Arrogant Bureaucracy Clings to Unneeded U.S. 1 Project
“Well done is better than well said,” Benjamin Franklin quipped more than two centuries ago, and this remains sage advice to NCDOT Secretary Gene Conti.
It is encouraging that Secretary Conti recently downplayed the likelihood of a U.S. 1 freeway. It is discouraging, however, that Secretary Conti, who will soon be out of office, declined to transform his statement into policy. Indeed, as he stated, NCDOT holds the trump card under applicable law.
The refusal of Secretary Conti to ax the NCDOT plan for an unwarranted and unnecessary U.S. 1 freeway through Southern Pines and Aberdeen, despite outrageous cost and broad local opposition, justifiably feeds citizen frustration with unresponsive and unaccountable government agencies.
It is notable, however, that Secretary Conti represents a significant improvement over some of his predecessors in terms of attention to local opinion.
The NCDOT bureaucracy responded to a firestorm of local opposition with a desperate jumble of absurd and discredited rationales for its U.S. 1 freeway plan from the farcical (global competitiveness and environmental enhancement) to the fictitious (coastal and nuclear plant evacuations and federal requirements). Indeed, just last year, NCDOT staff reported that a U.S. 1 freeway “will be built” and that no-build is “not an option.”
In response to the outcry from local officials and the efforts of Moore County Transportation Committee Chairman Jimmy Melton, NCDOT was presented with an application in February of 2012 to reclassify U.S. 1 from a freeway to its current status. Unfortunately, despite the comments of Secretary Conti, this reclassification request remains in the clutches of the NCDOT bureaucracy.
NCDOT tells us that it cannot act on this application until it completes its Moore County traffic studies and develops its traffic models. Its freeway plan was, remarkably, adopted by NCDOT without an accurate analysis or any understanding of local traffic patterns. Of course, in most organizations, the studies precede the plans.
The plan is simply a result of the designation of U.S. 1 as a freeway by NCDOT in its Strategic Highway Corridor Plan in 2005. The Strategic Highway Corridor Plan is, further, merely a planning document adopted by the Easley administration without the approval of the General Assembly and marked by the political priorities of its proponents.
NCDOT traffic data surveys underscore that the congestion on U.S. 1 is not “through traffic” that can be moved at speed through or around our communities on a freeway. NCDOT counted between 31,000 and 36,000 cars per day on U.S. 1 near U.S. 15-501 in 2010, and, yet, just 11,000 on U.S. 1 at the Lee County line and just 7,500 at the Richmond County line.
We know that southern Moore County is a regional destination for educational, service and retail activities and, of course, most of this traffic is headed for destinations on or near the U.S. 1 corridor. The plan for a U.S. 1 freeway was inserted in the Strategic Highway Corridor Plan without meaningful input from Moore County or its elected officials, and this $250 million folly illustrates the dangers of the “top-down” planning model embraced by NCDOT.
NCDOT benefits from dedicated revenue sources — including the state and federal gasoline taxes — that insulate its personnel from our elected representatives and from the citizens of this state. The current logjam stems from an arrogant and unaccountable bureaucracy that sees the citizens of this state as impediments to its grand designs.
The treatment by NCDOT of the data collected at its 2011 charrettes, which purported to gather local input on transportation issues for use in the preparation of our Comprehensive Transportation Plan, betrays a view of citizen opinion as a useful cloak for its agenda but not as a substantive element of its planning process.
The charrette data was promised for public release in January 2012 but remain secreted away at NCDOT because, of course, Moore County refused to rubber stamp its plan to slash through Southern Pines and Aberdeen with unneeded and unwanted freeways.
It is essential that NCDOT act expeditiously to remove its misguided freeway designation for U.S. 1 in our area so the Moore County Transportation Committee can resume its work and address the legitimate transportation needs of our county in a manner that reflects the priorities and sensitivities of our citizens and elected officials.
Southern Pines attorney Stephen F. Later is president of the Walthour-Moss Foundation.
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