There is one unpaved road in Sampson County set for resurfacing and, now that a new system has officially gone into effect funding roads on a statewide priority basis rather than at the county level, it could be the last one for quite some time.
Reached Thursday, N.C. Department of Transportation district engineer Lin Reynolds noted the change, the effect on funding that has already taken a hit and how the process of notifying the Sampson Board of Commissioners of roads set for paving will be modified as a result.
Reynolds alluded to the coming change at the beginning of this year, stating that Keith Road could be the last dirt road paved in Sampson for the foreseeable future due to new regulations in how secondary road funds are distributed.
That change is now official.
Under new law, effective July 1, DOT has to give county commissioners a list of the roads that get priority in its annual paving program. While that in itself is nothing new, it will no longer be a county-by-county process where each county has its own list of roads that respective county boards must approve for paving. Rather, it will be a notification of the state’s list.
“The list is statewide — that is a big change. We have to notify the county commissioners what roads are eligible. We used to have to get their nod of approval but now we just have to notify them,” said Reynolds, whose district covers Sampson and Duplin. “We never had any problems with boards in either county giving their approval. They’ve always been good to work with, but now the state is dictating what we can pave.”
Keith Road, located off N.C. 24 (Roseboro Highway), just west of the Sampson County Landfill, was previously tapped for $50,000 to pave 0.41 miles from N.C. 24 to the dead end. Reynolds said DOT is ready, but some utilities need to be moved, including power poles, before work can start.
In Sampson, there is currently about 10 miles of unpaved roads. About half that amount are roads where DOT has right of way but they are not eligible for funding. The other half contains roads where property owners will not sign over right of way, making paving eligibility a moot point.
“We’ve always had a points system on roads, none of that has changed,” Reynolds remarked. “Now that funding has tightened up though, instead of looking at county by county (paving), they’ve grouped them on a statewide basis and put so much money in a pot. We don’t have any roads in Sampson or Duplin that had enough points so the county might not get any roads paved this year and other counties will benefit.”
Unless a road is eligible through the points system, which takes into account traffic volume, the number of homes, schools and churches on it and its status as a potential bus route, among other things, DOT districts get highway funds to make road improvements and little else.
He noted one road in Duplin that did have enough points to be eligible but the needed right of way was not signed over to DOT, “making it null and void.”
“There will be very little road building going on anymore unless the rules change,” Reynolds said simply. “We do have right of way on low-point roads so when they roll up the list, we’ll pave them, but that won’t happen for some time down the road.”
Earlier this year, Reynolds informed commissioners that the DOT’s Secondary Roads Program would be examined on a state level rather than at the county level, meaning Sampson may not see the funds it has in past years.
Year by year, through the program, dirt and gravel roads have been crossed off the county’s list.
Sampson had 18 miles of unpaved roads several years ago. With the paving of numerous dirt roads, including Jimmy Road, Eura Tart Road, Johnny Road and Old Cotton Gin Road, as well as the more recent paving of Ballance, Fleet Naylor, Jasper and Darden roads, that number currently stands at approximately 10 miles.
DOT has conducted a study of all state-maintained unpaved roads in order to determine the mileage for each county and the total across the state, with allocation of secondary roads funding — used for unpaved and paved road improvements — based upon the proportion of unpaved roads as compared to the miles statewide. Each county’s allocation was determined by dividing the total allocation by the statewide mileage times the number of miles in each county.
With the statewide priority paving list and Sampson’s rural nature, it will be an uphill battle getting some of that remaining 10 miles paved, Reynolds said.
“Honestly, it should have been that way the whole time,” he said of the statewide list. “We were paving roads that just had chicken houses on them because we were so far down the list. I think it’s going to be good. You want to pave the roads where the most people are using them. You don’t want to pave the roads that are going to the cornfield.”
However, the move to a statewide assessment speaks to a bigger problem of funding. The paving is done through state trust fund monies, while highway money is used to make road improvements and conduct patch work. Funding sources to widen and resurface roads have been significantly diminished in the past year.
“Legislators have taken that all from us,” Reynolds said.
Sampson was approved for $1.75 million in 2012-13, including $150,000 for unpaved road improvements and nearly $1.6 million for paved road improvements.
The mileage of unpaved road has decreased since, thanks to that funding, but now the funding level itself has fallen.
“They’ve cut the money they’ve given us. We had as much as $2 million in highway funds in each county (Sampson and Duplin) and now we’re down to about $200,000 for each,” Reynolds attested.
While the amount fluctuates, that is a “ballpark” figure of what he is expecting for Sampson in the coming cycle.
“They’ll let us know what it’ll be in September,” said Reynolds, who said the state budget must first be approved before highway funds are doled out across the state. “It costs $4,000 for a crew each day in labor and equipment. That $200,000 doesn’t go far at all.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.