LOUISBURG -- Financial struggles at the State Department of Transportation could mean that the second phase of a major thoroughfare in Franklin County will be delayed.
During an Aug. 19 meeting, State Department of Transportation area Engineer Joey Hopkins informed commissioners that "cash outlay" issues meant that temporary repairs that could more immediately open a roadway that's been closed for two years was not a fiscally responsible option.
Later in the week, Hopkins revealed that those same cash outlay issues, coupled with the results of the Map Act lawsuit and rising costs, meant that improvements to U.S. 401 -- from Royal up to Louisburg -- could be delayed, also.
At this time, Hopkins said, there is no impact to Section C -- essentially from the Wake County line to Royal -- or other active projects.
"[But] there could be impacts to other, future projects, including [Section D]," Hopkins said.
Positively, Hopkins said, "funding for Section D is what we call a committed project," he said.
"It does not have to be prioritized again or compete against future projects for funding."
But, while it is a committed project, DOT funding fluctuations would have an impact on its start date.
Right-of-way acquisition was slated for the 2022 fiscal year and construction was slated to begin in the 2024 fiscal year.
Now, Hopkins said, those dates look more like 2026 and 2029, respectively.
The DOT's cash flow issues are three-fold, according to Hopkins. What he characterized as a cash outlay issue in the short-term is attributed to increased maintenance costs, primarily due to storm damage.
"... Our overall maintenance budget across the state is roughly $300-$400 million," Hopkins told county commissioners.
"Last year, we spent $300 million on storm response, so that's how dire things are on the maintenance side.
"We averaged in the preceding 10 years about $65 million on storm response," he said. "The last three, that average is $220 million.
"Last year, we spent $300 million, so that eats into your maintenance budget really quick."
The results of the Map Act ruling has also created a financial hardship for DOT, Hopkins said.
According to a News & Observer story, the state Supreme Court ruled that a 30-year-old law that allowed DOT to reserve land for future roads without actually buying it amounted to an unconstitutional taking of private property.
In July, the state began reaching settlements in more than 350 of those cases, costing the state nearly $300 million.
Also, in July, there were about 260 cases still pending and more yet to be filed, according to the N&O account.
It was expected that, ultimately, settlements could cost the state more than $1 billion.
"Mainly, Hopkins said, "our cash outlay problem is from the additional cost for storm response, the Map Act ruling and, then, you also have increasing costs on current projects."
When Hopkins noted the fiscal issues DOT faced during the Aug. 19 meeting, county commissioners didn't ask about the impacts on U.S. 401 and Hopkins didn't offer the information.
Repeated attempts to contact County Manager Angela Harris were not successful.
Rep. Lisa Barnes said she understood the funding matter would impact about 350 projects, including Section D of U.S. 401.
"[DOT] has assured me that they will continue to work with local partners and stakeholders to minimize delays to the greatest extent possible," Barnes said. "I have asked the department to update me of any further changes in the schedule.
"I am committed to do everything I can to get this project completed."
Immediate attempts to contact Sen. John Alexander were not successful.
Gary Cunard, chair of the U.S. 401 Citizens Action Committee, the grassroots group that worked nearly a decade to get the 401 improvement project built after years of neglect and broken promises, said the delay is alarming.
"This delay is not only unexpected, it is very disturbing because we Franklin Countians have been told for the last few years that Section D funding was in place and that the project would quickly follow the completion of Section C," Cunard said.
"We took DOT officials at their word -- and to learn of this unreasonable delay is clearly a violation of the trust we had in our state officials to do the right thing and to follow through on what they committed to do.
"Our only recourse is to reorganize the 401 Committee and to call upon State Sen. John Alexander and State Rep. Lisa Barnes to do what they promised, to represent the best interests of Franklin County in Raleigh and, especially, in the legislature."
"They simply must get this decision by DOT reversed and put Section D back on schedule."
But what is infuriating, Cunard said, is that Franklin County cooperated fully with NC DOT, although it presented a "moving target" for 401 improvement funding for many years.
"We endured the TIP (Transportation Improvement Plan) scheme and worked ourselves up to the top of that priority list only to be told that a new scheme was being created.
"That scheme was the STIP (Strategic Transportation Improvement Plan) and again we worked our way up -- and eventually Section C was funded and construction is underway," Cunard said.
"The next obvious and cost-effective step is to improve Section D from Royal to Louisburg, but now we discover that project has been delayed ...," Cunard said, adding that the highway improvement delay also damages whatever credibility DOT has in this region.
"They (DOT) made a commitment, we believe a firm commitment, and now they are backtracking, leaving Franklin County in limbo, waiting on highway improvements that already are 50 years overdue.