

"I'm concerned that we may be in a position to shortchange areas that are growing and in need of new highways," he said.

Jim Sparks can be reached at 727-7301 or at jsparks@wsjournal.com; the Associated Press contributed to this report.