NCDOT plan fights urban congestion with light-rail and freeway upgrades
bsiceloff@newsobserver.comDecember 4, 2014


RALEIGH — A new state emphasis on tackling urban traffic jams is reflected in a 10-year transportation spending plan released Thursday, and that could be good news for commuters who clog Triangle freeways every workday.

It’s the first transportation plan to be shaped by Gov. Pat McCrory’s Strategic Mobility Formula, which gives priority to road and transit projects that cut congestion and promote safety and economic development. The formula was written into law in 2013 with bipartisan legislative approval, replacing a 1989 law that assigned less priority to the growth-related needs of North Carolina’s urban centers.
In the Triangle, the draft 2015-2025 State Transportation Improvement Program includes the state Department of Transportation’s commitment to:
• Help pay for a 17-mile light-rail line from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke University and downtown Durham, with construction tentatively pegged to begin in 2020.
• Add lanes to 30 miles of Interstate 40: From Interstate 85 to U.S. 15-501 in Orange County; from Wade Avenue to Lake Wheeler Road in Cary and Raleigh, and from the Raleigh Beltline to N.C. 42 in Johnston County.
• Convert Raleigh’s Capital Boulevard (U.S. 1) to a freeway between the northern 540 Outer Loop and N.C. 98 at Wake Forest. A freeway conversion also is planned for South Miami Boulevard between T.W. Alexander Drive and Lynn Road in Durham. Other clogged intersections in Durham and Wake counties will be upgraded to freeway-style interchanges.
“We’re seeing some very important projects for this region move forward,” said Joe Milazzo II, executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business advocacy group.
A more competitive N.C.
The state Board of Transportation is to adopt the 10-year plan in June, after a public review period. Speaking Thursday to the board, most of whose 19 members he appointed, McCrory said the new transportation spending plan is part of his effort to make North Carolina more competitive with other states and regions.
“We’re developing a vision not just for here and not for the next election, but for the next generation,” McCrory said. “It will be a vision that we will sell jobs about.”
He thanked legislative leaders attending the meeting for moving quickly last year to replace the “equity formula” that balanced spending between rural and urban areas since 1989 and, critics said, was vulnerable to undue political influence.
McCrory said drivers have been frustrated by piecemeal improvements that widen busy highways for a few short miles here and there, leaving scattered narrow stretches he called chokepoints.
“One of our goals now is to deal with these chokepoints that we have throughout the state, that have deterred the economic potential of small towns and large cities alike,” McCrory said. “And we’ve got to unleash those chokepoints.”
Among the highway corridors to be improved in the new plan are U.S. 70 in Eastern North Carolina and U.S. 74, seen as an underused route from Asheville through Charlotte to Wilmington. McCrory and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata also pointed to projects that would improve highway connections to economic centers in neighboring states, including an interstate upgrade for U.S. 17 to Virginia’s Hampton Roads area.
Tata cited the Virginia connection when he promoted another big project in the 10-year plan: construction of the Mid-Currituck Bridge primarily for northern tourists who visit the northern Outer Banks. That project has struggled in recent years as legislative leaders signaled little support for a partnership with private developers, proposed by the N.C. Turnpike Authority, to build and operate the bridge as a toll project.
Tolls are planned for completion of the 540 Outer Loop in southern and eastern Wake County. The new DOT plan schedules construction on the southern section, but it stops short of promising that the eastern leg will be built before 2025.
Perry Safran, a Raleigh attorney who chairs the turnpike authority, noted that the plan includes projects to finish toll-free loops around Fayetteville, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. He said the state should not hold back on a project DOT calls “Complete 540.”
“That is my disappointment,” Safran said. “A loop is a loop, and it needs to be finished in its entirety as soon as possible.”
The 10-year plan also includes setbacks for other Triangle projects. Near the state fairgrounds in West Raleigh, DOT had planned to start work in 2019 on a $28 million tunnel to bury Blue Ridge Road beneath Hillsborough Street and nearby railroad tracks. The new plan doesn’t mention the tunnel.

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