More Winston-Salem Northern Beltway news



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The projected cost of the eastern leg of the Northern Beltway around
Winston Salem is rising sharply.

The project, estimated to cost $351 million on the 2006-12
Transportation Improvement Plan put together by the N.C. Department of
Transportation, will rise to $657 million on the 2007-13 plan, a
document expected to come out this fall.

The Northern Beltway is a nearly 30-mile highway planned to loop around
two-thirds of Winston-Salem.

The acquisition of rights of way for the 12.6-mile eastern leg of the
highway is expected to start next year, with construction beginning in
2009. The eastern leg will run from U.S. 52 near Rural Hall, south past
Walkertown, Kernersville and Interstate 40 to U.S. 311. Financing for
the eastern leg is secure at this time, even with the cost
substantially higher, state officials said.

Exactly when the leg will be finished has not been determined, DOT
officials said.

Pat Ivey, a DOT division engineer in Winston-Salem, said that the cost
estimate didn't double overnight as it appears.

"It's a significant jump, but to be fair, we haven't done an estimate
in several years now," Ivey said. "However, cost increases are killing
everybody right now. It's a big issue as we try to hold on to our loop
funding."

Ivey said that DOT officials had expected the estimate to go up as a
result of rising construction costs and changes made to the highway as
a part of the planning process.

About $115 million was added to the project to cover the cost of an
interchange at U.S. 52 in Rural Hall. The cost had been included in
estimates for the western leg of the beltway but were transferred to
the eastern leg's balance sheet after DOT officials decided last year
to shift the construction sequence.

Plans had long called for building the 16.7-mile western leg of the
beltway first.

But the DOT decided last year to focus instead on the eastern leg
because there isn't enough state road-construction money to proceed
with both legs at the same time.

The eastern leg has been designated as the future path of Interstate 74
and also is close to major commercial developments, such as a new FedEx
Corp. cargo-distribution hub and a Dell Inc. computer-manufacturing
plant.

The beltway's western leg is now out of the financing pipeline until
after 2012.

Ivey said that other reasons for the higher cost on the eastern leg of
the beltway include:

· $11 million for bridges added at Pisgah Church, Hastings Hill and
High Point (old U.S. 311) roads to keep the highway from cutting those
roads off and interfering with the flow of local traffic. The bridges
were added as a result of comments and concerns gathered during public
hearings on the proposed road.

· Environmental-protection efforts, such as changing pipes and
culverts to bridges to reduce the effect on wetlands and streams.

· Rising material costs caused by worldwide demand.

· Higher costs tied to a tight construction market.

Ivey said that swings in estimates from early to final stages of
planning for such projects are not unusual.

"We're trying to do a better job estimating costs, but until you go to
the public and find out what's needed, it's difficult to get a handle
on it," he said.

The eastern leg's cost is now about what the entire beltway had been
expected to cost back the late 1990s, Ivey said.

Winston-Salem is one of the last large cities in the state to move
forward with construction of a beltway, which is intended to improve
safety by pulling traffic off of existing roads. A beltway was first
discussed here in 1962.

Construction of the Northern Beltway's 16.7-mile western leg was just
days from getting started in 1999 when opponents won a federal-court
ruling that postponed construction until an environmental study could
be redone. Opponents said they feared that a beltway, especially its
western leg, would encourage urban sprawl and more traffic.

Clemmons resident Robin Dean has been one of the beltway's harshest
critics.

Although Dean doesn't want to see the beltway built at all, he has long
argued that if state officials insisted on going through with the
project, they should have built the eastern leg first to ease traffic
on U.S. 52.

He said yesterday that the DOT could have avoided the higher cost of
the eastern leg if it had followed a construction sequence that
opponents had asked for.

"They brought this problem on themselves," Dean said. "If they had gone
with the eastern leg first, they wouldn't be in this situation."

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