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Friday, March 4, 2011

Northern Beltway project gets a boost


Credit: Journal Graphic by Nicholas Weir

Beltway map

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The state has agreed to change how it ranks urban highway proposals for funding so that segments of a loop can be considered separately from a full loop plan, which might improve chances for the planned Northern Beltway around Winston-Salem.

Ralph Womble, who represents the Winston-Salem area on the N.C. Board of Transportation, said Thursday that Gov. Bev Perdue and Transportation Secretary Gene Conti agreed to the change. It probably won't move the project up from last place on the state's funding priorities until a new list is prepared for 2014, officials said.

The DOT will review its priority formula for urban loops throughout the state, Womble said. The state boarddiscussed the beltway Thursday at its meeting inRaleigh.

Cost is a primary factor in whether a plan gets priority for funding.

"We were unfairly penalized in their calculations because they used the cost of the entire loop, but they don't build entire loops," Womble said. "They build them by segments."

The proposed 34-mile beltway is divided into two parts: an eastern leg and a western leg. The eastern leg, now estimated to cost $869 million, would connect U.S. 52 to U.S. 311 and become part of Interstate 74, a highway running from Davenport, Iowa, to near Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The western leg would finish the loop around northern Winston-Salem and end at U.S. 158, on the southwest side of Winston-Salem.

Local officials want the DOT to build first a segment of the beltway that would run from U.S. 158 to Business 40, Mayor Allen Joines said.

That segment, which would cost $238 million, would intersect Business 40 on the western edge ofKernersville, Joines said.

"If the DOT would rate projects by segments, our project would be much more competitive," Joines said.

The state's proposed list of urban-loop projects ranked the highway's eastern leg last among 21 projects. Under the new priority formula, the eastern leg section might move up to the 14th spot or higher, Joines andWomble said.

The state transportation board will approve its priority list of projects by June or July, said Pat Ivey, a DOT division engineer in Winston-Salem. The beltway's last-place ranking on that list will not change.

"We hope to make an impact on the next round of prioritization in 2014," Ivey said.

The DOT has studied whether initially building segments of planned loops in Winston-Salem, Fayetteville andAsheville would be efficient and cheaper than building entire highways in those areas, Ivey said.

The Northern Beltway has been stalled since 1999, when opponents filed a lawsuit claiming that the state had failed to do a proper environmental study of the highway's western leg.

State and local officials then put the eastern leg as a higher priority. Opponents again sued in 2008 after a new environmental review.

A judge dismissed both of those lawsuits in May 2010, but state officials said there was no money for the beltway.

In September, seven landowners filed a lawsuit asking a judge to order the DOT to buy hundreds of properties along the beltway's route. Property owners say they have been hurt by having property that they can't sell because it's in the beltway's path.

Last week, state Sens. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, and Linda Garrou, D-Forsyth, co-sponsored a bill that would give people who live in the beltway's path a 50 percent tax break on their property.


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