Charlotte loop stalls as others speed ahead

Three years after it opened, the first section of Fayetteville's Interstate 295 loop is mostly quiet.

By the most recent count, it carries fewer than 9,000 cars a day – fewer cars than Scaleybark Road in south Charlotte, a two-lane road that weaves through a neighborhood.

But Fayetteville will expand its loop this year with $284 million in state money – ahead of the completion of Charlotte's congested and delayed outerbelt.

The final segment of Interstate 485 in northeast Mecklenburg won't open for another decade. The southern leg handles 120,000 cars daily and isn't scheduled to be widened for seven years.

The story of the two beltways reveals the controversy over how the state divides highway money between big and small cities. The projects also have renewed longstanding questions about favoritism, and whether politics has interfered with policy.

Powerful state legislator Tony Rand of Fayetteville, a Democrat, lobbied to make the city eligible for loop money. His close friend, Lyndo Tippett, secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation and Fayetteville native, helped ensure work would begin at the end of the year.

When Charlotte's I-485 and many other loop projects were pushed back by two years last fall because of the soaring price of raw materials, the N.C. DOT recommended that the Fayetteville outerbelt stay on schedule.

Rand said he lobbied hard for the loop money because it was sorely needed. Tippett said that while other areas might have more congestion, it's important to spread taxpayer money throughout the state, including Fayetteville. He said that neither politics nor his relationship with Rand influenced state plans.

Critics of the transportation department, such as Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, have said that Fayetteville is “cutting ahead in line.” McCrory, a Republican, also is running for governor.

The Fayetteville decision also underscores what some say is a flaw within the department of transportation: Loop projects do not undergo a cost-benefit analysis.

Nancy Dunn, a board of transportation member from Winston-Salem said she is frustrated about delays in building Forsyth County's loop. “There is no process,” she said of the way the DOT determines how loop money should be spent.

‘Equity formula'

In 1989, the N.C. legislature revamped how the state doled out highway money. It created the controversial “equity formula,” which is favorable to rural areas because only half of the formula used to distribute funds is based on population.

At the same time the formula was created, the state also created a pot of money to build loops around the state's largest urban areas. The urban loop fund was originally slated for Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Durham, Winston-Salem, Asheville and Wilmington.

In the early 1990s, almost all of the loop funds were spent in Charlotte, as I-485 began to encircle the state's largest city. Mecklenburg has received about 30 percent of all loop money – nearly $1 billion in non-inflated dollars – since 1990. Its share has shrunk in recent years, however, as other loops have been built, such as Greensboro and Raleigh.

The last segment of I-485 in northeast Mecklenburg was projected in 1997 to open this year. Now construction isn't scheduled to begin until 2015, which would push back the opening until 2017 or 2018.

Though Charlotteans see I-485 as an unfinished project, much of the rest of the state sees it differently. Charlotte's loop may not be complete, but it has received far more money, and is closer to completion, than any other city.

In 2003, the legislature added Fayetteville to the list of cities eligible for loop money. Greenville and Gastonia were added a year later. Another added project was to widen I-485 in south Mecklenburg, which was built with too little capacity in the early 1990s.

In Fayetteville

One transportation expert said Fayetteville is a borderline candidate for a loop because of its small population and low growth rate.

The Fayetteville metro area, which includes Cumberland and Hoke counties, has just under 350,000 people, according to Census estimates.

A generation ago, Fayetteville was one of the state's largest cities, but has since struggled. The two-county area has added about 50,000 people since 1990 – a growth rate smaller than the state overall. Its growth has slowed considerably this decade.

Since 1990, the Charlotte area has added 600,000 people, to 1.65 million. It is one of the country's fastest-growing metro areas, and is growing even faster since 2000. When Fayetteville's loop is expanded, I-295 will connect to more parts of the city, including Fort Bragg, the region's economic engine. Traffic is expected to increase by 2020 to about 30,000 cars a day. The busiest interchange is projected to handle 42,000 cars.

“Most states would never build an urban loop for 30,000 cars,” said David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation at UNC Charlotte. “They don't have the money to do it. And we don't have the money to do it, either.”

Rand, the state senator, said the road project is crucial to Fayetteville. He and others believe the city has been historically shortchanged in road funding because it's in the same region as Raleigh and must share money with the capital city.

He said he believes the Census is underestimating the number of people coming to Fayetteville.

“I've seen the numbers, too, and I don't believe it,” Rand said. “I will take you down there, and ride you through new subdivision after new subdivision. Where did all those people come from?”

He and other I-295 boosters point to area's expected growth.

Fort Bragg will grow significantly in the next four years after the Base Realignment and Closure commission recommended it absorb units from other bases. It also will receive the Army Forces Command, from Atlanta. When the relocation is finished early next decade, Fort Bragg will have more generals than any other military installation outside the Pentagon.

When families and other support personnel arrive, a military consultant estimated the region's population will grow by 25,000 or 35,000 people by 2013. The new loop will make it easier for traffic on I-95 to reach the base.

“This is the equivalent of a major corporation relocating here,” Rand said.

‘Spread the money around'

Hartgen said the state needs a cost-benefit analysis when deciding which roads should be built, and when.

Barry Moose, the division engineer for the DOT that oversees Charlotte, said local projects are scrutinized for cost effectiveness. Decisions on loops are made in Raleigh, and he said he doesn't know the state's criteria.

“I don't know how they arrive at their priorities,” Moose said.

Calvin Leggett, the DOT's manager of program development in Raleigh, said the state will review a number of factors when deciding when to build. One is how much preliminary work has been done, such as environmental-impact studies, and whether those studies will expire if the road is postponed. But the state doesn't compare loop projects in a cost-benefit analysis.

“That can be appealing, and that can be one approach. The other philosophy, which is shared by the secretary, is that everyone is paying into the system and that the money should be spread around,” he said.

Tippett said politics played no role in the Fayetteville project despite a close relationship with Rand, the legislator who championed it.

Tippett is listed on Rand's financial disclosure form for elected officials as an executor of Rand's trust.

“The reality is, whoever is in charge, they are the target of that sort of remark,” Tippett said of questions about favoritism.

Fayetteville built the first part of its loop on its own, without state loop funds. Tippett said the vast amount of loop money is still spent on the largest urban areas in the Piedmont.

“One of your first concerns is that you have to spread the money out,” said Tippett, who has been transportation secretary since 2001. “Congestion may be the greatest in the Charlotte area, but you have to spread the money around fairly.”