NCDOT builds up cash reserves, tentatively plans to resume some projects

Vehicles cross the Harkers Island bridge connecting the island to Straits on the mainland. The bridge replacement project was among one of 50 the state transportation department allowed to continue amid a major budget shortfall, but unrelated litigation put the project on hold. (J.J. Smith photo)

CARTERET COUNTY — The N.C. Department of Transportation is working on building back its cash reserves after a budget shortfall forced the department to put all but 50 critical transportation projects on hold earlier this year.    

A combination of factors, including, most recently, the loss of gas tax revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic, pushed the department’s reserves below the state-mandated statutory minimum of $300 million. By law, NCDOT may not enter into new contracts when funds dip below the cash floor.

In response, NCDOT announced in April it was pausing all but 50 major construction projects throughout the state. The department also said it would furlough some contracted workers and halt all except the most “mission critical” purchases. That was about five months ago, and officials say the funding situation is looking a bit better for NCDOT recently.

“We’re right around above a $600 million balance right now, which is good. We are hoping to maintain that level for several months before we start normal (awarding) of projects, so right now things are looking better,” NCDOT corridor development engineer Diane Hampton told the Carteret County Transportation Committee Wednesday. “We’re not out of it yet, but things are looking better.”  

Ms. Hampton did not say whether any county projects would be able to resume once NCDOT gets back on track.

Durwood Stephenson with the Highway 70/Interstate 42 Corridor Commission brought similar news to the transportation committee Wednesday. He said NCDOT is recently up-to-date on all its bills, and gas tax revenues have begun to rebound after being down for months due to the pandemic.

“They’ve done well to dig out of that hole and things are looking up, we’re hopeful,” Mr. Stephenson said.  

One Carteret County project that was delayed is the contentious Bridges Street extension project, which involves building about 3 miles of new roadway to connect Morehead City and Newport. Engineers were working on selecting a preferred alternative route for the project when NCDOT announced the freeze.

Design work on a project to widen the Newport River bridge to four lanes was also put on hold, as were a slew of roundabout projects planned throughout Bogue Banks and Beaufort.

The Harkers Island bridge replacement project was among the select 50 projects NCDOT allowed to continue, but ongoing litigation unrelated to the department’s funding issues has put that project on hold for the time being, as well.

In other business, the transportation committee passed a resolution in support of renaming the North River bridge the Commissioner Jonathan Robinson Bridge after the late commissioner, who died earlier this year.

“He’s deserving of it,” Chairperson Dennis Barber said.  

 

Contact Elise Clouser at elise@thenewstimes.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt. 

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