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Ask Anything: 10 questions with N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti

N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti answers your questions about upcoming road projects, DMV's long lines and much more.

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DOT Secretary Gene Conti
I understand that everyone makes mistakes. But how can you possibly justify the botched I-40, 540 and 795 projects, having taxpayers foot the bill for two of them to be repaired and DOT chiefs then asking for more money? This is an absolute waste of taxpayers' money. – Dan, Fuquay-Varina

NCDOT has an annual budget of $3 billion in both state and federal funds. Each year, we work on hundreds of projects ranging from highway resurfacing to printing the state maps. NCDOT maintains nearly 80,000 road miles as well as bridges, ferries, rail, transit and other forms of transportation.

Unfortunately, our identified needs far exceed our revenue. Every community in our state has a list of enhancements and improvements for existing roadways and a list of the new roads they need. We do our best to meet as many of these identified needs as possible.

We are constantly looking for new and better ways to build and maintain our transportation system to save taxpayer money. The vast majority of the time this works well. However, sometimes a certain technique may work in one area, but is not the right technique for another area.

Unfortunately, you can’t always know that ahead of time, such as the case with I-795. We are all human and occasionally are going to make mistakes. If we do, we must be accountable for our actions. We will do our best to understand how the mistake happened or why a particular technique did not work and make the necessary changes to prevent it from happening again. And I promise that we will do so in an open and responsive manner.

I believe that the best way to prevent those problems is through improved communications both internally and externally. This has been one of my focus areas since becoming secretary of transportation.

Why are N.C. DMV offices so improperly understaffed and notorious for their extremely long wait times? Whether you follow the DMV's suggestion of visiting in the middle of the day, week and month or not, you're faced with an absurd line to stand in, often times out the door. Can you correct this? – Jared Manning, Graham

North Carolina is one of the nation’s fastest-growing states and, since 2006, the number of licensed drivers in our state has increased by 400,000. The Division of Motor Vehicles is under the same budget constraints as the rest of state government and this means our resources are being stretched thin.

DMV has 113 driver license offices spread throughout the state. These offices serve 10,000 to 12,000 customers each day, and they do it with fewer than 430 driver license examiners. Because of this budget tightening, DMV can no longer pay its examiners overtime to catch up with the line of folks that remains after 5 p.m. And, when an examiner is sick in one location, we no longer have the travel funds to send relief personnel from another office to help out.

Additionally, license examiners have had more responsibilities added over the years, such as being required to ask you several questions such as if you would like to register to vote and would you like to be an organ donor. We’ve also strengthened the process for obtaining a license, which requires more time with each customer.

Generally speaking, planning your trip to DMV at the least busy period for the office helps you get in and out more quickly. Usually, this means visiting the office early in the morning or early in the afternoon on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays. However, some offices seem to always be busy because they are located in high population areas.

We invite you to call the driver license office several weeks prior to your visit to make an appointment. This will help shorten your visit. We also offer some services online and I invite you to visit www.ncdot.gov/dmv/.
In order to save fuel, why aren't the stop lights on busy highways timed to keep traffic moving? – Travis Clements, Raleigh

There are about 8,900 traffic signals on the state highway system throughout North Carolina (this is not including signals on private roads). Of those 8,900 signals, about 55 percent are coordinated. Signals have to be within a mile of each other to be coordinated; this is why more are not coordinated.

Because some of the state highway system signals are located within one of 18 North Carolina cities (Raleigh, Burlington, etc.) those cities actually maintain the signals and their coordination.

If a motorist has a concern regarding a specific corridor and its signals, we urge them to contact NCDOT and if we do not maintain the signals they are asking about, we can make sure their concern gets to the appropriate person to be addressed.

Please explain why we have added roads like bypass 70 (which has increased congestion) but continue to struggle with the I-40/US1/Wade Ave interchange that is significantly under-laned with only four lanes. What can we expect to help our I-40 congestion (all around Wake County) in the NEAR future? – Mike, Raleigh

NCDOT constructed the U.S. 70 bypass to alleviate congestion in the town of Clayton. Motorists are using the bypass; however, congestion on I-40 is still an issue.

The department has recently started a project to widen 6.2 miles of I-40 from west of Wade Avenue to east of Jones Franklin Road. These improvements are aimed at reducing congestion and improving traffic flow through one of the most congested areas in the Triangle.

Work includes adding one 12-foot wide lane and one 12-foot wide shoulder in each direction of I-40, expanding the interstate from four to six lanes. The new shoulders are being built to the same depth as the roadway to allow for easier expansion of the highway in the future. The bridges carrying I-40 over Wade Avenue and U.S. 1/64 are also being widened so they will have the capacity for eight lanes in anticipation for future widening along this section of I-40.

At the eastbound I-40/Wade Avenue split, the highway is being expanded to provide three lanes for I-40 from the current two lanes. Signing adjustments are also going to made at the interchange and I-40 interstate crest pavement markers will be placed on the three I-40 lanes to further assist motorists with lane designations.

Another improvement will be the installation of a dynamic message sign on I-40 westbound between Lake Wheeler Road and Gorman Street, which will display information regarding travel conditions as needed.

I've been in the Triangle for 30 years and would have been using intercity/commuter rail all that time if it had been available. What's NCDOT doing to help create a Triangle rail network? How about rail service to Wilmington or Asheville? – Steven C., Durham

Although Triangle Transit’s initial efforts were not successful, commuter rail plays an important role in the area’s long-range transit planning. NCDOT was a funding partner for the Special Transit Advisory Commission, which proposed $8.2 billion in bus, streetcar and rail transit investments by 2035.

During this year’s legislative session, NCDOT has actively supported several pieces of legislation that will help make commuter rail possible in the Triangle, the most important being HB148, which would provide for a local option tax for transit funding. Similar funding in Mecklenburg County made possible the successful light rail system initiated there in 2007.

Currently, state-sponsored North Carolina’s Amtrak offers service four times daily between Raleigh and Charlotte including Triangle stops in Raleigh, Cary and Durham. Due to growing ridership, the state is now completing logistical work to add two additional midday frequencies between Raleigh and Charlotte by late 2009 or early 2010.

Through the NCDOT Rail Division’s Station Improvement Program, 16 depots across the state have been historically renovated or newly built, including the new Durham Train Station located in the historic Walker Warehouse that opened on July 8.

Funding for the environmental document and preliminary engineering for future rail service to Wilmington and Asheville have been included on the pre-application list of NCDOT projects submitted for consideration under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Final applications are due Oct. 2, and funding will be awarded on a strictly merit-basis by the end of the year. Please visit bytrain.org for complete information on our rail program.
Who is responsible for making sure the highway signs are visible? It seems a lot of them are covered by tree limbs or shrubbery that needs pruning. The speed limit sign on the outer beltline at Wade Avenue is one of the worst, as are the signs on the bridge at Six Forks Road going over the beltline. – Annette, Dunn

Individual maintenance departments within an NCDOT Division, often each serving a specific county, are responsible for maintenance activities along state-maintained roads such as the Beltline. They include the trimming of plants that cause a sight problem or cover, as well as removing debris, patching roadways, mowing, litter pickup and snow and ice removal.

To report a problem, citizens can notify the local maintenance department in a number of ways. They can call the local county maintenance yard, obtaining the number at http://www.ncdot.org/contact/, or e-mail the concern through Contact Us https://apps.dot.state.nc.us/contactus/PostComment.aspx?Unit=PIO, or call the NCDOT Customer Service office at 1-877-368-4968.
After former NCDOT Secretary Tippett's hiring of a private consultant to find NCDOT's mismanagement, from which he told the consultant to ignore employee surveys and just created more management positions titled "chiefs," how are you handling the results from the consultant? Have you and Gov. Perdue eliminated the unnecessary, overpaid chief positions that you inherited from former Secretary Tippett and Gov. Easley? – Zeb, Cary

We are continuing to reform the way NCDOT functions to make it a better performing agency. Our goals are to become more efficient, transparent and accountable. The direction for our reform effort comes from Gov. Bev Perdue, the report prepared by consultant McKinsey and Company, and our own employees.

Based on the results of the McKinsey report, the department went through a formal restructuring process to eliminate redundancy and streamline operations. We combined some units and refocused the roles of others, which meant reassigning or transferring some staff members to different positions. I consider this realignment vital to our efforts to become a more effective agency.

I encourage you to follow our progress. We are currently changing how we decide which transportation projects to fund with the money we have available. Our decisions will be based on real data such as crash statistics and traffic volumes, as well as input from our local stakeholders.

We are not in the city limits and live off a high traffic road. It has been patched many times, keeps deteriorating, has no lines in many areas, and needs resurfacing. I understand the DOT received some recent federal funding from the stimulus package. How do we get this road fixed? – Deb Jordan, Knightdale

Because of the criteria for projects for the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, local road resurfacing projects were not eligible for the stimulus funding. The funding and scheduling for those local projects are determined by planning and budget allocations within the NCDOT Division where the road in question is located.

You should contact your NCDOT county maintenance engineer with the concerns about your road. The engineer and his or her staff can determine whether immediate repairs are needed and can let you know where your road stands in the resurfacing schedule.

To obtain the contact information for your county maintenance engineer, you can call the NCDOT customer service office at 1-877-368-4968, or use our Contact Us system or Road Report system, both of which can be found at http://www.ncdot.org/contact/.
I am a small farm winery in Alamance County. Visitors often complain because I don't have signs off I-40/I-85 (I'm 6 miles from the interstate). When I explain that they cost $30,000, they can't believe it. Would you be willing to meet with us to discuss a new signage program that would greatly benefit the agritourism industry of N.C. and also add much needed tax dollars into the coffers of our state? – Debbie Stikeleather, Iron Gate Winery, Mebane

What most residents and motorists do not realize when they are driving down the interstate is the sheer size of signs along the side of the road. An average speed limit sign on a freeway is about 5 feet tall, not including the post that holds the sign up; winery signs are even larger.

While $30,000 may seem like an exorbitant figure for a set of signs, keep in mind that this cost is determined on the location of the sign, the sign itself, materials, installation, concrete footings, etc. It is not abnormal for these signs to cost anywhere between $15,000 to $30,000 after all costs, including labor, are taken into consideration.

We are required to pass all costs for signs to the business; therefore, wineries who request to have their own sign erected on an interstate must pay for it at no cost to the department. There are lower cost programs available, such as the Logo program. In this program, agritourism organizations can have their logo placed on exit “attraction” signs. These are similar to the signs you see along the interstate prior to exits that have logos for eateries, gas stations and lodging.

This program is also cost neutral, meaning that the agritourism businesses pay to be a part of it at no cost to taxpayers. There are many benefits to the Logo program. First, it is at a much lower cost to the business. While it may cost $15,000 to $30,000 to have a winery sign erected, it only costs about $1,200 to $1,500 a year to participate in the Logo program depending on the number of actual signs.

Another advantage of the Logo program is that if one of these signs is damaged, the maintenance and rebuilding of the sign would not be an additional cost to the business. If a business has a separate sign under the Agricultural Tourism Program, the business is responsible for any damage and must pay for the repairs or replacement.

Mr. Conti, with all the transportation projects that have been proposed in N.C., when do you expect to lift the hiring freeze for employees and when will these projects begin. Thank you for your time, cooperation and consideration. Very respectfully. – George T. Riley, USA Veteran, Willow Spring

The department is still responding to a soft economy as the budget for the next two years forecasts significant revenue shortfalls. In response, the department is undergoing a workforce program evaluation to assess what the appropriate staffing levels and workload are given our fiscal constraints and changing priorities. In the near term, I anticipate filling a few strategic openings by shifting existing positions. After right-sizing the workload and, hopefully, an economic turnaround, we will begin hiring to meet critical demands.

As for our work schedule, we award contracts for new construction projects in counties across North Carolina each month. Unfortunately, the economic downturn has reduced the number of projects we can pay for using traditional revenue sources by about 75 percent.

The good news is we have received $838 million in recovery funding from the federal government for highway and bridge improvements and transit needs statewide. That money is allowing us to move forward with many projects that budget constraints would have forced us to delay.

Since March, we have awarded contracts for 77 highway and bridge projects totaling about $350 million, and distributed $103 million for urban and rural transit projects. We will continue to fund projects until we have used all the recovery dollars we received. That work will help stimulate economic growth while creating and sustaining jobs for our industry partners across the state.

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