Friday, October 7, 2016

Untangling the Bonus Allocation Riddle

Riddle me this dear readers…

Some call it a sweetener.  Others call it an incentive.  It has also been called a bribe.  When necessary, it has been used as a hammer.  What is “it”?

Why, ‘it” is the I77 HOT Lanes Bonus Allocation funding of course!

As the I77 HOT Lanes project was being “sold” or “marketed” or “rammed through” the process, one of the biggest selling points by those supporting the tolls both locally and in Raleigh has been the idea that the area would be getting extra money (aka Bonus Allocation) to fund a grab bag of projects long sought after by local Town Halls.

Like any promise that sounds too good to be true, this one has turned out to be just that.

One would think something intended to induce a positive response would not come with strings attached, but nothing could be further from the truth in this case.   Instead, Bonus dollars could only be spent on certain categories of projects – many of which were priorities of NCDOT.  To make matters worse, when the list of Bonus Allocation projects was first approved by CRTPO it included projects that by all rights should have been included in the HOT lanes project itself.  Two Bonus projects were actually direct access ramps to funnel more customers onto the HOT Lanes.  Those projects alone totaled $77 million and accounted for half of the Bonus allocation money.

In fact, if it wasn’t for work that should have been part of the toll project itself being spun off as a “bonus”, it’s easy to see how the controversial project might not have happened at all.  When the HOT lanes debt was rated, it received bond ratings one level above “junk bond” status.  If $77 million in access ramps had been added to that debt load, it’s easy to see how “junk” status would have been the result.

Junk status for the debt very well may have killed the project financially.  The State throwing in $77 million more in equity certainly could have killed it politically.  The solution?  Put the money in the bonus allocation and tell the public it’s what they want.

“Bonus” dollars used to support a project the locals don’t want doesn’t sound like much of a bonus now does it?

Unfortunately, the tangled web doesn’t stop there.  No, those were just the big ticket items involved in the twisted path down the bonus allocation road.  Even some small things have required, shall we say, “flexible” thinking to get them done.  Take what’s happening in Davidson for example.

Davidson is slated for two of these bonus projects.

One involves new roundabouts bookending the new Exit 30 bridge built as part of the HOT Lanes project.   Arguably, these too should have been part of the HOT Lanes project itself just like the direct access ramps mentioned above.

The other project planned to receive funds is one long desired by Davidson Town Hall.  It’s called the Potts-Sloan-Beaty Connector.  The bonus money is relatively small amount at about $2.2 million to be used as matching funds to connect Potts Street and Sloan street in Davidson’s West Side neighborhood.  This will provide a bypass of Main Street for through traffic on NC115.  The problem with this second project?  As a town owned road it was not eligible for the matching funds.

Never fear however.  The Town and NCDOT solved that little problem by temporarily transferring control of the street to the State making it eligible.  Once the project is done, the State will transfer it back to the Town.  This plan unanimously flew through Davidson’s Town Board back in July.

By way of comparison, try moving ownership of some of your real estate holdings with the unwritten promise to transfer it back once funding is secured for a future project and see how that works out for you.  That’s effectively what was done here – all to get access to some money that was supposed to be a bonus.

Maybe untangling a “riddle” was the wrong metaphor for this column.  A game of Three Card Monte might have been better.

This post first appeared in the Herald Weekly at

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