A conversation with the N.C. Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson

By Allison Richmond | Oct 19, 2016
N.C. Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson

Conversation with NC Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson

High-ups from the N.C. Department of Transportation were in Haywood County Monday celebrating the completion of the Howell Mill project. They stopped by The Mountaineer to talk transportation in Western North Carolina.

“It’s nice to see one that finishes three months early,” said Secretary of Transportation Nick Tennyson, about the newly finished road straightening and bridge project.

Local Projects

Mountaineer: With the completion of this project, what's the status of other local projects such as the road widening from South Main Street to Walmart.

Brian Burch, division project development engineer: This project has been studied for many years and it is in our ranking system now for future approval. Factors like potential economic development, safety and traffic counts will be considered in the ranking.

That is a huge change, to use local needs to prioritize projects. [More on that later.]

It will be several years yet though, before it comes to the design stage.

Where do the Russ Avenue corridor projects stand?

Burch: I’m confident that this project has been looked at through the French Broad River MPO for prioritization through STOP (Strategic Transportation Prioritization).

There will be a public workshop coming up in January or February. The project itself is not scheduled to begin until 2022.

Tennyson: Scoring happens every two years for STOP. [Projects that make it into] the first five years of each plan are committed projects, those in years 6-10 can be shuffled as needed.  The main message is that although we look at stuff for a 30-year period, we just don’t have the money to do all the projects, that’s where prioritization comes in.

Are there further plans to improve safety in the I-40 gorge?

Burch: The project in the gorge is complete now, and there are no other plans in the near future. Over the last four or five years, we’ve completed all of the high priority projects to improve safety conditions there. The tunnel rehab is the gorge is nearing completion now.

What, if any, projects is DOT considering on U.S. 19 through Maggie Valley?

Tennyson: I know they have a project in SPOT to address U.S. 19 through Maggie Valley. I anticipate though that it will not score well enough to be funded. One thing that the scoring system does look at is the cost-benefit analysis, which includes money that the town could come up with, lowering the cost to the DOT.

The town would be able if it wished, to contribute to the suggested project, lowering the cost-benefit ratio and improving the project’s overall score.

The reality is that a lot of city streets are also state roads which have to go through the scoring process the same as everything else.

One option with five-lane sections like U.S. 19, is we look at something called synchronized streets, that show reductions in accidents of up to 70 percent. The concept requires that traffic entering larger roads from side roads can only turn right, eliminating the possibility of T-type collisions by cars crossing traffic to turn left.

State  / Regional Projects

Where does the plan for paving all unpaved roads in the state stand?

Tennyson:  It was known as Pave Every Road. A goal from back in 1989 was to pave every road, over 80 percent did get paved, but many people did not want it and would not offer right of way access. We’re still doing a little bit every year.

Burch: In WNC, we either paved every road or did not get access to do so.

Portions of I-40 through Haywood County are reaching capacity limits. Are there plans to improve the interstate in this region?

Burch: Work has already begun on rehabbing the pavement, replacing guardrails and bridges on I-40 from exit 20 through 27.  Some substructure work is also scheduled to be done on the bridges in that area.

Burch: The MPO is showing I-40 as reaching its design level capacity soon. It will also have to go through the funding process, first through the statewide, then regional, then district level if not funded at the statewide level.

What about infrastructure like bridges?

Tennyson: There are no unsafe bridges in the system, if we know there is an unsafe bridge, we will close it. Because of their age or construction material, there are bridges that are not capable of handling the weight they need to carry with modern vehicles. Some are just too narrow and are functionally obsolete and need to be replaced. Bridge work is an ongoing project statewide.

The plan to revamp I-26, a major artery to the area, has been in the works for some time with little progress. What is the status of the project?

Airport to I-240 section and points south –  Burch : The project is scheduled for 2020, and is still in the design consideration phase, the options are an 8-lane for the whole stretch, a 6-lane, also for the entire stretch or a hybrid, 8-lane from I-240 to Mountain Home, then 6 lanes approaching the South Carolina line. The hybrid is the DOT’s preference. It goes to right of way acquisition in 2018.

Pond Road Bridge – We are hoping for completion perhaps by the end of this year, said Ed Green, division engineer.

I-26 Connector - Tennyson:  The scoring system creates a challenge in terms of timing for this portion. The I-40 / I-26 interchange was the highest in scoring and will be done first. Then, we do the bridges on the northern part to Weaverville. The middle pieces are a problem though, because once the first two phases are done, it doesn’t flow smoothly and we’ll have to deal with reconnecting it all.

The next steps are for this to go through the NEPA process, then traffic projections. It has advanced to the point where it should go through design soon. I hope that this time, we’re moving through it and not hanging up on the design phase.

From a traffic safety standpoint, it can’t be much worse. It’s a really unsafe situation. It definitely got into the funding stream with its scoring, but there are still places that are even worse [statewide] and have priority.

Funding roads

There has been talk of transitioning road funding from the state to the county level in recent years. Is anything like that in the works?

Tennyson: There’s no prospect of a McCrory administration ever doing that. It’s not on our to-do list at all. Of course it’s always open to discussion, but there are no immediate plans that I’m aware of. North Carolina is one of five states that does not have county roads. While I don’t like everything  about [the current system], North Carolina is recognized as having a good road system, because we don’t have the problem of whether counties can afford it.

The whole thing about the changes that were made in the Depression era [funding roads at the state level] has resulted in better outcomes with better quality control.

We are working, though, to decentralize project development. Divisions will soon be more under regional control.

Ed Green, division engineer — We hope that the shift will allow us to do things in a faster manner here [at the local level].

Tennyson: The other challenge is that we are not only place where public money needs to be spent. When we get to talk to the legislature, we are aware that they have other important funding considerations, such as healthcare and education needs.

[Since 2003, the DOT has used a ranking system to prioritize projects, considering factors such as safety, economic development and projected traffic loads.]

In the past, if you had the longest serving delegation in the legislature, you had some advantage. That is not the case anymore, to a lot of people’s frustration. Now, if it doesn’t score well, it doesn’t get funded.

Policy Issues

Is the current gas tax adequate for the budgetary needs in light of decreasing gas prices and increasingly energy efficient cars?

Tennyson: The gas tax is currently set at 35 cents per gallon at the state level.  We’ve recently undergone gas tax cuts in two tiers [dropping the tax from 37.5 cents per gallon in 2015], and in January it will be indexed to the energy component of the consumer price index and the population of the state.

[The CPI energy index is considered less volatile than wholesale fuel prices, which can swing wildly.]

The alternative was to have it stay on the same level. When the bottom fell out on fuel prices two years ago, we would have had to accept a $30 million cut.

With a  growing economy though, we still did better, due to increased gas sales.

Another component of our funding is the Highway Use Tax, essentially a tax on vehicle sales. That money goes into the Highway Trust Fund.

Federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993. We have a system of demand units, cars, and a system of revenue per gallon. When we use less gas, we get less income.

The revenue-to-demand ratio is off balance by about 50 percent, meaning the federal portion of our funding is really about half what it used to be.

The conventional thinking is that somebody ought to do something. States have taken different approaches. New Jersey has a 27-cent per gallon tax as part of a tax adjustment in the sales tax. Pennsylvania raised their gas tax to 30-cents a gallon. Virginia cut the per gallon tax and shifted funding to retail sales tax. Our system has been a user-fee funded system and it’s difficult to keep adequate funding under such a system.

In 1921, the first gas tax was enacted in North Carolina at a penny a gallon.  Adjusted for inflation, that is about 13 cents per gallon.

There is a very strong feeling  though, that we ought to maintain a user-fee connection, both for protecting other public funding needs and to keep transportation funding separate and secure.

As long as we are funded from a system that is changing, we have to continue to think of new ways to work.

Break down of DOT funding allocations

Tennyson: 40 percent of the available $4 billion goes to statewide impact projectssuch as U.S. 74 and includes railroad and intermodal projects. Those projects compete based on data like congestion, cost-benefit ratio, safety and connectivity.

Thirty percent is regional with Districts 13 and 14 paired as a single region. (District 13 includes Buncombe and surrounding counties, while District 14 covers the westernmost counties, including Haywood.) They get 30 percent on a pro rata based on population.

The remaining 30 percent is allocated at the division level.

Under the new ranking system which began in 2003, projects apply and are ranked or scored based on measurable data.

Howell Mill Road and the 209 interchange were transition projects, that were developed under the old system.