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Wednesday, 30 September 2009 19:00

Shortchanged again, WNC demands highway dollars back

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Western North Carolina has steadily lost out on tens of millions in federal highway dollars over the past decade, despite the money being specifically earmarked for the region.

Mountain leaders sent a message to both Raleigh and Washington this week to restore a special pot of money for highway projects in the mountains. The money was being siphoned off by Raleigh and doled out across the entire state rather than going to WNC as intended by federal legislation dating back to 1965.

“This money was set aside to help the far western counties, but over time it got put into the general pool,” said Ronnie Beale, Macon County commissioner chairman.

The special pot of highway money was supposed to improve the lot of Appalachian people. The region historically suffered from higher poverty and unemployment rates. Its isolation and lack of high-speed highways was considered a major culprit.

The interstate system connecting the rest of the country largely bypassed Appalachia, skirting the rugged region when possible due to high costs of road construction in the mountains. To counter the topographic challenges and rectify the isolation brought about by lack of highways, federal lawmakers earmarked a special pot of money each year to fund the Appalachian Development Highway System.

But a minor accounting change that occurred in the mid-1990s kept the money from reaching its intended destination. Instead of arriving as a special appropriation, the money was bundled along with the rest of the federal transportation budget when being sent to the state.

The state claimed it could not unbundle the money. Once bundled in with the rest, the state claimed it was obligated to divvy it up among the entire state as it did the rest of the federal transportation money.

“It wasn’t considered extra money, and North Carolina law says if it is not extra money, it gets caught up in the state’s distribution formula,” said Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation Division 14, a 10-county mountain region.

“It is my belief that violates the spirit of the Appalachian program. It is a belief shared by many,” Setzer said.

A committee of leaders from six counties that comprise the Southwestern Regional Transportation Planning Organization adopted a resolution this week condemning the practice. The committee includes commissioners from six counties and mayors of several towns.

The resolution calls on the special highway funding to be restored to the region. In particular, it asks the federal government to separate the money from the rest of the state’s transportation budget so the state wouldn’t face the challenge of unbundling it.

The special federal pot designated for WNC is supposed to be $30 million a year. One road project that stands to benefit from the Appalachian highway construction dollars is a missing link of Corridor K (see related article.) The road would blaze a four-lane highway around Robbinsville, relieving a narrow two-lane bottleneck for people traveling to Murphy. It has been in the planning stages for decades, but carries a price tag of nearly $800 million to finish a 17-mile missing link through Graham County.

Setzer suggested that the message would carry even more weight if a similar resolution was adopted by counties and towns across the region. Macon and Graham counties have already done so.

“We have to keep hollering louder and louder and louder,” Beale said.

The state has stockpiled some of the money, with around $150 million accumulated but unspent, Setzer said. Setzer hopes the mountains can draw from the funds once the accounting classification is changed.

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