RALEIGH — 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 — many in Forsyth County — 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.
Aaron Moody, a public relations officer for the NCDOT, said the layoffs will not include people who are critical for projects already under way or about to start, but could include people working on projects that are still a few years away. Moody said layoffs will probably number about 500 people.
Lewis 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.
Pat Ivey, the division engineer for the NCDOT in Forsyth County, told the Winston-Salem Journal that the layoffs in his division, Division 9, would amount to 13 temporary workers.
Map Act settlements
The state’s 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.
Part of the difficulty, Moody said, is delay in the money the state expects to get from the federal government for disaster relief. He said the department has so far received only 55 percent repayment for Hurricane Matthew expenses and just 11 percent for work done after Hurricane Florence.
The 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 many 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.
Ivey said the NCDOT continues to buy land in the path of the Winston-Salem Northern Beltway’s eastern side, and that the legal costs are “not going to slow that down.”
The beltway is under construction from Business 40 in the east to University Parkway near its future intersection with U.S. 52 on the north side of Winston-Salem. The first beltway segment, from Business 40 to Reidsville Road, opens this fall.
The remaining segments to University Parkway will open by the fall of 2021, with the U.S. 52 interchange opening in fall 2022.
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 to 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.”