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by Jordan Green

Insights gleaned from Triad transportation summit

Toll roads are always on the table

The respective economic chambers of commerce of the Triad’s three major cities hosted a regional transportation summit at American Express in Greensboro on March 18. When Greensboro Mayor Bill Knight asked a panel whether the state might consider using tolls to pay for new roads, a rumble of laughter rolled through the auditorium. NC Department of Transportation Board Member Michael Fox, whose district includes Guilford County, responded that the gap between the projects on the state’s wish list and available funding is wide. “Toll roads are certainly an option,” he said. “That’s something we would be foolish in this area if we didn’t study at least.”

When Dianne calls, Robbie answers

I located a seat next to Greensboro at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, who has long maintained an interest in transportation. Midway through the second panel discussion he glanced down at his Blackberry and then gathered his belongings. “All right, I gotta go,” he said. “Dianne Bellamy-Small’s got a meeting downtown. She needs me.” Perkins has forged an alliance with Bellamy-Small, who represents District 1 and who, like Perkins, is one of the council’s longest serving members.

We still love our interstates

The “aerotropolis” concept centered on Piedmont Triad International Airport, the furniture market in High Point and the Piedmont Triad Research Park in Winston-Salem all depend on the development of Interstate 74, which involves upgrading the US 311 Bypass through High Point to meet interstate highway standards to create a seamless route through the Triad from Mount Airy to Asheboro. That’s in the estimation of transportation board member Ralph Womble, whose district includes Forsyth and Stokes counties.

Unwarranted Queen City envy

At least one person besides myself wanted to know if transportation planners have thought much about integrating rail and air freight transport. Greensboro wants to develop a transportation and logistic economy around the Piedmont Triad International Airport, and the state recently received a $520 million grant from the federal government for high-speed rail. There would seem to be an opportunity. NC Transportation Secretary Gene Conti answered yes, and cited Norfolk Southern Railroad’s planned intermodal freight facility at Charlotte Douglass International Airport as an example. Cue alarm bells. A phone call to Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman revealed that, in fact, there are no plans to integrate air and rail freight transport in Charlotte. “Our interest is in improving our intermodal network for trucks-to-rail transport,” Chapman told me. “There’s space available near the airport. That’s the only reason we’re looking at that location. Air freight is typically light weight and high value. It’s freight that rail routes don’t typically carry.”

She who controls the purse strings

Among lawmakers from Forsyth and Guilford counties, Sen. Linda Garrou receives a lot of deference. At the beginning of his keynote speech, Conti noted that there were too many elected officials in the room to individually acknowledge without unduly lengthening his presentation, but that he would make an exception for the Forsyth County lawmaker “because Sen. Garrou’s our appropriations chair.”

‘The new DOT’

Conti spoke about what he called “the new DOT,” mentioning different modes of transit such as rail, ferry and air, in addition to the “backbone” of roads, being good stewards of the environment, operating in an open and transparent manner and creating jobs. No conflicting imperatives there, right?

Urban Loop purgatory

Conti said the NC Department of Transportation is prioritizing Urban Loop projects based on input from local Metropolitan Planning Organizations, and the Board of Transportation will likely vote to approve a list submitted by staff in June. “There are two loop projects to consider: Finishing the Greensboro loop and getting the Winston- Salem project started,” Conti said. “Both of those are very expensive.”

Financing of Greensboro loop

Conti confirmed that the NC Department of Transportation “is working with the city of Greensboro to have the city acquire right of way ahead of” construction of the remaining sections of the Urban Loop — an idea initially floated by atlarge Councilman Perkins. Under the plan, the city would loan the state the money to acquire the right of way to expedite the completion of the project. Conti said that the deal would require enabling legislation in Raleigh.

Dwindling revenues

Conti said the state’s transportation revenues are down by about $300 million per year since 2007. Revenues from the gas tax — 29.9 cents per gallon — have taken $90 million hit. North Carolinians are driving less and buying fewer new cars since the recession hit, and sales tax on vehicle purchases has similarly declined by about 25 percent.

North Carolinians will take the train

Conti rarely misses an opportunity to promote mass transit.

He noted during his keynote speech that legislation passed last year allows the Triad and Triangle to levy a half-cent sales tax to finance light-rail projects similar to the system opened in Charlotte a couple years back. Conti later told reporters that ridership for Charlotte’s light-rail system is above anticipated levels, adding, “I think the evidence is there that people will use it if you build it in places with high density”