I attended the Transportation Advisory Committee of the Southwestern Commission last Thursday by way of ZOOM. As always, NCDOT Division 14 staff were present, along with county and municipal elected officials.
In a previous article I noted that NCDOT was functionally bankrupt for the time being, and that road projects and road maintenance were suspended. Also, NCDOT staff are being furloughed without pay and are not allowed to even discuss DOT business while on furlough.
A primary function of the Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) is for us to assign priority points to proposed DOT projects in the seven county WNC region. We were to finalize our prioritization for this year at this meeting, but it simply became an exercise since no new paving projects will be funded in the near term.
I promoted two new projects for Highlands. First, is a project to improve the intersection at NC 28, Satulah Road and Church Street. The second is to get sidewalks built on the corridors coming into town, with the top one being NC 106. The sidewalks would not require the widening of the roads, but they would provide safer pedestrian passage. Folks who work downtown are already walking on the sides of these highways. Both of these projects do not have any assigned points at this time.
Road paving projects that have been let previous to this DOT shutdown will move forward. But, NCDOT has basically shutdown because funds went below the minimum reserves required by law.
How did this happen?
There were several triggers that put the department in this crisis. First, in the past few years hurricanes hitting the eastern part of the state caused DOT to divert resources to emergency repairs, etc. Second, with the robust economy, cost estimates for road projects shot through the roof. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted revenues, especially in April, May and into June. Much of the DOT revenue is driven by motor fuel taxes. During these months gasoline taxes went down to an all-time low by a minus 42%. In short, DOT experienced a perfect storm that depleted their treasury.
At the TAC meeting I expressed my concern that basic road maintenance was not being done. One staff member acknowledged the problem, and he told us that they had to park their equipment because of no funds to buy fuel. He stressed they were doing only critical, emergency maintenance. There are several problem areas in the town where I will continue to request service, but I am afraid there is a long line of requests throughout Division 14.
There is a solution on the horizon in the form of HB 77, which is now under consideration in the state legislature. If passed, it would restore funds to get NCDOT back to work. Call our representatives, Senator Davis and Representative Corbin and urged them to act quickly on this bill.
In the meantime, as you drive through North Carolina, expect to see tall grass on right-of-ways and major potholes. As for Highlands, the town roads funded for paving in this current budget will proceed as planned.
- Town of Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor