Financial shortfalls have forced the N.C. Department of Transportation to delay construction on many parts of the proposed 213-mile Interstate 87 project from Raleigh to Virginia, a move that will push back the $1 billion project by several years.
Marc Finlayson of the Highway 17/64 Association told participants on a virtual “1-87 Work Session” sponsored by the North Carolina East Alliance this week that a number of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have hurt NCDOT’s bottom line.
“Most of the work we expect to be done has been pushed off at least several years and in some cases to the back end of the 10-year STIP (State Transportation Improvement Program),” Finlayson said, referring to DOT’s road-planning document for 2020-29.
NCDOT’s financial challenges started with Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018 as the agency had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to repair damage from the storms.
“That was well beyond the money they had set aside to manage that,” Finlayson said.
COVID further hurt NCDOT as people stopped driving during the pandemic and that led to a dramatic decrease in gas tax revenues.
“It’s been really an unfortunate series of events that has caused DOT to have some financial difficulties,” Finlayson said. “The good news is that as things improve, I am confident that DOT will move projects back to the left of the time line to the fullest extent that they can.”
One I-87 project scheduled to begin last year in Pasquotank County — paving rehabilitation work from the Perquimans County line to the north end of U.S. Highway 17 — is one of many along the proposed route affected by NCDOT’s financial woes.
NCDOT Division 1 Planning Engineer Craig Midgett said the $15 million Pasquotank project was let in 2019 and work was originally slated to begin in 2020. But he told work session participants that the project now “has been placed on hold.”
A pavement rehab project in Camden County from the Pasquotank County line to the Virginia state line is scheduled to start in 2025 at an estimated cost of $6.1 million.
“We are hoping for that schedule to hold,” Midgett said.
State Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, told participants that funding priorities should be given to sections of future I-87 closer to the Virginia border.
Steinburg, whose district includes multiple counties through which the highway is scheduled to cross, noted that legislation he sponsored places northeastern North Carolina in Virginia’s Foreign-Trade Zone and that land for economic development close to the Port of Virginia is becoming scarce and expensive.
“It seems that this would be prime for expansion first,” Steinburg said of sections close to Virginia. “All of that land that is in North Carolina that is just across that invisible border is available for companies. If you want (economic) growth real quick, that would be the way to go about it.”
Two projects in Chowan and Perquimans counties slated to be part of I-87 are “tentatively” scheduled to begin in 2025, Midgett said.
The Chowan project is $6.4 million in pavement rehabilitation from the Bertie County line to the Perquimans County line. The Perquimans project is $5 million in pavement rehabilitation from East Bear Swamp Road to U.S. Highway 17 Business.
“I say tentatively because things being what they are, things are a little fluid,” Midgett said. “But we anticipate them to begin in 2025.”
Four interstate maintenance projects in Nash and Edgecombe counties are scheduled to be let in 2025. The interstate maintenance projects include pavement rehab, shoulder widening, guardrail upgrades and bridge preservation, said NCDOT Division 4 Planning Engineer Kristen Barnes.
The work session had almost 150 participants from across northeastern North Carolina. N.C. East Alliance interim President and CEO Vann Rogerson urged leaders attending the meeting to work toward getting federal dollars for I-87.
During the presidential campaign, President-elect Joe Biden voiced strong support for modernizing highways and roads, investing in light rail networks and updating ports. Those proposals may be easier to achieve as Democrats will take control of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives in the coming days.
If such a package is approved, Rogerson said northeastern North Carolina needs to “put its hat in and ask for some of it.”
“Let’s make sure that we don’t miss this infrastructure funding that is supposed to be an economic development stimulus from the federal government,” Rogerson said. “One thing is for sure, if we don’t ask for some money, we won’t get any money.”