Editorial: Dangerous bottleneck

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Anyone who’s had to navigate I-85 construction zones around Salisbury or been boxed in by semis while crossing the Yadkin River bridge might issue a hearty second to our state legislative delegation’s desire to fast-track work on the northern segment of the interstate widening project.

As it is, even when the current widening and interchange work is completed between Salisbury and Spencer, northbound drivers will still face a bottleneck when the eight-lane interstate shrinks to four lanes en route to Davidson County. Combine that with convoys of big trucks and the outdated Yadkin River bridge, the site of several serious accidents in recent years, and that segment of the interstate will continue to give motorists more thrills than the Tilt-a-Whirl at the county fair.

Lawmakers at this year’s annual Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast — Rep. Lorene Coates (D-Rowan), Rep. Fred Steen (R-Rowan) and Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Davie) — emphasized that this is a serious transportation issue, and it’s high on their agenda in Raleigh. But unless the state changes its highway funding priorities, there’s little hope for near-term relief. Although concerns about the potential destruction of historic sites have caused some delays, the real obstacle is money. Technically, widening that section of I-85, including replacement of the bridge, is still among highway projects scheduled for completion by 2013. It’s not in line for funding, however, and Brock hit a roadblock last year when he tried to rally support for designating revenue for it. Instead of using political persuasian, maybe he should load up a bus in Raleigh and take legislators for a bumpy ride down I-85 into Davidson County and Rowan so they can gauge conditions for themselves.

On safety issues alone, the Yadkin Bridge project needs to move ahead. Unfortunately, when it comes to transportion policy, the state operates under funding formulas that are still too much driven by politics. Diversion of revenue from the Highway Trust Fund is one well-publicized problem, but that’s not the only thing slowing down some direly needed highway updates. As the legislators noted, the state’s formula for distributing highway funds isn’t compatible with the economic realities of the state and where traffic volume is growing fastest. As a result, rural areas — especially those in eastern North Carolina — have received a greater proportion of road funds than their population and highway use justify. That comes at the expense of rapid-growth regions such as the Piedmont, where traffic volume on I-85 is constantly increasing, and an interstate wreck can result in massive delays and lengthy detours.

Several of those wrecks have happened recently at the I-85 bridge over the Yadkin, including at least two accidents involving fatalities in 2006. As traffic volume increases, so does the danger. A bad accident involving hazardous substances or causing structural damage to the bridge could cause a major disruption in one of our region’s most important highway arteries. Granted, the DOT has a lengthy backlog and limited funds to work with, but the Yadkin Bridge segment of I-85 merits a high priority, and the legislature should reconsider the Rowan delegation’s pleas.