Alexander Drive stays in state budget

By: - August 23, 2005 5:01 am

Durham Herald-Sun

By Ray Gronberg, The Herald-Sun
August 22, 2005   10:47 pm

RALEIGH — By one vote, a Senate committee on Monday rebuffed Durham’s bid to overturn a budget provision that directs the state Department of Transportation to extend T.W. Alexander Drive near the airport in western Wake County.

The rejection followed a lively debate in the Senate’s Judiciary I Committee involving supporters of the extension; Durham Sen. Jeanne Lucas; and Ken Spaulding, Durham’s delegate on the state Board of Transportation.

Spaulding, who has spearheaded the opposition, told committee members that the project will cost far more than its advocates say and that it found its way into the state budget without a public review at either the state or local levels.

"There has not been a public hearing at any time on this road," Spaulding said. "What we’re asking is to let the roads be addressed through the procedures established by the Legislature and the N.C. Department of Transportation."

But the project’s defenders — chiefly Wake County Sen. Vernon Malone, with a firm assist from Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Edgecombe — carried the day by arguing that land contributions from a Texas developer and other property owners along the extension’s route would enable the state to get the road at a discount.

"DOT is getting a $10 million or $11 million road at 50 cents on the dollar," said Jenkins, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that handles the transportation budget.

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, said Lucas’ attempt to strike the order from DOT’s budget failed on a 6-7 vote.

Among those supporting Lucas were Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, and Sen. Janet Cowell, D-Wake.

Cowell broke with two other Wake senators, Malone and Republican Richard Stevens, by voting with Lucas. She said she felt she "had to defer to [a] public process" that ordinarily requires input from elected officials at the local level before a road project makes its onto DOT’s construction program.

The order to extend Alexander Drive in the Brier Creek area from U.S. 70 to Leesville Road has drawn condemnation from officials in Durham and other parts of the western Triangle since it surfaced in the state budget on Aug. 8.

Critics of the measure say it injected the General Assembly into local road planning and threatened to drain money away from other road projects in the DOT operating district that includes Wake, Durham, Granville and Person counties.

They’ve also been skeptical of the $10 million or $11 million cost estimate offered by Malone and other supporters of the project because it doesn’t cover the bill for an interchange DOT engineers say would be needed to avoid congestion where Alexander Drive would cross U.S. 70.

Malone’s estimates have assumed that the city of Raleigh would supply $1 million for the project and that a private-sector group headed by the Texas developer, Stratford of North Carolina, would donate the needed right of way. The state would pick up the rest of the tab.

A local engineer hired by Stratford, Mike Horn, attended Monday’s committee hearing and told senators that the interchange DOT wants at U.S. 70 and Alexander Drive "is not needed at this time" and could be phased in later.

Malone said he thinks any government that can "come up with a project similar to this — who could get property owners to donate property — [should] come on down here" and seek the General Assembly’s support.

Jenkins, meanwhile, criticized Spaulding for emphasizing that the push for the project was coming from an out-of-state developer.

"I don’t think we discriminate on where somebody is from if they’re in the business of expanding the economy of this state," he said.

Echoing Rand, Stevens said before the meeting that he thought "it would be unfortunate for the General Assembly to start making individual road-paving decisions."

But listening to the debate, he sided with Malone because he didn’t think the committee should use a so-called "technical corrections bill" to override the budget.

Clodfelter questioned whether the order to DOT complied with a provision of the state Constitution that bars the General Assembly from passing local, private or special laws that authorize road projects.

"How does something become constitutional just because it got dropped in the budget?" he asked.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066