Research Shows Economic Benefit from N.C. Highway
By Erica Plouffe Lazure
Eastern North Carolina has made good on the state’s construction investment to U.S. Highway 17, according to a study conducted at ECU: for every dollar the state has invested in the roadway in the past two decades, eastern North Carolina has generated nearly three in direct output and earnings, and has generated more than 20,000 jobs.
Since 1989, the state’s Department of Transportation has given $2.43 billion to upgrade Highway 17, eastern North Carolina’s connector roadway from the Virginia border to Wilmington. In that time, eastern North Carolina has generated more than $5.5 billion in output produced by the construction sector and economic impact; and more than $1 billion in earnings, said Mulatu Wubneh, chair of ECU’s Urban and Regional Planning Department, who led the study.
“We were asked to find out what did the state get back in return for its investment?” Wubneh said. “This study shows that the investment in infrastructure has a multiplier effect that continues to grow over time and generates additional benefits to the region.”
ECU conducted the study upon request of the Highway 17 Association. Mark Finlayson, executive director of the association, said that about 300 of the highway’s 1200-mile span runs through 13 of eastern North Carolina’s counties. Of those 300 miles, 50 still have only two lanes, and other sections of the road are in need of upgrading.
“This study demonstrates that the investment in Highway 17 is a good one,” Finlayson said. “It’s been beneficial having this document to talk with legislators about their investment in our region.”
While each budgeted project from NC DOT totals $2.43 billion, adjusted for inflation, the total value is $1.5 billion, Wubneh said. This money paid for construction, planning and design, right-of-way acquisitions, and other mitigation costs. The money spent by the construction center also totaled $1.5 billion. Combined with indirect and induced output by other sectors (retail, real estate, health care, food services, etc.), the total amount generated is $5.5 billion.
The earnings by construction employees totaled $600 million; combined with those from other sectors, total $1 billion, according to the study.
While the costs for materials, labor, and expenditures can be quantified, said Wubneh, other benefits to the road construction – including improved safety and reduced travel time and transport cost – which can attract new businesses, enhance property values and generate more job and income opportunities, cannot be directly quantified.
“These benefits are present but we cannot assign them dollar values,” he said.
While completion of the Highway 17 project would likely continue to enhance economic growth in the East, the study also examines trends in demographic and economic growth in the region to assess how the region has fared compared to the rest of the state.
“Highway 17 traverses through a region that has historically lagged behind the rest of the state in economic development,” Wubneh said.
“The study also demonstrates that a sustained level of investment in infrastructure is critical to the growth and development of a region in attracting new investment and in enhancing the well being of its communities and the quality of life of its citizens.”
Finlayson said he was grateful for the work ECU had done on the study, and hopes to continue future partnerships that would benefit the region’s economy.
“As an organization in Eastern North Carolina, we know how important ECU is to the region and how focused ECU is on taking on projects to benefit the region,” he said. “The university response has been enthusiastic.”