How Federal Transportation Funding Is Creating Opportunity in North Carolina

Like many southern places, there are two sides. These sides are often defined by race and income. Too often, the part of town not so well off has been divided by a highway the wealthy didn't want.

Wilson, North Carolina, fits the southern mold. Its two sides of town are easily distinguishable using simple demographic measures. In 1956, a bypass was opened around downtown that ran through the "other" side of town. Consequently, this is the same year that Elvis Presley's tour made a stop in Wilson at the Charles L. Coon High School Auditorium.

Most planners are familiar with the 1950s-era bypass. To say that their design is unfriendly to neighborhoods and pedestrians is an understatement.

The section in Wilson doesn't disappoint. Open ditches, no sidewalks, and houses fronting the highway create a dangerous section of roadway that has seen its share of automobile crashes and pedestrian fatalities. While our section of US 301 doesn't carry the traffic it once did, it retains its high-speed design from an era before Interstate I-95 opened. Our section of I-95 didn't open until 1978, the final section in North Carolina. As such, this section of US 301 served as the main North-South route along the eastern seaboard for 22 years.

A look at US 301 and how it looks today.

A look at the vision for US 301

Defining priorities

I arrived in Wilson to take the position of Planning Director in January 2007. As any new planning director should do, I spent the first several months getting to know different constituencies and trying to decipher priorities for the community moving forward. As timing would have it, the community was beginning to embark on a county-wide vision plan called Wilson 20/20. I was asked to take a lead role in the planning issues the effort would explore. One clear outcome of this visioning exercise was the desire of the community to reinvest in its core.

To further explore the community's goals and to develop priority actions, we began a comprehensive planning effort in 2008 for the City of Wilson. The remake of US 301 was a high-priority item. As we explored the issue more deeply we found that there had been several starts and stops in trying to improve the corridor and nothing seemed to stick over the years.

The last attempt was a city-appointed US 301 Task Force and Advisory Committee. Unfortunately, the 10-year effort made no lasting progress in improving conditions along the corridor. As part of the comprehensive plan, we included two charrettes to figure out design challenges for downtown, US 301, and some of our historic neighborhoods. This work set the path for our implementation work for US 301.

One of the key challenges for US 301 was finding funds to make improvements. A remake of the highway simply had not competed well for funding at our state DOT. The roadway is not congested. It simply doesn't fit the community and how the roadway is used today versus its use 60 years ago.

Unfortunately, "roadway fit" isn't a category in the North Carolina DOT funding formula. Neither is community redevelopment. So while asks had been made, the project has never scored well enough to receive funding.

Telling our story

"The proposed cross-section for the portion of US 301 in Wilson, North Carolina.

Working with a new public-private group at the Wilson Chamber called 301 Forward, the city and the group devised two plans for moving forward.

First, we prepared an application for TIGER funding that was meant to try and tackle the section of highway that impacted minority neighborhoods the most. Understanding how competitive TIGER awards were, we broke up the project into small segments and looked for state funding for each piece starting with intersection improvements.

The City of Wilson hired Renaissance Planning from Durham, North Carolina, to lead the TIGER application process Together we developed a story for US 301 that centered on TIGER's theme of Ladders of Opportunity. Of course, we had to include all of the technical jargon and cost-benefit numbers as required in the NOFA.

My belief, though, is that the story of the corridor is what set apart the application along with the benefit of competing in the rural category.

The corridor had several assets and opportunities that aligned with the Ladders of Opportunity theme: a recently acquired former car dealership slated for development; several local schools and a newly adopted Safe Routes to School plan; and many job opportunities near the corridor. Opportunities included low automobile ownership, high unemployment, much higher than average poverty, high concentrations of brownfield redevelopment targets per an EPA brownfield inventory, implementation work for a HUD Choice Neighborhood Plan, and high crash rates on the corridor.

Relationships with a lasting impact

While the corridor's story set it apart, our relationship with Congressman G.K. Butterfield played a key role.

This is where Rep. Butterfield grew up. He saw the corridor split his neighborhood. Keeping his office in the loop on the application and seeking their guidance proved game-changing.

To illustrate the importance of this project to the congressman, while visiting Capitol Hill as part of Planner's Day on the Hill, we reached out to his office to see if we could visit for a few minutes and ensure we were doing everything we could do for the application. We were able to have an impromptu meeting and the congressman decided to join us.

The Butterfield staff not only provided great advice on moving the initiative forward, but they also helped set up another impromptu meeting at the Federal Highway office so that we could get questions answered about the TIGER program. Certainly, without our relationship with Congressman Butterfield and his staff, this sort of dialogue would not have been possible.

It also helps that our application aligned with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx's thinking. Our project was not about transportation throughput, this was about creating better lives for residents. It was also about fixing a transportation injustice that had divided Wilson's minority community for the past 60 years. Researching his past speeches, we gleaned quotes to understand what the secretary's priorities were.

The good news is that the work put into the application and the positive relationship with Congressman Butterfield's office paid off. Our TIGER grant was awarded on our first application attempt. Moreover, our relationship with NCDOT in trying to find funding solutions for US 301 is paying dividends.

Because TIGER awarded just 60 percent of our total project cost we had two options, scale the project back or seek additional funds. By using the $10 million in TIGER funds as leverage, we have been able to take a project from an average-scoring project in our NCDOT region to a top-scoring project. It now appears we will be able to build out the entire project submitted by leveraging the TIGER award and our local $2 million contribution with NCDOT funding closing the funding gap.

Design is underway on our project and we expect to have full design drawings ready to let for bid by May 2017. The community is tremendously excited to finally see progress on such an important project. This along with other projects working to revitalize the area will hopefully bring significant change and enhanced opportunities for area residents.

Top image: US 301 focus area for TIGER grant. Image courtesy City of Wilson, North Carolina.

About the Author
Rodger Lentz, AICP, is the chief planning and development officer in Wilson, North Carolina. He currently serves on the APA Board as the director elected from Region II.

May 19, 2016

By Rodger Lentz, AICP