Editorial: Yadkin Bridge stuck as-is

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 28, 2008

If Rowan County citizens sound frustrated on the subject of the Yadkin River Bridge, it’s for a good reason. The bridge has begged improvement for years, and some federal funds might be available. But North Carolina can’t afford to accept them.
The Rowan County Chamber of Commerce has made replacement of the I-85 bridge its top priority for 2008. Judging by comments at a legislative breakfast last week, a lot of individuals have it high on their lists, too. The deeper the state Department of Transportation sinks into paralysis, the higher the bridge’s replacement costs rise. The price has grown from $175 million in 2003, when the project was pulled back as it was about to begin, to more than $400 million now.
An exchange of letters between U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and state Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett shows how state DOT policy undermines local leaders’ efforts to fix the bridge. Dole wrote to the secretary in late February, saying she had tried to get federal funding whenever appropriate. “My understanding, however, is that this option is not in order for the new Yadkin River bridges because of the way that the state’s current equity formula distributes transportation funds, including those received from the federal government,” Dole wrote. “In fact, I have been asked not to request directed federal funds for this project by individuals within NCDOT because, if provided, this funding could eliminate transportation funds for other much-needed projects in the area.”
Tippett wrote back in early April, saying most congressionally directed discretionary funding would not be subject to the equity formula, but when congressionally-directed funding is earmarked, “funds must be redirected from other projects to actually build the congressional priority.” The equity formula prevents the state from accepting federal funds specifically for the bridge because DOT can’t ante up its share ó a Catch-22 if ever there was one. Tippett goes on, ominously. “The fiscal health of the federal Highway Trust Fund, the flat or declining state revenues, the aging infrastructure, the increase in construction cost, and the growth in population paint a grim picture for our future.”
Don’t expect Tippett to come up with the solution; he is too much a part of the current system that is the problem. As for legislative action, it will take more than ending the annual transfer of $170 million from the state Highway Trust Fund to tackle the state’s $30 billion to $65 billion backlog of road and bridge projects ó though that step might strengthen North Carolina’s position if it seeks a billion-dollar-plus transportation bond.
Could the Yadkin River Bridge be part of that bond proposal, or will the turnpike authority make it a toll bridge first? Slapping a toll on an existing highway for which there is no truly good alternative route ó sending tractor trailers through Spencer is a dangerous joke ó still sounds like bad policy. This obsolete bridge carries more than 60,000 vehicles a day and is part of a national traffic corridor. A toll may be the only way to pay for its replacement under the state’s “inequity” formula for distributing highway fundsó and that probably will be the solution. But it is wrong, wrong, wrong.