I attended Thursday's (8/14) NCDOT public meeting on the eastern section of the Winston- Salem Northern Beltway or officially the "Transportation Corridor Official Map Act and Design Public Hearing" and Pre-Hearing Open House. Both took place at the East Forsyth High School in Kernersville. They had large posters of the roadway design plans posted along the wall, blown up versions of those found at the project web site plus a couple additional handouts. I'll first describe the project according to the handouts, then the public comments NCDOT heard, and finally my comments on those comments. (I will bring the handout to next week's Raleigh meeting, whether it's an incentive to attend, I guess we'll see).
The Beltway meeting handout described the basic portions of the project which are actually 2 TIP projects U-2579, the Eastern Section of the Northern Beltway, 12.4 miles from just east of US 52 (the US 52 interchange is actually part of the western section project) to Business 40/US 421/NC 150 and project U-2579A the Eastern Section Extension which goes for 4.4 miles from Business 40 to US 311, for a total of 16.8 miles. The eastern section will have a standard roadway of 3 lanes each direction with additional auxiliary lanes where necessary and a 46-foot median, while the extension will be 2 lanes each way with additional lanes where needed and a 70-foot median. The combined projects will have 9 interchanges; NC 66, NC 8, Baux Mountain Road, US 311, US 158, Business 40, Kernersville Road, I-40 and with US 311 North. The project will also rebuild US 311 between the Ridgewood Road and Union Cross Road interchanges. The cost of the Eastern section currently is $445.2 million including right-of-way (ROW) costs, while the extension will cost $249.5 million.
Since this roadway has been in the planning stages for nearly 50 years, much of the expense will be for buying and condemning properties along the highway corridor, houses and businesses that were not there when the idea was first proposed. The Eastern Section currently will require 452 residential relocations along with 18 businesses, a church, and a farm, total cost $154.1 million. The 4.4 mile Eastern Extension needs to take down 242 houses and 13 businesses, costing $60 million or almost 1/3 of the entire project budget. ROW acquisition, and from testimony at the meeting, structure demolition, has already begun this year for the section between Business 40 and US 158. Construction is to start in 2013. ROW for the next section from US 158 to US 311 is to start next year, with construction to start in 2015. ROW for the Eastern Extension from Business 40 to I-40 is to start in 2010 with construction to start also in 2015. ROW acquisition for the remainder of the extension is to start in 2012 with construction to start after 2015. All other sections of the Beltway are currently unfunded for both ROW and construction.
The public comments, not surprisingly focused on ROW issues. Unlike past hearings I've been to though where people were asking NCDOT not to take there homes, only a couple people did here, in this case most comments where from residents of several subdivisions where most of the houses are to be taken down (50 of 75 in one, 23 of 25 in another) asking that NCDOT consider buying everyone out. They knew that the values of their remaining properties would be going down and that the highway would destroy the value of living there. Other comments, which don't surprise me, see below, had to do with the lack of communication and/or accuracy on behalf of NCDOT. One man complained his subdivision was planned in 2001, completed in 2004, but didn't exist according to the NCDOT's maps. A woman complained that NCDOT suddenly came in and demolished the house across the street from them without notifying her or her neighbors, causing potential risks for the children playing in the area. Another person had insisted on noise walls for his neighborhood, these walls were shown in the plans in the record-of-decision (ROD) but not on the maps for the meeting, thus he questioned the sincerity of NCDOT officials. The NCDOT spokesman finally admitted that some of the information from the maps may be out of date or in error.
Of the 20 or so speakers only the final few (who didn't sign up to speak) actually made statements opposing the Beltway. One said that since the area where the highway was to go was now built up, industrial properties that might be built near other beltways to increase the tax base would not happen in Winston-Salem. He asked the roadway be moved farther out from the city. Another asked that they join him in hiring a lawyer to fight the highway's construction. Most people had left though by the time of his tirade. No one spoke out for using the Beltway money for other transportations purposes, but a couple teachers thought the money would be better spent on education.
COMMENTARY: This meeting was different from other public meetings I have attended. At the other sessions the location of the meeting was clearly signed a good distance from the meeting site and there were often people in the parking lot telling you where the meeting place was, this was certainly the case with a recent I-73 meeting I attended in Hamlet (where no one spoke out against the project). However, for this meeting everyone not familiar with the area trying to find the location was more or less left on their own. There was only one small arrow, hardly visible to anyone driving by the high school building, indicating where the NCDOT meeting was. I ended up moving my car because the notice said only it took place at the old gym so I parked next to a gym, only to find out it was the wrong one. I saw several cars circling the lot and then leaving. You can decide for yourself whether this meant NCDOT was trying to discourage turnout or thought only nearby people would attend.
NCDOT certainly does not inspire those people who do attend a meeting when they ask citizens affected by the project to review what they insist are accurate maps, only to be told later, and seemingly reluctantly, that there may be mistakes on them. And as seen before in construction problems, better communication would help ease some of NCDOT's problems, in this case citizen concerns. While no one should expect the project engineer to go house-to-house telling every resident that there property might be taken for a road project, it's certainly the duty of a public agency to have a clearly identified person who can answer questions and make sure everyone who could be affected be notified. The law may only require a posting in a local paper, but a stronger effort beyond what's required might help. Certainly people in a neighborhood have the right to know that large equipment is going to show up on their street and knock a building down.
Given the large number of properties needed to be taken by NCDOT and undoubtedly disputes arising about the correct values of these properties, I would not be surprised if the construction dates listed in the handout will be pushed back again. NCDOT is starting a project to revamp US 52 through downtown Winston-Salem this year. Who knows, but perhaps I-74 will end up routed along US 52 all the way to I-40 as originally envisioned.