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Even cool fall weather won't fix state's funding woes

Just in case you hadn't noticed, that's Labor Day in your rear-view mirror and suddenly, believe it or not, we're in that crazy time of the year when the seasons seem to accelerate relentlessly toward -- dare we even think it yet? -- Christmas!

The kids are back in school, football, from high school to the pros, is all the rage and even that danged hurricane reminds us that fall is near and changes are inevitable.

Before you know it the trees will be tinged with reds, yellows and oranges and the youngsters will be planning their Halloween costumes!

Fall is a great time of the year, although it is somewhat melancholy as summer's more relaxed and fun atmosphere winds down, especially for the kids, who now must focus on dreaded homework and the pressure of earning good grades and keeping up with extracurricular activities that explode this time of the year.

And for us more "experienced" folks, we know that the cool, crisp days of fall are going to lead us into the chilly, often cold and depressingly dark days of winter.

Admittedly, I was getting a little weary of the relentless heat and humidity this summer and will greatly enjoy some cooler, less humid weather but, make no mistake, I'll take 95 and sunny any day over 25 and cloudy with a chance of snow!

But since we don't get to vote on any of that, perhaps the best policy is to try to find time to relax and enjoy the weather before it changes too much.

A good place to do that, most likely, will be the annual Justice Truck and Tractor Show that kicks off tomorrow, Sept. 6 and runs through Saturday, Sept. 7, assuming the storm doesn't cause us too many problems.

The show is always a great time to get outdoors and see lots of vintage tractors, cars and farm equipment -- and enjoy getting re-acquainted with friends, neighbors and sometimes even family that you may not have seen in a long time.

If you can, be sure to take the kids or the grandkids. They will enjoy seeing some of the displays and, who knows, they may even learn something. (Hint, it's best if you don't mention that whole learning thing to them beforehand!)

And while you're there, don't forget to look around to see if homemade ice cream and fresh pork skins are available! Just sayin'!

Signs of trouble

The lead story in last week's Franklin Times was the best indicator in a long time showing just how dysfunctional and inefficient our state government has become.

The story -- crafted by ace reporter Carey Johnson and based on a question he asked indicated that our beloved North Carolina Department of Transportation may delay the construction of Section D of U.S. 401 -- from Royal to Louisburg -- by 10 years or more.

Carey discovered the story when he was quizzing DOT District Engineer Joey Hopkins about another fiasco, two bridge problems in the county that are hardships to many and dangerous to some.

Carey simply asked Hopkins about the status of Section D -- a question you might have thought county officials would have asked when Hopkins visited a county commission meeting on Aug. 19 -- but they didn't.

My guess is that county officials already knew about the delay but they have a habit of twisting themselves into pretzels to avoid any "bad news" becoming public. But that's just a guess, although we know some county officials visited DOT on Aug. 8 and it's hard to believe such important information wasn't revealed to them at that meeting.

Hopkins didn't volunteer the information about a possible delay -- but, to his credit, he didn't duck it when Carey asked him directly.

The bottom line is that the most dangerous, most important and the last link of U.S. 401 between Louisburg and Raleigh is being kicked down the road 10 years (or possibly more), even though the county has waited decades for this highway to be improved.

And, the delay to the Franklin County portion, comes after all the highway improvements, including the expensive Rolesville Bypass, were completed in Wake County. Surprised? Me either!

Root of the problem

Here's the root of the problem -- and it is not with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, although its constantly changing rules, ranking systems and budget juggling haven't helped much.

The real problem lies in the North Carolina General Assembly -- and to a lesser extent in the North Carolina Governor's office.

Both have failed, and failed miserably, in building and maintaining the state's vital infrastructure for decades.

In more recent years, the General Assembly has become so politically polarized legislators can't agree to serve ice water at a July picnic.

Literally. Look at where we are now, in early September, two months into the 2019-20 state fiscal year. We have no state budget approved -- and that affects, directly, every school child in the entire state because school districts are literally flying by the seats of their pants without knowing how much state funding they will receive this fiscal year.

Instead, state lawmakers sit around Raleigh, taking our tax dollars as pay, and can't seem to get over their petty political differences and keep this state rolling along.

And if you think school funding is chaotic, it is great compared to the issues involving transportation, which has more -- and more political -- moving parts than just about anything you can imagine.

The bottom line is that North Carolina is a rapidly growing, continuously changing state -- and transportation funding is woefully inadequate and has been underfunded for years, if not decades.

But the problems don't stop there because transportation, and especially highway construction, is hyper-political and decisions are often (usually) made by political considerations.

It's not difficult to find recently improved highways in portions of the state where the political big wigs live but where there is precious little traffic and no traffic congestion likely.

And then there are highways like U.S. 401, between Royal and Louisburg, which is dangerous, has no berms, and where more than 900 local school children travel on school buses daily, alongside speeding tractor-trailer trucks. If there is a section of highway in the state that should have been improved long ago, this is certainly it.

And, after waiting 40 or 50 years, we're told we have to wait another decade or more, all because of a political stalemate in Raleigh where lawmakers seem more concerned with giving big companies tax breaks and pumping grants (funded with our money) to companies, many of which aren't even based in this country!

Bottom line

After more than a decade of hard work, a local 401 Citizens Action Committee managed to get Section C of the highway, from the Wake County line to Royal, funded and construction is underway.

It took so long, largely because of inadequate funding and because DOT continually changed the rules for qualifying for the money.

We went through such schemes as the TIP, also known as the Transportation Improvement Plan, and it took us years to jump through all the hoops to get to where we were about three months from final approval.

Then a new governor, Pat McCrory, arrived and ordered the priority scheme changed to STIP, this time it was Strategic Transportation Improvement Plan. Even though Franklin County had been on the verge of approval, we were kicked back down the list in favor of other projects.

Eventually, with a lot of help from a network of politicians, including virtually every elected official in the region, and with the support of the Kerr-Tar Regional Planning Organization and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, we managed to climb back up the STIP scheme's ranking system and got Sections C and D approved.

As recently as the groundbreaking of Section C a year ago, we were assured that Section D was approved -- and the funding earmarked for it.

Frankly a lot of us were skeptical, given the changing rules of this transportation "game" that the state plays.

Unfortunately, our fears were realized.

Loss of credibility

Since we believed we had a firm commitment from the state regarding the entire U.S. 401 project, this delay is more than frustrating. It causes a lack of credibility, not only with DOT but with the state.

The state, through DOT, had a commitment -- and is poised to ignore that commitment.

That will affect far more than this project -- and probably other DOT-promised projects. How can any organization -- a community, an industry, a new employer, anyone -- trust the state's word any longer?

What the the state says today may no longer be applicable tomorrow -- and if their credibility is shot, that hurts us all big time.

Leadership missing

Part of our problem in Franklin County -- and you get to decide just how much of a problem it is -- happens to be the sad fact that we don't have any representation from our county in the state's General Assembly, thanks to some cockeyed redistricting scheme.

We are represented in the state senate by John Alexander, a Republican who lives in Wake County.

We are represented in the state house by Lisa Stone Barnes, a Republican who lives in Nash County.

Sadly, I haven't seen either Sen. Alexander or Rep. Barnes in Franklin County in months, perhaps a year or longer.

We are hopeful that these two will jump up and go to war for us, restoring funding for this long-neglected, dangerous and often-promised highway project.

We'll see how that plays out in future weeks -- and the result should help you make some important decisions when the next election rolls around.

In the meantime, if you have to drive U.S. 401 south from Louisburg, be very careful and watch your speed!

The section south to Royal is still as narrow, congested and terribly dangerous as it has been for years -- and is getting worse as growth in the area happens.

The section from Royal to Wake County is under construction, so be careful about workers, equipment and lane changes which are inevitable with such a big project.

If drivers use a little common sense, everyone will be safer.

And if the politicians use a little common sense, Section D will be built on schedule and this fear of a long delay will evaporate with the celebration of a ribbon cutting!

Let's hope for the best -- and work to ensure the worst doesn't happen.

Have a great weekend -- and maybe we'll cross paths at the tractor show!

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Members Opinions:
September 05, 2019 at 9:22am
You can bet that Barnes and Alexander are looking out for the people of Franklin county. They are certainly not on a nasty women's march or some other nonsense. We also hope to see another Governor with good since in upcoming year too. If you smart people could send some of these democrats back to New Jersey it would help.

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