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Highway 160 Widening will have Tough Squeeze through Funding Funnel

(April 1, 2013) Transportation planners have begun to review and rank 280 potential transportation projects in the Charlotte area, including the widening of Highway 160. About 30 of these will survive to make the 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP). The plan, expected to be completed in March 2014, will recommend that these surviving projects be funded and completed within the next 25 years.

The chart below illustrates how projects advance through the ranking process. All 280 projects are evaluated in Tier 1. The top 70 or so projects will enter the second, or Tier 2, evaluation. Those that make the top 30 or so of that ranking would be expected to be constructed by 2040 based on anticipated funding.  (Click HERE or on the image below to view a PDF version of the Funnel Chart.)

Steele Creek

Once local planners identify the top projects, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) will evaluate these to see which should be added to the statewide Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) when it is updated, likely in late 2014. Also called the seven year plan, the TIP includes projects with a solid chance of being funded over the next four years and a more fluid list of additional projects projected to be funded over the subsequent three years.

Unfortunately, the TIP already includes projects waiting to be started, so only somewhere between zero a handful of the original 280 Charlotte-area projects will be able to squeeze in.

The best case scenario is that the widening of Highway 160 will slide onto the bottom of the list in the seven year TIP and slowly move up in the ranking, possibly being started in about eight years at the soonest.   

The worst case scenario is that Highway 160 does not make the 2040 LRTP at all, and thus its widening would still not occur for over 25 years.

The Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization (MUMPO) adopted the 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan in 2010. This plan identifies 64 projects whose cumulative cost does not exceed expected revenues over a 25 year

Metropolitan Planning Organization Changes
Every large urban area nationwide has a metropolitan planning organization, or MPO, which evaluates transportation needs and recommends projects within its area. For the last ten years, the Charlotte area has had an MPO called the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MUMPO, which covered all of Mecklenburg County and the western, mostly urban part of Union County. Due to the enlargement of the Charlotte urbanized area, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2012, additional parts of Union County, all of Iredell County south of the Yadkin River, and eastern Lincoln County are being added to the MPO. At its last meeting, MUMPO formally adopted the new name Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, or CRTPO. The name transition will occur over the next few months. Local governments within the MPO area are members of CRTPO. The delegate representing the City of Charlotte is At-large City Council Member David Howard. The delegate representing Mecklenburg County is District 4 County Commissioner Dumont Clarke. The MPO also has a permanent staff and a Technical Coordinating Committee made up of staff from the various member jurisdictions and other area agencies involved with transportation planning.
period. The widening of Highway 160 was not among the projects identified and thus in 2010 was not expected to be funded before 2035.

MUMPO, renamed the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO) last month to reflect an enlargement of the planning area, is in the process of updating the plan to extend it to 2040. Local jurisdictions have identified 280 projects for evaluation. The list actually includes two Highway 160 widening projects, one from the South Carolina state line to Highway 49 and the other from Highway 49 to I-485.

The evaluation begins with Tier 1, which looks at congestion (traffic volume divided by capacity), safety (crash frequency and severity), and accessibility to employment (based on current data, not projections). Approximately 70 projects are expected to move to Tier 2. The two Highway 160 projects have a good chance of making this cutoff due to increased growth and congestion and its passing through the Westinghouse Boulevard industrial corridor.

The Tier 2 evaluation is more subjective. Factors examined include environmental justice impacts, natural resource impacts, historic resource impacts, community resource impacts, system connectivity, and benefit cost ratio, which looks at travel time saved divided by the cost. The top projects from the Tier 2 evaluation will be included in the 2040 LRTP.

The number of projects included will be based on the expected available revenues through 2040 and the projected costs of the projects. They will be grouped into five-year periods based on their total ranking scores and expected funding for each period. The number of projects in the LRTP could be as low as 30, which is less than half the number in the 2035 plan and reflects expected lower future revenues for highway projects.

The projects that CRTPO has included in its 2040 LRTP will then be evaluated by NCDOT along with projects submitted by all the other MPOs in North Carolina. The criteria used by CRTPO are designed to parallel those used by NCDOT, so the state rankings should be close to those in the 2040 plan, but there may be differences.

The current Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) includes one project in Steele Creek, which is the construction of a roundabout at the intersection of Beam Road and Shopton Road. Construction should begin within the year.
  The state plan is the Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), which is a seven-year plan. Projects that make the cut are identified for construction either during the first four years and are given solid, secure funding or during the subsequent three years and are subject to more fluid funding. The US Department of Transportation only requires a plan covering four years.

Since the TIP already includes projects awaiting construction, only a few new ones are added during each reevaluation. There may be no new projects added from the Charlotte region, or there may be only a few. Therefore, the likelihood of either of the Highway 160 projects making the TIP is a longshot. The best hope is that the Highway 160 projects can be ranked high, much higher than in the last ranking, and move up during subsequent updates.

Some projects funded may be only partial projects, such as right-of-way acquisition, with the construction funding awaiting later years. Additionally, the TIP is reevaluated every few years, so the projects near the bottom of the list could be bumped down by other projects that pop up in the rankings. Actual funding provided for highway projects may be lower than the amount projected, causing further delays in projects.

CRTPO adopted the ranking criteria for the 2040 LRTP at its March meeting, and planners are now reviewing the 280 projects to develop the rankings. The draft 2040 LRTP should be available for public comment in September or October 2013. Approval of the final 2040 LRTP by CRTPO is due by March 2014, and the state is likely to update its TIP later in 2014.

Steele Creek residents need to monitor the development of the draft 2040 LRTP and be prepared to provide comments later this fall.

The following was presented at the MUMPO/CRTPO meeting on March 20, 2013:

The Steele Creek Residents Association represents the Steele Creek community in the southwest corner of Mecklenburg County. We’re an area that is not necessarily neglected but we do feel overlooked from time to time.

We had our annual meeting three weeks ago, and had over 200 people attend. Our two topics this year were the new outlet mall and other retail development, and the future of North Carolina Highway 160, also known as Steele Creek Road.

Bob Cook was a featured speaker and told us about the MPO’s process for evaluating and ranking projects. Charlotte City Council Member David Howard and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dumont Clark also attended. We appreciate all of you joining us and helping us understand the ranking process for highway projects.

The widening of Highway 160 is one of the two greatest needs in Steele Creek right now, the other being improvements to Olympic High School.

Traffic congestion on Highway 160 is getting worse and worse, especially during morning and afternoon rush hours. Steele Creek more than doubled in population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Residential development slowed as it had everywhere late in the decade, but it is beginning to pick up again. New retail development, such as the outlet mall at I-485 and the expansion of RiverGate Shopping Center will only contribute to the traffic. Highway 160 crosses through the Westinghouse Boulevard industrial corridor, which is one of the largest employment centers in North Carolina. South Carolina recently announced plans to widen Highway 160 from Tega Cay to the state line, which will funnel traffic from South Carolina up to I-485 and the new outlet mall into the two lanes of Highway 160 in North Carolina.

Long ago Highway 160 was a quiet two-lane road that passed through the rural farming area of Steele Creek. That no longer is the case. It is now a congested urban bottleneck.

At our meeting last month, Steele Creek residents unanimously passed the following resolution:

The citizens of Steele Creek respectfully request that MUMPO raise the priority of widening Highway 160 from I-485 to the South Carolina state line for the safety of our residents due to increased traffic from new retail and residential developments and from South Carolina.

We realize that there is a process for ranking projects, and a resolution from a community group probably isn’t high on the list of factors considered, but we do want to make sure that you are aware of our need and our concern. Please keep Highway 160 in mind as you develop the 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan.

Thank you for your time.

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