Friday, March 27, 2009

Cooling on the Garden Parkway?

The N.C. Turnpike Authority says it will release the final environmental documents for Gaston County's Garden Parkway in mid or late April. The authority also will make a recommendation for the expressway's route - a decision eagerly awaited throughout the county.

But N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti - who also chair's the Turnpike Authority's Board of Directors - cautioned Friday that the parkway isn't a sure thing.

He said the project is extremely expensive - at least $1.2 billion - and the traffic forecasts don't project as many cars as the outerbelt in Raleigh or the Monroe Connector/Bypass, two other turnpike projects.

The parkway funding plan calls for much of the project to be paid for by tolls, and the rest to be paid for with a $35 million annual appropriation from the General Assembly. Conti warned Friday in a meeting with The Observer's editorial board that if the parkway doesn't produce enough toll revenue, "Then you would create a bigger (fiancial) gap." Conti is also chairman of the Turnpike Authority's Board of Directors.

If more money were needed, the DOT would have to pick up the tab.

Even with a one-time injection of stimulus dollars, the DOT doesn't have much money. Conti said that March contract lettings were about $15 million this year. Six years ago, he said the state was putting $100 million worth of work to bid in a month.

The parkway - scheduled to open in 2014 - is backed by a number of Gaston officials, who believe it will relieve congestion on Interstate 85 and tie the county closer economically to Charlotte.

But transportation experts have doubts. They have questioned whether the parkway money should instead go to other projects such as finishing Charlotte's outerbelt or widening I-77.

A Connecticut consultant hired by the N.C. Turnpike Authority wrote in 2006 that I-85 "traffic volumes were quite heavy, approaching the capacity of the facility ... . However, under 2006 conditions, relatively little congestion was found."

The consultant projects the parkway will carry about 40,000 cars a day at the Catawba crossing by 2030, and between 13,000 and 18,000 cars per day west of U.S. 321.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

McCrory questions CATS stimulus plans

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory isn't happy with the federal stimulus package. The money for highways is too little, he thinks, and what money has been allocated is being spent on projects that are too small and inconsequential.

McCrory Wednesday switched gears, questioning how the Charlotte Area Transit System plans to spend its roughly $20 million in stimulus dollars. McCrory thinks the money should be dedicated towards one of the system's big projects - perhaps the north corridor commuter rail line or the streetcar. CATS chief executive Keith Parker wants to spend it on rehabbing a bus maintenance garage, sprucing up the main bus station across from Time Warner Cable Arena and expanding some park-and-ride lots.

At Wednesday's meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, McCrory asked about the bus garage. Parker said money to improve the garage used to be in the budget, but was taken out. McCrory's response, in so many words: That might mean it's not important.

Parker admitted the garage isn't a "sexy" project. But he said the nearly 30-year-old building is in dire need of improvement. It's difficult to heat and cool, he said, and improving the building will allow CATS to perform more maintenance on-site, saving money.

It should be noted that transit systems nationwide often spend freely to expand and then neglect their infrastructure. Then when everything starts breaking, they are broke. So Parker's plans are prudent, though not exciting.

But the discussion came minutes after a curious presentation from the engineering firm URS. It is lobbying CATS to build a short streetcar line from the arena to Presbyterian Hopsital. URS - apparently hungry for work - said the starter streetcar line would cost $30 million. CATS already has laid tracks on Elizabeth Avenue, so if it spent stimulus dollars, it would only need $10 million extra.

Parker recommended against it. One reason: The line wouldn't go very far, and CATS would have to spend $1 million to operate it.

But here's another idea. CATS laid tracks on Elizabeth Avenue that aren't being used. Why couldn't CATS install more streetcar track in phases but not operate it until it has a line long enough to span across uptown?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gas is cheap. But we're not going anywhere.

Americans continued driving less in January, logging 7 billion fewer miles, or 3.1 percent less, compared to the same month a year earlier. That's the first consecutive decline for January since 1981-1982, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The decline in driving began in December 2007 - the same time the recession began.

Ohio had the biggest state drop for January, at 10.2 percent. Miles driven in North Carolina was down 2.1 percent, and down 2.5 percent in South Carolina.

Thirteen states in the west posted an increase of .2 percent. California had the biggest increase for January, at 2.7 percent.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I-485: Still no plan

The plan to accelerate construction on the last piece of Charlotte's outerbelt still isn't much of a plan.

A recap: Last month, Gov. Bev Perdue was in Mint Hill to tout the repaving of N.C. 218, a road project funded with stimulus dollars. During her press conference, Perdue said construction on the last segment of I-485 in northeast Mecklenburg would begin at the end of the year. It's not scheduled for construction until 2015, so that's big news. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti, also at the media event, backed up his boss, saying construction would start by the end of 2009.

I wouldn't be surprised if Perdue, eager to show Charlotte some love, jumped the gun in her announcement. One clue is that Conti didn't yet have any details during a Charlotte visit Wednesday, even after questioned directly by Matthews Mayor Lee Myers and Charlotte city council member Anthony Foxx.

Myers and Foxx, as members of the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, had to decide Wednesday night whether to spend $20.5 million in stimulus money on local road projects, such as widening N.C. 73 in Huntersville, or whether to dedicate the money to the outerbelt.

They asked the secretary if they didn't spend the money on the outerbelt, would construction begin this year?

Conti: "It means it's harder. It doesn't mean it can't be done."

He said later that it's "our challenge to ID those resources (to build it)."

Conti has said one possibility to fund the $220 million outerbelt segment would be to use some money socked away to build the Monroe Connector/Bypass. The legislature last summer voted to help fund that road, freeing as much as $180 million.

Conti said one possibility is that some stimulus dollars from other states may come to N.C. if those states can't spend them fast enough. (Not sure if it's going to happen. I have a feeling states will be able to spend their highway dollars, even if it's not on the best projects.)

It's quite possible work will begin on the outerbelt in late 2009 or early 2010, as Perdue has pledged. But Conti didn't seem as confident Wednesday as he did last month in Mint Hill.

MUMPO ultimately voted Wednesday night to spend its money on local projects. Several members were skeptical whether the state will find the money to build the road quickly.

"I’m disappointed we are being asked to fund one of the governmor’s earmarks," said Weddington Mayor Nancy Anderson. "The governor committed - she doesn't need to take our money."

New roads chief wades into old fight

North Carolina Transportation Secretary Gene Conti, in Charlotte Wednesday afternoon, offered his thoughts on the much-maligned equity formula that distributes highway dollars.

"There is evidence that it’s helped rural NC develop faster," said Conti, speaking to the Charlotte Regional Alliance for Transportation. "In a high-growth area, the resources haven’t been there that were desired and necessary."

Conti even suggested a way for the equity formula to be tweaked. Currently 25 percent of highway funds are for "intrastate miles" that need to be improved. That generally favors rural areas.

Conti said when the system is 90 percent complete, those funds will expire, and would be divvied up by other ways, including population. That would help Charlotte.

He suggested changing that threshold to, say, 70 percent or 80 percent. That day would arrive much sooner.

(Conti also stressed that urban areas such as Charlotte benefit from the urban loop fund, which has built almost all of Interstate 485. Rural counties can't tap into those funds.)

Conti's opinion is just that - an opinion. Any change would be made by the General Assembly, and rural legislators will fight to keep the stautus quo.

But the comments were nonetheless surprising. In 18 months covering transportation, I never heard the former secretary, Lyndo Tippett, question the formula.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Here's the plan for the last of our stimulus money. Charlotte won't be happy.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation engineer who oversees the Charlotte region detailed Thursday how he plans to spend the last $10.6 million of stimulus money for the area.

* $4 million for the widening of N.C. 73 in Huntersville, east of Interstate 77. That project is already penciled in for $14 million in stimulus money.

* $1.6 million for a bridge replacement in Anson County. Barry Moose, division engineer with the N.C. DOT's Division 10, said one reason that project is moving forward is because the state has pushed for some of the stimulus money to be in economically depressed areas.

* $3.5 million to improve Morehead Road by Lowe's Motor Speedway. The road will be widened from three to five lanes.

* $1.5 million to cover and protect steel bridges spanning Interstate 77. The bridges will be repainted and protected from corrosion.

These projects total $10.6 million. In February, Moose announced five stimulus projects totaling $38.5 million, and earlier this month another list of $20.5 million in projects was announced.

At Monday's Charlotte City Council meeting, some council members were upset that more stimulus money isn't going to road projects inside the city limits.

N.C. DOT's Division 10 is Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Union, Stanly and Anson counties.

Out of the division's $70 million in stimulus money, about $32.5 million is going to
Mecklenburg. The next biggest chunk is $17 million to repave N.C. 218, which includes a sliver of Mecklenburg by I-485.

The city of Charlotte, however, is only getting $4 million, plus some of the $1.5 million to improve the bridge spans over I-77.

It's easy to dismiss projects in rural Stanly and Anson counties as having no benefit to the average Charlotte motorist. But projects in north Mecklenburg, or Cabarrus or Union county can have a big impact because they are all part of the same metro area.

Moose said he understands Charlotte's concern as to whether it's getting enough money compared with the rest of the state.

"But once the money gets here, it doesn't make sense to squabble," Moose said.

Transit tax advances - but not for Mecklenburg

The N.C. House of Representatives Transportation Committee Wednesday passed State Rep. Becky Carney's transit-tax bill, which would allow the urban counties of the Triangle and Triad to levy a half-cent sales tax for transit.

Voters in Wake, Durham, Orange, Guilford and Forsyth would have to approve a new sales tax, just as Mecklenburg voters did in 1998 and again in 2007.

All other counties could levy a quarter-cent for transit.

The only county that wouldn't be able to raise taxes for transit: Mecklenburg.

Carney, a Charlotte Democrat, said she originally hoped to give the county the ability to ask voters to spend more on transit, but that was nixed.

One voice of opposition was State Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a fellow Charlotte Democrat. Clodfelter wanted assurance that the Charlotte Area Transit System would make progress towards building a streetcar through central Charlotte and light-rail down Independence Boulevard before backing a bill that could give CATS more money.

Clodfelter is looking out for his east Charlotte constituents. But CATS is so cash-strapped now that it can't guarantee it can build a $400 million streetcar, or even light-rail down Independence, which would probably cost $1 billion.

Charles Hodges of the transportation advocacy group NC Go! said Carney's bill has a chance of passing the full General Assembly. One hurdle may be a reluctance of legislators to open the door for new taxes - even voter-approved taxes - in this crummy economy.

The legislation does have a small change that could impact Mecklenburg. It would broaden the definition of transit funding to include bike paths and pedestrian infastructure that supports public transportation.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Blue plate special

Two years ago, the state issued a license plate recall to get old, faded plates off the road.

When motorists received their new plates they were surprised to see red letters and numbers instead of blue, which has been the traditional color since, well, forever.

The DMV said red would help differentiate the new plates, and it said the red paint would be easier to read after fading.

On Tuesday the DMV reversed course. New plates will once again be in blue.

"We've been listening to folks," said Marge Howell, a DMV spokeswoman. "The decision was made to go back to blue because we think it's easier to read. That may just be a perception. But after listening to people and law enforcement, that was the consensus."

The state still has 1 million red plates left to distribute. The first blue plates won't show up until October, Howell said.

Red-plate owners can get a blue plate if they want. When they renew their registration, they can get a blue plate for free. At any other time, they'll have to pay for a new plate.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

More stimulating road projects

The Technical Coordinating Committee of the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization voted Thursday on how to spend roughly $20 million in stimulus money. The committee's advisory vote is to spend the windfall on small projects, rather than on finishing Interstate 485.

Here are the projects that would be funded. A final vote by MUMPO would be taken March 18.

* Widening N.C. 73 from U.S. 21 to N.C. 115 in Huntersville, $14 million.
* Improving the intersection of Faith Church Road and Unionville-Indian Trail Road, Indian Trail, $400,000
* Improving the area's traffic signal and traffic management system, Charlotte, $4 million.
* Improving the intersection of N.C. 16 and N.C. 75 in Waxhaw, $550,000
* Improving Matthews-Mint Hill Road, from John Street to Independence Boulevard, Matthews, $550,000.
* Build a roundabout at Concord Road and East Rocky River Road, Davidson, $600,000.

One option was to dedicate the $20 million towards finishing I-485, which will cost about $220 million. Gov. Bev Perdue said last month that construction on the final leg of the outerbelt will begin by the end of 2009.

But there was uncertainty over how I-485 will be funded, and the committee was concerned that if doesn't spend the money by the end of the year, it will be lost.

The local Department of Transportation office will still have about $10 million to spend on area road projects by the end of the year.