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I-85 widening included on state’s 10-year transportation plan

The decades old, multi-million dollar plan to expand I-85 to eight lanes may have finally been funded Thursday due in part to a 2013 law approved by the state’s general assembly and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory.

McCrory and N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata on Thursday unveiled a 10-year Transportation Improvement Program that includes a total of nearly 1,100 projects across the state and billions in spending Rowan County has more than 30 projects that are strictly within its borders and many other regional projects.

Perhaps the most long-awaited project is widening I-85 in southern Rowan County to eight total lanes, effectively removing a bottleneck that frequently adds to commute times, said State Rep. Carl Ford, a Republican who represents Rowan and Cabarrus counties.

“It’s been talked about for a minimum of two decades,” Ford said about the I-85 expansion. “Number one is definitely I-85 and it has been for years. There’s no doubt about that. After that, everything else is a distant second.”

Local businessman Jake Alexander, who represents Rowan County on the state transportation board, said I-85’s inclusion on the plan doesn’t guarantee funding, but means the project is likely to begin construction in the coming years.

“I wouldn’t use the word guaranteed, but, if it’s in the plan, it’s likely that it will get built,” Alexander said about the expansion. “It’s very realistic expectation as far as Rowan County and for that matter that part of the state. It’s some of the best news in the entire plan.”

He said portions of the expansion could begin next year. A portion of the I-85 expansion in Cabarrus County is already under construction. Millions of dollars are allocated for the expansion through the National Highway Performance Program, congestion mitigation and state funds until fiscal year 2025, according to the plan released Thursday.

Another significant project in Rowan, listed on the state’s plan, include the widening of Julian Road from Jake Alexander Boulevard to Summit Park Drive. State Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican who represents Rowan, said the combination of I-85 and Julian Road widening could help with proposed businesses at the Summit Corporate Center.

Construction on a retail complex at the Summit Corporate Center is scheduled to start Dec. 9 and county commissioners already approved a $500,000 incentive agreement with a California Company that builds natural gas fuel systems.

“There’s a pretty good consensus that widening I-85 facilitate the commercialization along the route for future development,” Warren said. “The better the infrastructure is on the road system and the bridges the better it facilitates traffic.”

Rowan Works Economic Development Director Robert Van Geons confirmed that oft repeated adage — being located on a major interstate helps with economic development. Van Geons said

“It’s almost always in the top three criteria,” Van Geons said. “It’s second only to workforce, having the employees they need to run it … For today’s companies, the average travel time along the road for their goods matter.”

Many of the Rowan County projects listed in the transportation plan are bridge replacements.

Some of the other projects included on the list are constructing bike lanes in the City of Salisbury and maintenance work on the I-85 interchange with Innes Street and Jake Alexander Boulevard.

A large part of the projects are placed on the plan because of the Strategic Transportation Investments law, which created the Strategic Mobility Formula. The formula was specifically designed to direct 60 percent of available funding to regional and local improvements. The remaining 40 percent goes to statewide projects.

In the news release, DOT estimated that 303 more projects and 126,000 more jobs will be created than the previous formula, created in the 1980s, which Warren said diverted a significant amount of money to the eastern part of the state.

“The new formula is definitely going to give more consideration to district and regional projects,” he said.

McCrory also spoke to the political nature of the priority of previous projects.

“I’m pleased that the transportation law and vision, which is based on economic development, safety and congestion instead of politics, is working as intended and exceeding our expectations,” McCrory said in the release.

The transportation plan will next go through a public comment period in March and April. The Board of Transportation could approve the final version in June 2015.

To view a list of the projects in DOT’s Division 9, which includes Rowan, visit: bit.ly/DOTdivision9

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246

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