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Originally published: 2013-06-10 11:26:18
Last modified: 2013-06-10 11:29:34

Vulnerable greenway projects may see reprieve

by Anna Oakes

Health and recreation advocates across the state are concerned that the N.C. Senate's proposed cuts to greenway funding could jeopardize planned projects -- including two in Watauga County -- but a change to legislation last week could save them.

The Senate's budget bill, S402, included a provision barring the N.C. Department of Transportation from providing financial support for bicycle and pedestrian improvement projects. Advocacy groups said this would eliminate $1.2 million in state matching funds for trail projects required for $4.5 million in federal grant awards, resulting in the loss of the federal funds as well.

The Senate inserted the same provision into the bill language of House Bill 817, "Strategic Transportation Investments."

Watauga County's Brookshire Park connector and Middle Fork Greenway projects are counting on this funding. The Federal Highway Administration awarded the county approximately $480,000 to construct an underpass beneath U.S. 421 to connect Boone's Greenway Trail to the county's Brookshire Park, contingent on $120,000 in state bicycle and pedestrian funds as a match.

The FHA has also pledged approximately $300,000 to build an underpass beneath U.S. 321 for the fledgling Middle Fork Greenway, which is planned to connect Boone to Blowing Rock. The required state match is $75,000.

Scott St. Clair, president of High Country Recreation, on Thursday said he and others had contacted local state representatives to express concerns about the loss of state greenway funding.

"That would be pretty huge," he said. "These projects are a long time in the making."

The provision in the Senate budget and House Bill 817 made exceptions permitting continued Powell Bill fund allocations committed by municipalities as matching funds and for projects under construction or authorized for construction by June 30 of this year. But neither of those exceptions would apply to the county, said Joe Furman, Watauga County planning and economic development director.

The House Bill 817 provision was amended in committee on Wednesday, however, to include this language: "This limitation shall not apply to projects for which funds have been obligated on or before Oct. 1, 2013, for construction in State fiscal years 2012-2013, 2013-2014 or 2014-2015."

Assuming that the language is passed by the Senate and survives the reconciliation process with the House, "it definitely preserves the funding for Middle Fork, because we'll be able to get everything done and have construction authorization by Sept. 30," Furman said.

And if the term "obligated" simply means the county has a contract with NCDOT for the project, then the Brookshire Park underpass project should be safe as well, he said. The county's agreement with NCDOT requires the project to be completed by July 31, 2015.

"It looks better today than it did last week," Furman said Friday, "but we're not there yet."
Any differences between the House and Senate versions of bills must be reconciled before the bill is enacted. Because the bicycle and pedestrian provision was not in the House version of H817, it will be among the differences to be negotiated if passed by the Senate.

The same goes for the budget bill, which first passed the Senate and is now under consideration by the House.

On Friday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation released its draft of the House transportation budget, which currently does not include a provision limiting bicycle and pedestrian funding.

Rep. Jonathan Jordan of Jefferson said the full House Appropriations Committee will consider the House budget bill on Tuesday, with budget consideration on the House floor expected Wednesday and Thursday.
"I've gotten a few emails about the greenway project," he said Thursday. "I'll be following up to make sure ... to see if we can cover that in the House budget somewhere. Hopefully we can prevent any problems with any projects in our area."

Not everyone is as enthusiastic as others about the planned trail projects. County commissioners Perry Yates and David Blust last month voted against an environmental assessment contract for the 421 underpass. Blust expressed concerns about the future costs of maintaining the trail. The contract was approved by a 3-2 vote, however.