A series of public meetings and open comment periods are underway across Western North Carolina, sparked by new legislation requiring the N.C. Department of Transportation to consider public input when ranking community transportation needs.

State officials want mountain residents’ input for determining the criteria that will influence which highway, rail, aviation, bicycle or pedestrian transportation projects will be funded in WNC.

The criteria will also include information on existing congestion, safety scores, cost effectiveness and other criteria chosen by each division’s engineer.

WNC meetings and comment periods are the following:

  • Division 11 – which includes Avery and Watauga counties – is holding its 30-day public comment period until July 9.
  • Division 13 – which includes Buncombe, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Rutherford and Yancey counties – will be holding its comment period from July 15 – Aug. 14 and will host a public meeting on July 15 at 4 p.m. at the Marion Community Building.
  • Division 14 – which includes Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Polk, Swain and Transylvania counties – is holding its comment period until July 16.

In order to leave a comment, you may go to the Strategic Transportation Investments public meetings webpage and fill out an online form. Then, you may email the completed form to strategicplanning@ncdot.gov. You can also call your division’s project engineer at the phone number posted on the public meetings webpage.

The overall new methodology and criteria for each division can be found on the NCDOT’s website.

What’s changing?

The legislation that led to these public meetings and comment periods is called the Strategic Transportation Investment – or STI – law. It was signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in order to help ensure that the NCDOT uses its funds efficiently. One of the ways the law attempts to ensure efficiency is through the creation of a new project funding formula.

“With the STI law, were able to do more with the existing funds we already have,” said Jordan Ashley-Baker, a NCDOT communications officer. “The improvements that are being made will impact the largest number of people and reach the areas that are most in need.”

Division projects that will be funded are ranked based on a complex point system which helps asses the needs of each division. The higher a project is ranked the, more likely it is to be funded.

Here’s how it works.

Projects being considered are given points if they meet certain criteria. The criteria are created by each division’s engineers, rural planning organizations and metropolitan planning organizations. The public comment periods during July and August also allow citizens to influence how the projects will be evaluated, and it lets them determine how each criterion should be valued. Division projects scoring the most points could earn higher prioritization rankings and could have a better chance of being funded.

For projects within a particular division, input from local officials accounts for 50 percent of the projects’ final scores. This means that the criteria created by these local officials, and the points they allot for projects, could have a significant impact in deciding which projects are ultimately funded.

The other half of the projects’ final scores comes from data that has already been collected by the NCDOT’s prioritization office in Raleigh.

The new funding system allocates funds for statewide projects first because officials consider those the most important projects. Then it funds regional projects, and, lastly, it funds division projects.

Any project within a division that isn’t chosen for statewide or regional funding can be funded by that division. But division needs projects are funded with only 30 percent of the NCDOT’s construction budget. The rest of the department’s revenue distribution goes toward statewide projects and regional projects.

Why was the new law created?

Before the new Strategic Transportation Investment law was passed in June 2013, the last time a transportation funding formula was developed was in 1989. That funding system divided up funds geographically and was based on criteria such as road mileage and population. It led to some divisions receiving less money than they needed, and the old funding system sometimes didn’t address the most important mobility issues, said Dean Ledbetter, the North Wilkesboro-based senior planning engineer for Division 11.

Ledbetter said that the STI law allows the public to have insight how transportation projects are funded. Now, he hopes that the general public will show interest in the funding process because he doesn’t want to significantly influence the prioritization of projects without their input.

“If they don’t let us hear from them, we have to make assumptions on their behalf.” Ledbetter said. “We would love to hear from folks directly.”

Kristina Solberg, an Asheville-based project engineer for Division 13, also said that the previous funding formula was inefficient and didn’t always address the transportation needs of each division. But she believes that the new funding system allows citizens to understand how projects are being funded.

“One of the biggest things is that it is now a transparent process,” Solberg said. “It’s taking the politics out of transportation projects.”

The new funding formula is also data driven, which makes it easier to determine which projects are most important said Joel Setzer, a Sylva-based assistant engineer for Division 14.

“We don’t have enough money, so we need to use the money we have for the best projects.” Setzer said. “This is a way to figure out what are the best projects.”

When will the changes be made?

Projects that are exempt from the new formula include: interstate maintenance, bridge replacements, highway safety improvements, congestion mitigation and air quality projects. They will be set against different criteria.

The local input points will be assigned to projects by the end of August. And the new funding system will be put into action after July 1, 2015.

Projects scheduled for after that time will be ranked under the new formula, while projects that are currently being funded will continue construction as scheduled.

The NCDOT is expected to fund 371 projects over the next 10 years, compared to the 175 projects that were funded over the previous 10 years, according to the NCDOT website [PDF].

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Chase Erickson is a former intern at Carolina Public Press.

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