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Rise in construction costs, cuts to NCDOT push back Rowan’s transportation projects

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Declines in gas tax revenue due to the pandemic, rises in construction costs and financial trouble at the North Carolina Department of Transportation have resulted in the delay of several transportation projects across the state.

In Rowan County, that means six projects will be delayed by several years, including the construction of Airport Parkway.

Phil Conrad, transportation planner with Cabarrus-Rowan Metropolitan Planning Organization, said in August the NCDOT re-evaluated all State Transportation Improvement Program projects, which resulted in many being pushed back by several years, particularly those slated for construction beginning in five years or more. The Transportation Improvement Program includes state, regional and local projects to be constructed within the 2020-29 time period.

To date, four projects on the 2020-29 list have been completed or are nearing completion. Those include the Interstate 85 exit 68 interchange near China Grove, the Bendix Drive extension at Newsome Road to Faith and East Innes streets, the construction of Coach Deal Drive in China Grove from U.S. Highway 29 to South Main Street and the Yadkin River Bridge reconstruction.

A project currently underway is widening 1.3 miles of Julian Road from Jake Alexander Boulevard to Summit Park Drive, which is estimated to cost $15.3 million.

“You couldn’t have had something as substantial as the pandemic occur and not feel the impact,” Conrad said. “What will be interesting coming out of this is what the future holds. And I’m optimistic.”

One of the largest uncompleted projects is the construction of Airport Parkway, a two-lane road stretching from Jake Alexander Boulevard, near Brenner Avenue, to U.S. Highway 29 near Peeler Road. Right-of-way installation for that project was anticipated for the 2022-23 fiscal year, but it was delayed to the 2027-28 fiscal year. Construction is slated sometime after 2029.

The right-of-way for the widening of U.S. 52 from the Rockwell bypass to Misenheimer bypass is slated for 2028, with construction anticipated after 2029. The right-of-way for N.C. 152 in China Grove and U.S. Highway 29 intersection improvements is scheduled for 2028 with construction in 2027.

Two other projects have unknown construction dates at this time but are still priorities. Those include the widening of Mooresville Road from Airport Road to an area west of Grants Creek, as well as the construction of bike lanes and sidewalks along North Main Street from Jackson Park Road in Kannapolis to Kimball Road in China Grove.

Conrad said state lawmakers pulled back on some state funds that “created a situation where some of the projects, quite frankly, couldn’t move forward.” But the rise in cost of construction and materials still remains the biggest reason why projects were delayed.

In January, the cost of equipment and materials for construction projects rose by nearly 5 percentage points from the prior month, which marked the third consecutive month of rises in overall construction costs at the time, according to an analysis from IHS Markit.

A 2019 audit of the NCDOT showed it overspent its $5.9 billion spending limit by $742 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year, and that 14 highway divisions were short on cash and borrowed against the next year’s budget. As a result, lawmakers in the 2019-20 legislative session passed House Bill 77, which establishes more oversight over the department, allows the state treasurer to issue $700 million in Build NC Bonds for existing projects, sets a floor for the motor fuel tax and balances the 2020-21 budget for the agency. Lawmakers allocated $2.33 billion for the agency in addition to $300 million funneled from the state’s coronavirus relief package.

NCDOT also receives a share of federal highway and transit funds, with more than $1 billion allocated for the 2020-21 fiscal year. More than $6 million of those funds are earmarked for the Metropolitan Planning program.

H.B. 77 also prevents the motor fuel tax rate from falling below the current rate of 36.1 cents per gallon for the next two years, which is estimated to increase revenue by more than $30 million in fiscal year 2021-22. Typically, 71% of gas tax revenue is directed to the state Highway Fund, while 29% is allocated to the Highway Trust Fund. But H.B. 77 allocates 80% of the revenue to the Highway Fund in 2021 and 79% in 2022. In 2022-23 and subsequent years, the Highway Fund found would receive 74%.

Sen. Carl Ford, a Republican representing Rowan and Stanly counties and a member of the Senate Transportation committee, said NCDOT’s management and its financials “are much, much better than a year ago.” He’s confident in Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette, who was appointed last session, and said the new board “gives better representation of the state.”

“It slowed down some things, but (Rowan County) is still in pretty good shape compared to other counties,” Ford said. “We’ve been pretty blessed with projects.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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