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LOOP AT-LAST

by Daniel Schere

City and business leaders break ground on first section of beltway

daniel@yesweekly.com | @Daniel_Schere

On a chilly Friday afternoon by the Pisgah United Methodist Church in Kernersville, Gov. Pat McCrory stood on a raised platform near the site that is to be the beginning of the Winston-Salem Beltway. He told the small crowd of city and business leaders gathered there that the road they have waited to see for 27 years is finally going to be a reality.

“Because you’ve been hearing speeches and promises for the past decade, and because it’s cold today, this is going to be more about action than speeches,” he declared.

McCrory and others broke ground for the first 4-mile section of I-74, which will serve as the eastern half of the beltway. This portion will stretch from Business 40 to US 158 at a cost of $154 million. According to a Nov. 7 press release from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, work could begin as soon as December 1 and be completed by 2018.

The plans come two months after McCrory announced his 25-year transportation plan at Smith-Reynolds Airport on Sept. 17 where he said he hoped to get $1.4 billion in transportation bonds passed in the next legislative session. If passed, Winston-Salem would receive roughly $266.5 million for the completion of I-74.

“It’s within eyesight,” he told reporters. “We can see it happening, and I still need to get this $1 billion bond passed so we can start speeding up this project as quick as possible and that’s my next immediate goal.”

The beltway concept was originally formulated in 1987 and environmental impact statements were approved in the mid-1990s, but a lawsuit alleging that the impact statement was not sufficient delayed the project. It was then put on hold again in 2008 after a new impact statement was prepared and it was criticized for not addressing the impact of global warming on intersecting roads. All the while, residents who live within the path of the eventual road have been kept in limbo about whether to sell their homes.

“My heart goes out to anyone who’s been impacted by the past two decades of delay, and as you heard the governor say, one of the reasons why we’re moving so fast is because we know that people have been impacted,” transportation secretary Tony Tata said. “My commitment to the people of Winston-Salem, and everybody in the path of I-74 is we will communicate, we will be transparent, we will get information to the people and my communications team right now has taken a look at how to do that.”

Tata said the department has identified 3,100 projects around the state that together come to a price tag of $70 billion. He said it will likely take 50 years to complete all of them.

The beltway project still faces some funding challenges. In the summer 2013 session, the General Assembly passed House Bill 817, which put in place a scoring system for determining which transportation projects should receive funding. Scores are based on factors such as accessibility, cost, congestion and safety. Each project receives three scores; division needs, regional impact, and statewide mobility. I-74 scored 1,389 out of 1,700 projects.

Tata said he thinks the mobility formula will ultimately favor the Triad because it takes freight into consideration in how it scores road projects.

“When you’re talking about it from a business perspective, if you’re reducing travel time, you’re reducing congestion, and you’re giving freight a value in the formula that’s over 60 percent of the formula right there,” he said.

Tata added that he thinks there are parts of the formula that could stand to be adjusted based on seasonal traffic needs for some regions, like resort areas along the coast that become congested in the summer.

McCrory has said on numerous occasions that he intends to “take the politics out” of the transportation funding process. He cited tourism and interstate commerce as reasons for prioritizing the project and said waiting longer will lead to increased costs and interest rates.

“When we have companies like Hanes here, who need logistics to get to and from locations from around this region to other states, not having this road has hurt that business,” he said.

Earlier in the day, business leaders met at the Deere-Hitachi plant for a transportation summit hosted by the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce. The event featured a presentation from Winston-Salem State University economics professors Craig Richardson and Zagros Madjd- Sadjadi, whose economic impact study determined that I-74 will create 33,800 jobs and generate roughly $2 billion in economic activity.

In the powerpoint presentation, Richardson showed a picture of a sinkhole filled with money set against the backdrop of an urban slum to illustrate the consequence of not building the loop.

“There was an enormous and growing cost of inaction,” he said.

Richardson said the area of greatest impact from the beltway would be 16 square miles, or roughly one-eighth of the size of the entire city.

“If we have a message today, the message is three words: completion, completion, completion,” he said.

Madjd-Sadjadi argued that there is a higher return on investment as a result of construction. He showed a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge in his explanation to the audience that Manhattan would not exist without it.

“As you start to build things, people start to make investments,” he said. “There still are companies coming here, but it’s a different kind of company than the one’s that will come here with the connectivity. You build a street, it’s a local transaction. You build an interstate, everyone benefits.”

The event also featured a panel that discussed the logistical benefits of an interstate loop. It was made up of Deere-Hitachi manager David Kelly, Hanesbrands vice president Jerry Cook, and Cook Medical vice president Scott Sewell.

Kelly said Deere-Hitachi typically brings in 80 truckloads of freight per day, most of which use US 52 to get into town.

“It’s extremely difficult for all of those trucks to have to come through downtown Winston-Salem,” he said.

Kelly added that traffic from the east must travel through Kernersville and the lights create a significant amount of congestion. He said trucks would continue to use Business 40 until the entire loop is finished.

“Until the whole thing is connected, anything that comes from the North or from the Midwest is not going to see any benefit,” he said.

Cook said that his operation must meet a 45-minute window when making trucking deliveries, most of which are from outside of Winston-Salem.

“We refer to this as the devil’s triangle,” he said.

Cook noted that I-40 is the only interstate, and said he thought adding I-74 would be a good starting point but would still leave a “clogged artery.”

Scott said their distribution center typically sees 10 18-wheelers use US 52 every day to get there.

“It’s a parking lot at times,” he said.

“We have employees that come down that road and are sitting there a lot of times.”

Scott thinks building I-74 will help the company emerge from what he calls a “pre-cell phone environment” with regard to logistics.

“We love North Carolina, but our decision in five years on where to build is going to be based on logistics,” he said. !

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