Think tank to discuss North Carolina's infrastructure needs

The (Raleigh) News & ObserverFebruary 9, 2009 

Interstate 40 is often a parking lot for frustrated Triangle commuters. Overcrowded schools resemble trailer parks. Raleigh recently weathered a severe water shortage.

And people continue to pour into North Carolina – an estimated 21 new people every hour. Demographers predict the state's population will surge ahead of Ohio and Michigan by 2030.

Which is why leaders from business, government and other fields are scheduled to gather in downtown Raleigh this week for two days of discussion about how to provide the schools, roads, wiring, water supplies and basic plumbing for a growing state.

The group is gathered under the auspices of the Institute for Emerging Issues, a think tank founded by former Gov. Jim Hunt and affiliated with N.C. State University.

The meeting could not be more timely. Congress has been debating a $900 billion stimulus package that is expected to send $1.5 billion to North Carolina. It is estimated that $802 million would be available for highways, $363 million for schools, $140 million for weatherization projects, $109 million for clean water and $67 million for drinking water.

But the federal stimulus package is hardly a cure-all. Consider:

* It has been estimated that by 2030 North Carolina will need $9.8 billion for public school construction and maintenance, and $65 billion for roads.

* Over the next 20 years, officials estimate that 8,300 North Carolina bridges will need major repairs or replacement.

* The state's demand for water is expected to increase 36 percent over the next two decades. And it will take an estimated $16.6 billion to create and maintain water supplies.

Martin Sharpless, vice president of Gilbane Building Co., whose Rhode Island-based firm works on public and private construction projects in 35 states, said North Carolina is in better shape than many states.

But North Carolina has grown so rapidly that it's in danger of falling behind.

"North Carolina is not a bad place with infrastructure," Sharpless said. "I see North Carolina having a very strong opportunity to address the challenges of infrastructure."

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