The scary old I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River near Salisbury is woefully overdue for a $350 million replacement. Agreed. But who wants to pay for it?
North Carolina wants President Obama to pay for it.
I-85 is the main road between Richmond and Atlanta. Only a fraction of the 70,000 cars and trucks that ratle across the narrow bridge every day are local. But under the General Assembly's "equity" formula for distributing highway dollars, the Yadkin bridge is just another local project.
If NCDOT officials agreed to pay for a new Yadkin River bridge with regular state and federal road money, that's $350 million that would not be available in coming years for local road improvements large and small -- in a five-county area that reaches all the way north to Winston-Salem.
Winston-Salem people, and Salisbury people too, have their own truly local highway needs. The equity formula pits them against interstate travelers on I-85.
The state applied this summer for federal stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to buy a new bridge.
To meet the ARRA requirement that stimulus money be spent on projects that are ready to start construction soon, NCDOT took the unusual step this week of inviting contractors to start writing their proposals to design and build the new bridge -- even though the state does not have money to award the contracts. The work would include widening several miles of I-85.
“I-85 is a vital corridor for commerce throughout the Southeast,” Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said in a press release. “We are optimistic about receiving ARRA funds for this important project and we are going to be ready to put people to work quickly.”
If the Obama administration turns thumbs down on North Carolina's Yadkin request, our backup plan is to make it a toll project. The N.C. Turnpike Authority would borrow the money, build the new bridge, and then collect tolls from I-85 drivers for the next 30 to 40 years.
Meanwhile, take heart: The General Assembly has promised to launch another study of the equity formula.