MOREHEAD CITY — In consideration of rising construction cost estimates and reduced projected revenues, a workgroup made up of transportation officials and advisors from across the state has decided to pause development of the 2024-33 State Transportation Improvement Program in the local input phase.
The STIP is a tool used to identify scheduling and funding priorities for transportation projects over a 10-year period. The N.C. Department of Transportation is required by federal law to update the STIP at least every four years, with the most recent plan adopted in September 2019 and officials now in the midst of development for the 2024-33 STIP in a process known as prioritization 6.0, or P6.0.
The news the STIP is being temporarily paused came during a meeting of the Carteret County Transportation Committee Aug. 18, held via Zoom. During the meeting, NCDOT corridor development engineer Diane Hampton gave committee members an update on the prioritization process in light of recent financial concerns.
Ms. Hampton said a group of NCDOT engineers, including herself, has been tasked with revising the cost estimates for utilities, right-of-way acquisition and construction for all projects currently in the STIP. As of the end of July, the latest numbers Ms. Hampton had available to share with the transportation committee, NCDOT had updated estimates for about 97% of the projects.
“I’m sure you’re well aware project estimates can have substantial cost increases over time, and often times this is due to projects having low initial cost estimates due to the limited knowledge of the project in the early state and then when project is scored in prioritization, it is not based on the most current estimate and it is programmed in the STIP,” Ms. Hampton noted.
Based on the revised estimates, the 2024-33 STIP is overprogrammed by about 10% for the entire 10-year period, Ms. Hampton said. Estimated project costs exceed the amount of available funding, often substantially, at every level outlined by the STIP, from the statewide mobility tier, which includes the state’s largest and most impactful transportation projects, down to the division needs level, which encompasses smaller, more focused efforts.
For regional impact, the middle tier of projects between the statewide and division levels, Region B, which includes Carteret County, has $855.1 million in available funding and is overprogrammed by $541.8 million. Under the division needs category, Carteret County’s Division 2 is $412.6 million over with only $506 million in available funding. The statewide mobility tier has $9.4 billion of available funding and is $3.03 billion over.
As Ms. Hampton pointed out, the difference in cost estimates is less extreme when only considering committed projects, which are those scheduled in the first six years of the STIP. Projects scheduled in later years of the program are considered uncommitted and must go through the prioritization process again during development of the next STIP.
Ms. Hampton said the cost revision exercise revealed NCDOT needs a better method for estimating project costs. The department plans to incorporate several new practices, such as updating estimates on a regular basis and incorporating contingencies into the costs, to ensure they are reflected accurately in the STIP.
With most projects exceeding available funding, the exercise also revealed NCDOT may have to rethink the STIP process, at least for this cycle of development. In response to the various financial woes facing the department, a workgroup was formed earlier this year to come up with possible solutions. The workgroup is made up 50% of representatives from rural and metro planning organizations, known as RPOs and MPOs, and 50% NCDOT staff.
“We’re hoping they can come up with some good, innovative ideas on direction for moving forward because there is not enough money to fund all the committed project through the STIP,” Ms. Hampton noted.
One of the group’s suggestions was to pause STIP development in the local input phase, which typically begins once NCDOT releases the raw data scores for projects and usually lasts several months. NCDOT still plans to release the data scores as scheduled in September, but it will advise local officials not to gather feedback from stakeholders or proceed with the normal local point assignment process.
By pausing the STIP before that process begins, Ms. Hampton said people won’t “get their hopes up” about projects that may never come to fruition due to funding restraints. She also emphasized the decision to temporarily pause the STIP originated from the workgroup, not NCDOT directly.
Official have not said how long development of the STIP will remain paused, as Ms. Hampton said the workgroup is still meeting monthly to figure out a path forward.
“It is still very much up in the air,” she said.
Correction: This article was updated at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, to correct the time frame projects in the STIP are considered "committed" and to remove reference to a project that is not being considered for the program. These were reporting errors.
Contact Elise Clouser at email@example.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.