Congestion on Moore County’s roads is going to get worse before it gets better. Last month the state Department of Transportation (DOT) announced 900 projects would be postponed because of funding shortfalls, including several major improvements set to begin locally in 2020.
“I call it a perfect storm,” Lisa Mathis, the newly appointed DOT Board of Directors representative for this region, told Partners in Progress members on Tuesday.
A small business owner, artist and community leader in Sanford, Mathis was sworn in to her new role in August, taking up the seat previously held for two terms by Pat Molamphy.
DOT Division encompasses Chatham, Hoke, Lee, Montgomery, Moore, Randolph, Richmond and Scotland counties.
Mathis said several years ago, DOT found itself on the flush side of a cash balance and had begun rolling out new projects at an unprecedented level; however, a three-year run of significant storm-related weather events has ratched up spending.
For more than a decade, DOT had been averaging $65 million per year in weather-related road repairs. In the last three years, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Matthew (2016) and Hurricane Florence (2018) that figure soared to $220 million per year.
In addition, DOT has been grappling with litigation settlements related to the Map Act, a controversial piece of legislation determined by the courts to be unconstitutional. Many of these payouts are a result of issues that transpired nearly 30 years ago with road planning efforts in other parts of the state.
“So we are doing what any good business does by tightening the belt. We are pausing engineering activities on over 900 projects,” Mathis said. “Also we have had to restrict and cut back on some temporary workers, about 500 so far.”
Aaron Moody, with the DOT communications office, said the suspension impacts preliminary engineering work on projects still in the early phase of development.
Importantly, work will continue on current projects that are under contract. This includes demolition of the former Stanley Furniture plant in West End that is part of the road widening plans for N.C. 211 along the western edge of Moore County.
Last week, the DOT Board put its final stamp of approval on the 2020-2029 State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) that includes $400 million in road fixes in Moore County over the next 10 years.
Brandon Jones, DOT Division 8 engineer, said North Carolina is fortunate to be growing from a population standpoint, and that long-range road planning is a strategic process that takes into account congestion, safety and also economic factors that impact any specific area.
“Our process can take 10 to 15 years to get a project planned and delivered. It is not a fast process,” Jones said, noting infrastructure and investments are important to stay economically competitive with surrounding states.
Importantly, North Carolina is a bit unique in that there are no county-owned roads. All of its streets are either owned and maintained by the state or by individual municipalities.
Future road improvements must go through a rigorous scoring and prioritization process with input at the local, regional and state level. Typically any recommended road fixes are initially identified as part of a county’s Comprehensive Transportation Plan, then submitted for ranking during the every other year STIP cycle.
Jones said DOT is keeping close tabs on how future technology, shifts in demographics and expected downward spiral in fuel tax revenue will impact road planning and prioritization.
But in the short term, the funding shortfall for local DOT projects is further complicated by the upcoming 2022 U.S. Women’s Open, at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, and 2024 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
“Taking into consideration the timing of construction on road projects and these two important events, we did not want to pose a disruption to traffic or business access,” Jones said. “The new schedule will push back construction of a lot of our projects so we don’t have any impact on these golf championships.”
The slowed down timeline for major road construction over the next five years includes postponing most of the messier work along the primary corridors, such as the “super street” project on U.S. 1 and U.S. 15-501, widening N.C. 5 from Linden Road to U.S. 1 in Aberdeen, and widening work on N.C. 211 in West End. Delays are also projected for improvements on N.C. 690 from Vass to the Cumberland County line, work on N.C. 24/27 in Carthage, and widening N.C. 211 from Aberdeen to Raeford.
Where possible, smaller related phases or parts of these projects will be completed as funding is allocated, and time permits prior to or in between the two national golf championship events.
Jones said these interim projects will likely include relocating an 18-inch water transmission line from U.S. 1 to Poplar Street, and widening N.C. 5 to three lanes between the Pinehurst village limits and Linden Road in Aberdeen.
N.C. 5 is scheduled to be widened to four-lanes between Linden Road and U.S. 1; however, that work will be postponed until after the 2024 U.S. Open. In addition, DOT has scheduled the northern section of N.C. 5 through Pinehurst for more modest improvements with construction set to begin in 2027.
“In Pinehurst, there are limitations to what we can do with space. We have projected out that this traffic corridor will reach its capacity limit in 20 to 30 years,” Jones said. “Though some people think we’ve reached capacity today. It is definitely congested.”
Unfortunately, the ultimate result of the delays will be felt exponentially here in Moore County in the latter part of the next decade when multiple projects are scheduled to finally begin.
“There will be a tsunami of construction after the U.S. Open,” said Pat Corso, executive director of Partners in Progress.
Andi Korte, Sandhills Community College’s vice president of continuing education and workforce development, said the college has been selected as a pilot site for a new Highway Construction Trades Academy through NC-DOT’s on-the-job training program. More details are forthcoming, with courses beginning in January 2020.