In the state’s first rating of 3,100 transportation projects with a new “data-driven” process intended to take backroom politics out of road-building decisions, Wake County looks like a big winner.

The state Department of Transportation expects over the next decade to spend about $15 billion on road, rail, transit, ferry and other transportation improvements. The Strategic Mobility Formula, enacted last year by the legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory, will distribute 60 percent of the money at regional and local levels. The remaining 40 percent is reserved for projects of statewide importance.

The evaluations released Wednesday grade each project on how it would ease traffic congestion, reduce accidents, promote economic development and advance other goals set by the legislature and DOT.

Among the top-tier road improvements that scored well enough to earn likely spots on DOT’s 10-year construction calendar, Wake won the biggest county share with projects worth $2.7 billion – much of it drawn more from tolls than taxes. Mecklenburg County’s portion, also relying heavily on toll collection, adds up to $1.8 billion.

Wake’s list includes projects to add more lanes and upgrade interchanges on clogged stretches of Interstates 40 and 440, replace intersections with interchanges on other sluggish roads, turn miles of Capital Boulevard into a freeway, and extend the 540 Outer Loop from N.C. 55 at Holly Springs to I-40 at Garner.

This short list also includes projects in Durham County to improve I-40 and build interchanges on U.S. 15-501 and U.S. 70. Orange County makes the cut with money to upgrade U.S. 15-501.

Toll incentives

The new rankings give extra points for projects that deliver high benefits for a relatively low state investment. That means better ratings where tax dollars can be replaced by tolls collected from drivers, as on the Triangle Expressway – and by private investment, as on Charlotte’s I-77 toll-express project.

Even so, the new Strategic Mobility Formula gives failing grades to a pair of Turnpike Authority projects that already have been panned by legislative leaders: the proposed Garden Parkway toll road in Gaston and Mecklenburg counties, and the Mid-Currituck toll bridge on the northern Outer Banks, which was DOT’s first attempt at partnering with private investors.

“The law seems to be producing the results that we hoped it might,” Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said in an interview. “Part of the governor’s guidance has been to leverage the infrastructure to create jobs and help us pull out of the recession.”

The top-tier, statewide projects are ranked solely on the basis of their safety, congestion and other scores.

The new ratings also analyze second-tier projects that don’t qualify at the statewide level but compete instead at regional and division levels – where local political input helps shape the final rankings. DOT divides the state into 14 divisions of several counties apiece, and seven regions comprised of two divisions apiece.

Wake and other counties will learn about their remaining results later this year. Regional projects get their final grades based 70 percent on DOT’s objective rankings and 30 percent on evaluations to come this summer from local planning boards and DOT division administrators. For division-level projects, this local input will count for 50 percent of the score.

Among the top scorers for Division 5, which includes Durham, Wake and five neighboring counties, is a project to widen the N.C. 55 bottleneck in downtown Apex. It will receive funding if it also wins votes from CAMPO, the Wake-area transportation planning board, and from Wally Bowman, DOT’s Division 5 engineer.

“That one has regional significance,” Bowman said. “I would think the CAMPO folks would agree that this would be a good project to put points on.”

Local input

DOT’s definition of “local” input gives Bowman an equal vote with the mayors, commissioners and other local elected leaders who serve on CAMPO and other metropolitan and rural planning boards.

These local planning boards and the DOT division chiefs will add their ratings to regional and division projects by the first of September. The scores will be reflected and projects will be put on the calendar when DOT issues a draft update in December of its 10-year Transportation Improvement Program.

Along with the next leg of TriEx, extending the 540 Outer Loop as a toll road across southern Wake County, the new DOT project ratings raise the possibility that toll collection will help pay for projects to widen I-40 through Durham and Wake counties.

The added lanes could be toll-express or “managed” lanes, where drivers have the option to pay electronic tolls at rates that rise and fall with changing traffic conditions. Most of these I-40 widenings are more than 10 years in the future, and Tata said they’re still subject to public debate.

“The toll road projects, that’s something we’ll get public feedback on,” Tata said. “You see a managed lanes project, we’re not necessarily going to do that. But it makes the cut. It gives us the option to do it if we want to do it.”

For now, DOT proposes to stick with the old toll-free approach when it adds lanes to I-40 between the Raleigh Beltline and the U.S. 70 Clayton Bypass, and in West Raleigh, and for new lanes on I-440 in West Raleigh between I-40 and Wade Avenue.

©2014 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)