Editorial: This bad plan will never be reality

May. 25, 2014 @ 01:21 AM

No one should get too worked up about the proposed overhaul of Smith’s Crossroads that the N.C. Department of Transportation unveiled Tuesday.

Not that the plan wouldn’t be potentially devastating, but it’s extremely unlikely ever to happen.

North Carolina has an ever-growing list of transportation needs, but the pool of money for them can’t begin to keep up. The money comes mainly from the tax on gasoline. New cars are more and more efficient, or else electric, so the gas tax is less and less lucrative. Plus, legislators would rather cut taxes than increase them or create new ones, so they keep casting about looking for a painless source of revenue, as though they will find buried treasure in the back yard if they just keep digging.

That is why Gov. Pat McCrory pushed last year for the state to adopt a new system for evaluating transportation projects. The old way spread the available money around quite a bit, but it was perceived as failing to ensure that projects with major economic impacts moved to the head of the line. The new system is heavily weighted in favor of urban areas and major transportation corridors, of which Caldwell County is not one.

In other words, any project here is going to be low on the totem pole except for the tiny share of money that comes to the local transportation district for local priorities.

But a major interchange project like the one the DOT proposed would be pricey. The project has no estimated price tag at the moment, but realigning several roads, building a multi-lane bridge and acquiring dozens of properties for right of way probably would make the unpopular and seemingly never-ending Hibriten Drive cloverleaf construction look like a bargain buy. Could the local transportation district commit to anything like that without using up the bulk of its funding for a given period? It would have to be a high-priority project indeed.

But how could it be high priority when it would engender opposition across the spectrum, from local political leaders, who surely would oppose such sweeping destruction of tax-revenue-producing highway businesses, to the business and property owners themselves?

Above all, however, remember that the plan is preliminary. Feedback will alter it, or push it aside entirely.

Production of the plan essentially is an academic exercise, asking highway planners to redesign that intersection to meet top standards, and they then produce a pie-in-the-sky view of what they would do under ideal circumstances and how it would work.

What is most unsettling, really, is how cold and distant the design process must be to come up with a solution that would sweep away such a vast swath of businesses and residences. Was there any consideration at all for the human cost that would be involved? Is there no consideration for how to minimize destruction while still trying to improve traffic flow? Why is the starting point for this discussion at such an extreme? Why must we move from there to something less expensive and more likely to gain broad acceptance?

The proposal DOT unveiled for solving the traffic problem at the crossroads reminds us of an infamous quote from the Vietnam era: It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.