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Transportation officials talk completed, new projects

SALISBURY — The past, present and future of transportation in Rowan County and North Carolina were discussed during the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce’s virtual Power in Partnership Breakfast on Thursday morning.

North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette was the primary speaker at the event. Boyette provided a look at the current state of the department and also gave updates on some of the projects that have taken place in Rowan County.

Boyette started his presentation by explaining the difficulties that NCDOT has recently faced.

“In the past, we’ve faced some unprecedented challenges. Before COVID hit, we had financial impacts due to major storms,” Boyette said. “We had a Map Act settlement. It led us to financial strains that we had to cut back on our expenses. We were pushing very hard that if it wasn’t a safety or mission critical expense, we were curving back.”

Those were problems that Boyette inherited when he took over as secretary in February. He and his team began strategizing how to deal with those complications; the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new problems and exacerbated existing issues.

“It really took a toll on us because the majority of our revenue comes from the gas tax,” Boyette said. “During March and April, we saw that drop to unprecedented levels that we’ve never seen before.” 

With less revenue coming in from the gas tax, Boyette said that the department must be “fiscally constrained” and watch spending closely. Nonetheless, he projected optimism about the future of transportation in the state and said that the department is in a “very good situation right now.”

Boyette then turned his attention to projects specific to the county, expressing his satisfaction at seeing the completion of improvements to a stretch of I-85 in southern Rowan.

“I know there’s a lot going on in Rowan, but one of the biggest items you have is the I-85 widening project, which started in 2016,” Boyette said. “It’s about 6 miles of a four lane to an eight lane section. I think the final pattern, November 2019, you had a lot of signal work there that was just completed a few months ago.”

Besides a few “punch items” that still need to be finished, Boyette said the project should be fully complete by the end of 2020.

Pat Ivey, North Carolina Department of Transportation engineer for Highway Division 9, said that with the completion of the final stretch in Rowan County, the project to widen I-85 from Greensboro to Charlotte will finally conclude after almost three decades.

During the presentation, Rowan County Chamber of Commerce President Elaine Spalding asked about the status of a proposed new exit in north Rowan County that she said could help the communities of Spencer and East Spencer while bolstering access to High Rock Lake.

Ivey fielded the question and said that, while the project is being proposed, real progress shouldn’t be expected anytime soon.

“That project is one of several that is being submitted to NCDOT for possible inclusion in the next version of the state transportation improvement program,” Ivey said. “Everybody knows because of the pandemic and the revenue issues we’ve had to deal with, the next version has been delayed about a year. I think the next one will be the 2023-2032 TIP and I think the draft is supposed to come out later in 2022.”

Spalding said that the business community in Rowan County is prepared to support the project in any way possible. 

“If there’s anything we learned over the last six or seven months with the Coronavirus project, it’s that we need to learn to be a little more patient,” Spalding said.

At the end of his speech, Boyette gave those who logged onto the virtual call a look into the future of transportation in the state by discussing what the department needs to do to prepare for self-driving vehicles.

“We’re trying to prepare for autonomous vehicles,” Boyette said. “We’ve received some grant funding from our federal government to actually install more fiber. We have to have a backbone for these autonomous vehicles for the road-side sensors they need to operate.”

In the more immediate future, Boyette said that the department is working to determine how to prepare for an increase in electric vehicles, which could lead to a decrease in gas tax revenue and a need for more robust electric infrastructure.

“We’re also looking at, not for autonomous, but for electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are increasing and registrations for electric vehicles keep going up every month,” he said. “The last number I saw was around 200,000 vehicles out of around eight million total registered cars in our state. If you look at that, we also need to provide charging stations. We’re trying to look at that future and what that looks like for North Carolina.”

The Power in Partnership Breakfast was sponsored by Vulcan Materials Company. The new Power in Partnership will take place on Nov. 19 and will feature speaker Kenny Colbert the president and CEO of the North Carolina Employers Association. More information can be found at rowanchamber.com.

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