By Jesse Wood
Feb. 11, 2014. At a breakfast sponsored by the Boone Area Chamber last Friday, Dean Ledbetter, NCDOT Division 11 senior planning engineer, spoke about how state legislation signed into law last summer will affect the future funding of transportation projects in and around Watauga County.
Touted in a 2013 release as a bill to allow the NCDOT to “make more efficient use of existing revenues [that will] improve the state’s transportation infrastructure, create jobs and help boost the economy,” House Bill 817 was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory in June with a full implementation date set at July 1, 2015.
Ledbetter, who acknowledged the bi-partisan support for the bill, noted that the current NCDOT funding method isn’t sustainable with the state population expected to increase by 1.3 million in the next 10 years as revenues decline by $1.7 billion. The overall tax revenue loss is attributed to such factors as declining vehicle sales and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“That’s … a significant problem for us,” Ledbetter said.
For Watauga County and adjacent counties, this new legislation means that it will be competing with larger urban centers that will already have a head start in the funding formula because of more traffic congestion and higher population numbers inherent in those areas.
Strategic Mobility Formula
The Strategic Mobility Formula – the department’s new funding formula – is broken down into three sections: state, regional and local. While statewide mobility is a 100-percent “data driven,” projects on a smaller scale are prioritized based on quantitative data and local input from regional planning organizations such as the High Country Council of Governments, which represents Watauga County and other counties in the region.
Statewide Mobility: 40 percent of funds allocated to projects of statewide significance that focus on severe congestion and bottlenecks. The projects are entered into the rankings prior to the local input rankings.
Regional Impact: 30 percent of funds allocated to improve connectivity in the region. Funding is based on population within the region and the selection is 70 percent data driven and 30 percent local input.
Division Needs: 30 percent of funds allocated to address local needs with selection based on 50 percent data driven and 50 percent local input. Funding is based on an equal share going to each division.
Highway Scoring Weight
(With the remaining percentages equal between Division and Local Input)
- Travel Time Benefit/Cost: 30 percent
- Congestion: 30 percent
- Economic Competitiveness: 10 percent
- Safety: 10 percent
- Multimodal, Freight and Military: 20 percent
- Travel Time Benefit/Cost: 25 percent
- Congestion: 25 percent
- Safety: 10 percent
- Accessibility/Connectivity: 10 percent
- Travel Time Benefit/Cost: 20 percent
- Congestion: 20 percent
- Safety: 10 percent
Funds obligated to projects by July 1, 2015, aren’t subject to the new formula, and if a project was scheduled after that deadline, it will be subject to re-evaluation under the new formula and re-prioritized.
While Division 11 consists of eight counties – Yadkin, Surry, Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany, Caldwell, Watauga and Avery, Ledbetter said Division 11 will compete with the urban Division 12 that consists of Gastonia, Lincolnton, Hickory, Shelby, Mooresville and Statesville for funds.
Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque was in attendance and asked if safeguards existed for rural areas of the state to compete fairly with cities such as Charlotte or Wilmington.
“The easy answer is no … But I don’t think the intent was to say, ‘Put money towards urban areas,’” Ledbetter said, noting that projects in the urban Division 12 will be “assessed more points” in the scoring formula than projects in Watauga County and other Division 11 counties because of the population and congestion. Ledbetter did mention that there are caps in place so one project doesn’t dominate all of the funds.
Ledbetter also said that another change in funding methods is that all transportation modes are competing for the same funds in the same pot. In prior years, highways, bicycle lanes, ferries, rail and aviation funds, for example, were in separate pools. Ledbetter mentioned, for example, that Ashe County will now have to decide whether or not to place more emphasis on its airport runway project or put more money towards highway projects.
“It’s up to local governments to some degree,” Ledbetter said.
As for the paving of secondary roads, that will change, too. Ledbetter mentioned that the new legislation ranks all of the secondary roads on a state-wide basis as opposed to a county-ranking system that prioritized local projects based on the number of nearby businesses, churches, residents, traffic congestion, length of roads, cost and other factors.
“It’s now a statewide list, and the amount of money allocated has been significantly reduced,” Ledbetter said, adding that locally the High Country won’t see nearly as much secondary road paving because rural areas won’t score high on congestion and travel time factors compared to its urban counterparts.