If NC has a huge budget surplus, why are our local road projects getting delayed?

Dozens of NCDOT road projects in Raleigh and Charlotte - and hundreds across NC - are being delayed by budget woes.
Dozens of NCDOT road projects in Raleigh and Charlotte - and hundreds across NC - are being delayed by budget woes. Ethan Hyman

Remember the $896 million of “surplus” revenue that N.C. Republican leaders say belongs back in the pockets of taxpayers? We’d bet that North Carolinians wouldn’t mind if at least some of that money went toward fixing the roads and unclogging the interchanges they drive every day.

Instead, dozens of roads projects in Charlotte and Raleigh — along with hundreds across the state — are being delayed over the next decade because of financial problems at the N.C. Department of Transportation. The News & Observer’s Richard Stradling reports that those delays are reflected in the latest State Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP, which lays out project schedules for the next 10 years and was scheduled to be approved Thursday by the State Board of Transportation.

Among the projects affected in the Charlotte area, according to NCDOT documents:

An upgrade of the I-77 and N.C. 73 interchange to a split diamond configuration. Construction on that project has been delayed from 2020 to 2024.

Construction to widen Park Road from Johnston Road to N.C. 51. Construction was set to begin in 2029 but is now designated “unfunded.”

The widening of congested U.S. 21 in north Mecklenburg near Gilead Road, which has been delayed from 2021 to 2024.

Also delayed for a year or two are resurfacing or paving projects on I-277 at East 10th Street, I-485 from I-77 to N.C. 49, and I-85 near the Gaston County line.

In the Triangle, affected projects include:

The redesign and reconstruction of the interchange where Glenwood Avenue meets the Raleigh Beltline. That project, which was set to begin this year, now won’t get started until 2028.

The widening of U.S. 64 in Cary and Apex, including the conversion of intersections into interchanges, will be delayed from 2022 to 2025.

The conversion of U.S. 70 into a freeway from between Lynn Road and South Miami Boulevard in Durham will be delayed five years to 2025.

The problems stem from a dismal financial picture at NCDOT, which spent nearly $300 million in the last year on cleanups and repairs from storms, including Hurricane Florence. The department also has spent $300 million, with more bills to come, to settle a lawsuit involving the Map Act, a 1987 law passed by the Democratic-led General Assembly that unconstitutionally allowed the state to reserve land without actually buying it. (The Map Act was overwhelmingly repealed this year.)

The financial woes have forced NCDOT to lay off hundreds of workers and recalibrate its project schedule. That’s especially discouraging because in recent years, NCDOT had begun to accelerate projects to meet the needs that a growing population demanded. North Carolina may not be the same “good roads state” that public officials touted long ago, but at least we ’d started to move in the right direction. NCDOT’s financial woes have put an end, at least temporarily, to that notion. “We now must take a step back and change the plan we developed,” NCDOT spokesperson Jennifer Thompson told the editorial board this week.

Or, maybe state lawmakers could dip into that surplus that Senate leader Phil Berger has said is “more money than was needed.” This is what tax revenue is for — to administer to needs, to compensate for unexpected burdens, to remedy shortfalls that affect critical programs and infrastructure. It’s possible that roads aren’t even the best place to use some or all of the $872 million that Berger wants to Venmo back to taxpayers. The education community can make a very good case for investing more money into public schools and teachers. The state’s judicial system also is dangerously underfunded.

All of which demonstrates that the surplus isn’t really a surplus at all. It’s misguided policy and bad politics that leaves programs underfunded, needs underserved, and the road to a better North Carolina a slow, bumpy ride.