WRAL Investigates

Coronavirus means rough road ahead for NCDOT

Posted April 8, 2020 6:49 p.m. EDT
Updated April 8, 2020 7:03 p.m. EDT

State health officials say Governor Roy Cooper​'s stay-at-home order is slowing the spread of the coronavirus outbreak in North Carolina. But it could also slam the brakes on road construction projects across the state.

North Carolina collects $0.36 for every gallon of gasoline sold in this state. In the last fiscal year, stations sold more than 6 billion gallons in North Carolina.

The gas tax generates about $2 billion dollars a year for the state's Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund. Those two pots of money pay for operations, maintenance and construction projects.

With fewer people driving fewer miles, they're making fewer trips to the gas pump. Between the lost gas taxes, losses in DMV fees and lost highway use fees, the North Carolina Department of Transportation is estimating at least a $200 million dollar hit to expected revenue.

That's bad news to road and bridge builders. Victor Barbour of Carolinas Associated General Contractors says things are tough and likely to get tougher.

"You hear all the time about flattening the curve," Barbour says. "Flattening the curve for us is about being able to maintain our business."

​The DOT collects daily traffic counts at its construction projects. Compared to counts taken before the stay-at-home order, those roads are clearly much less traveled now.

Traffic volume at I-40 and Aviation Boulevard is down 54%. The I-40 work zone at the Wake/Johnston County line showed a 35% drop in traffic on weekdays. During the first weekend of the order, traffic volume was down 40%.

Finally, the Triangle Expressway toll road, which is used by a lot of workers in Research Triangle Park, experienced a 54% decrease in cars the first week of the order.

As the order continues, state transportation officials expect the traffic volume to decrease even more.

"No rush hour at all. We don't have anything like that no more," says Apex driver Devante Oxendine.

The state's dependency on the gas tax for road funding has been on shaky ground for years. As vehicles become more fuel efficient and with the expansion of electric/hybrid vehicles, the revenue from the gas tax per road mile traveled has steadily declined over time.

And now COVID-19 travel restrictions are creating yet another pothole in the funding formula.

Over the course of the next fiscal year, NCDOT had planned to bid out 131 projects at $2.7 billion. As of Wednesday, that’s revised to 38 projects at just $672 million - a drop of more than $2 billion dollars going out to contractors and builders who do those jobs.

"I think it's devastating," Victor Barbour says. "I think we have a lot of our membership who are really trying to figure out how to survive."

The agency will also need an additional infusion of cash for services that don't involve building roads.

Once life returns to normal, the DMV will have to deal with a large backlog of people needing to renew licenses and registrations and conduct other DMV business. In a presentation to lawmakers, DOT leaders said they'll need more funding to keep offices open from 7 AM to 7 PM to meet demand.

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