Budget management measures, a funding infusion and an absence of severe weather events so far this winter have helped the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation stabilize its hurricane-pummeled finances, allowing preliminary engineering work to resume on hundreds of road and bridge projects stalled since last fall.
Cleanup and repair work following Hurricane Florence and other major 2018 weather-related events totaled more than $300 million, according to the agency, yet federal reimbursement for eligible costs has been slow in coming.
With its budget further strained by rising material prices and millions of dollars diverted to settle lawsuits stemming from a 30-year old land ownership law, NCDOT put the brakes on approximately 900 state-funded projects last August—just weeks before Hurricane Dorian raked the state’s Outer Banks, severely damaging portions of the barrier islands’ only major roadway and adding another $13 million of recovery costs.
Now, bolstered by $200 million in general fund and bond-backed funding by the state legislature in November, NCDOT is gradually “turning those suspended projects back on,” says deputy secretary of transportation Greer Beatty.
The agency has already authorized preliminary engineering work to resume on more than 200 projects. A similar number could be back on track over the next four months.
“We want to keep projects in our five-year plan as close to schedule as possible,” Beatty says, adding that agency hiring and travel restrictions remain in place.
Monty Irvin, President and CEO of Ramey Kemp & Associates, Raleigh, and a past president of ACEC North Carolina says that while the suspended projects forced many of the state’s consulting engineering firms to cut staff, NCDOT should be credited for keeping the industry in the loop as its navigated the financial issues.
While only half of his firm’s preliminary engineering projects have been restored, “we at least know what to expect and can plan accordingly," he said.
Still, Irvin worries that it may take a long time for the industry to fully bounce back. “It’s still not over,” he says.
With another hurricane season just months away, NCDOT has established a new emergency reserve fund to use in disaster-hit areas of the state covered by presidential disaster declarations.
Beatty adds that the agency has incorporated resilience to future events into its rebuilding strategy. “It’s very challenging to plan for the unforeseeable, but we’re doing what we can to make ourselves ready,” she says.