North Carolina

NCDOT to lay off hundreds of workers, as storms, lawsuits sap its budget

NCDOT to lay off hundreds of workers

The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to lay off hundreds of temporary and contractual workers statewide to help cover costs of repairing roads damaged by hurricanes and to settle lawsuits related to a law that was declared unconstitutional.
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The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to lay off hundreds of temporary and contractual workers statewide to help cover costs of repairing roads damaged by hurricanes and to settle lawsuits related to a law that was declared unconstitutional.

The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to lay off hundreds of temporary and contractual workers statewide to help cover the costs of repairing roads damaged by hurricanes and other harsh weather and to settle lawsuits related to a 30-year-old law that was declared unconstitutional.

The layoffs will hit a wide variety of workers, including laborers who patch pot holes, inspectors on construction sites and contractors who review highway plans. The exact number was not clear Tuesday, but Bobby Lewis, NCDOT’s chief operating officer, said the department is reviewing more than 1,000 positions to see which ones it can do without for a while.

“We’re looking at any temporary workers that are not absolutely essential for critical activities,” Lewis said in an interview late Tuesday.

He said it’s not clear yet how much the department will save, but said NCDOT considers the layoffs temporary. He said the department hopes to rehire some or all of the affected workers next year.

Lewis said some workers have been notified, but that decisions about some of the layoffs have not been made yet.

Map Act settlements

The move is a response to two unusual types of expenses that are drawing down the department’s budget.

The first is cleanup and repair to roads, culverts and bridges following a spate of storms, including hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Florence last fall. In more than a decade before Matthew, NCDOT averaged about $65 million a year in weather-related expenses, due to hurricanes, flash floods, rock slides and snow and ice, Lewis said.

In the last three years, that number has grown to more than $225 million a year, he said, including $300 million in the last year alone.

Those costs come at a time when the NCDOT is settling hundreds of lawsuits related to the Map Act, a law that allowed the state to reserve land where it planned to someday build a road to prevent the owners from developing it.

But in several cases, decades passed without the state buying the property, leaving owners with land they couldn’t develop and struggled to sell. Hundreds sued the state, and the state Supreme Court eventually declared the Map Act an illegal taking of private property by the government.

Now, as NCDOT settles with the individual owners, it not only must pay for their property but also legal fees and damages for the lost value of the property over the years. Lewis said NCDOT has spent $311 million settling Map Act cases so far, and that the final cost could exceed $1 billion.

Lewis said NCDOT has taken other steps to save money, including delaying property purchases or doing engineering work for projects that aren’t scheduled to get started for a few years. Next month, the state Board of Transportation is expected to approve a 10-year plan that further delays dozens of projects, including the widening of Wade Avenue near the PNC Arena and the widening of N.C. 147 between I-40 and the East End Connector in Durham.

For now, Lewis said he doesn’t anticipate delays to projects already under construction, including the widening of the Raleigh Beltline and an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 40 in Wake and Johnston counties.

Large parts of NCDOT’s budget, including federal grants and money it borrows by issuing bonds, must be spent on construction projects. So even as it lays off workers, Lewis said he expects the department will award contracts worth $2.5 billion related to construction work in the next year or so.

NCDOT funding sources

Unlike other state departments, NCDOT doesn’t receive money from the state’s general fund. Its problems are not tied to the new fiscal year’s budget, which has yet to be approved this summer by the legislature and governor. Instead, the department’s $5 billion budget comes primarily from state and federal gas taxes, Division of Motor Vehicles fees and taxes on the sale of cars and trucks.

Lewis said it’s too late to seek help from the General Assembly this year but that assistance would be welcome in the future. Last week, a Board of Transportation member suggested the legislature might want to create a rainy day fund to help NCDOT pay for unusual storm-related expenses when they happen.

“Certainly, things like that would help,” Lewis said. “We’re just trying to control what we can control.”

The layoffs will come from the operations and maintenance side of the budget. Lewis said the department will put a priority on fixing safety hazards and that he hopes the public won’t notice a decline in the condition of the state’s roads.

“We’re going be safety first,” he said. “But as an engineer, I certainly get worried about lack of effort on operations and maintenance. Less of the preventive stuff we do today will just cost us more in time.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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