The new road to nowhere


I went to an STIP (State Transport Improvement Plan) public comments meeting in Rocky Mount yesterday (12th Feb). Without wishing to reflect negatively on those who spoke at the meeting, (many were just doing their job) it reminded me of a succession of serfs paying tribute to their liege.

The meeting was one of 15 around the state designed for public feedback and consultation of the Department of Transportation's (DOT) seven year STIP.  There is one in Winterville on Valentine's Day. Hamlet, Durham and Chapel Hill get their chance on February 19, 20 and 21.

The first thing to note about the STIP is that even though it is a seven year plan, it is actually revised every two years. The second thing to note is that only the first three years of the TIP are what you would normally call a plan. The last four years are more of a wish list. These comment meetings are held every couple of years to hear what the public thinks about their region's plan for the next seven years.

I would hesitate to call what I saw yesterday as public consultation or discussion, at least in a layperson's understanding of those terms. What happened was essentially this: a succession of locally elected municipal representatives and delegates from regional planning organizations got up and spoke for no longer than five minutes each to the head honcho Regional Engineer. Everyone prefaced their comments with salutations and profuse thank yous to DOT for doing their job, an embarrassing shift-in-your-seat moment that  varied from perfunctory five second hand-waving to tribute-paying of the serf/liege kind ("thank you most glorious DOT") to mildly nauseating profuse affairs of almost a minute ("o great and glorious DOT, we are not worthy" etc). Most addressees had nifty handouts crafted, or so it appeared, at the local Kinko's which they handed over with varying degrees of reverence to the head honcho's sidekick. The comments were recorded, and we were re-assured that a transcript of the comments would be made available to the Board of Transportation.  Phew, I thought, that's a relief. I wouldn't want them to miss a moment of this.

Suffice to say, new roads, widening projects and, yep, a loop around Wilson were the wish list highlights.  Gee, I thought, congestion in Wilson must be bad…

I left wondering just how public was this public comment process? My conclusion was not terribly, and as I drove home on the virtually empty US 64 to Raleigh (two lanes each way with a vast median big enough to land a plane on) I reflected that what the DOT engineer had received was a wish list from local business people.  There was plenty of talk of ‘economic development' and the need for roads, but in the end, what kind of development were they really talking about?  Are we talking about luring companies from another state, bringing new jobs into the state and into an area that needs them? That strikes me as economic development. Or is the talk about economic development really mostly about moving jobs from one county to another, from one retail strip mall to a new nifty one in an adjoining county town now served by six lanes of freshly laid asphalt? It seems to me that there is a lot of the latter, and not too much of the former. 

This latter kind of ‘economic development' is akin to shuffling deckchairs on the proverbial Titanic. It's a zero-sum game from the state's perspective, which makes me wonder why the state is spending money enabling this fruitless inter-county and municipal competition.  And therein lies the rub: roads are pork, and while disasters like the Randy Parton Theater receive plenty of airtime and newsprint, far more costly roads to nowhere receive comparatively little. 

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