Highways Cost Some N.C. Motorists $1,300 a Year

Tue March 30, 2010 - Southeast Edition
Gary D. Robertson - Associated Press



RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) North Carolina’s big-city motorists are losing on average nearly the cost of a tank of gas every week to pay for their troubles from pot holes, longer waits in traffic and perilous roads.

A national transportation group released a report March 23 estimating a driver in North Carolina’s two largest urban areas loses $1,350 a year because of lost time and gasoline costs sitting in traffic, car repairs and accidents where roadway design likely contributed to a wreck.

The study by the Washington-based nonprofit group TRIP, based largely on federal highway and traffic safety data, may reinvigorate the discussion state transportation boosters want to persuade the Legislature to approve new ways to raise road construction funds.

The state estimated years ago it had a $65 billion funding gap through 2030 between projected transportation needs and the current funding sources to pay for them. But the General Assembly has lacked the political will to dramatically narrow the shortfall. Significant road-funding changes don’t appear to be a high priority in May when lawmakers reconvene for a budget-adjusting session.

“North Carolina is falling behind in maintaining its major roads, bridges and highways and the state lacks adequate funding with numerous projects that would greatly enhance economic development in the state,” TRIP executive director Will Wilkins said.

The $838 million in federal stimulus money for ready-to-build roads and bridges only provides short-term assistance for North Carolina, where population is expected to grow by one-third to 12 million and vehicle travel by 45 percent by 2030.

“The bottom line is our needs are growing in North Carolina. Our revenue stream is not,” state Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said at a Raleigh news conference where he agreed with the findings. “We need to continue to work hard and do more with less, but I don’t think at the end of the day that’s going to get the job done.”

The group said the costs above and beyond normal driving and maintenance for Charlotte drivers ($1,351 a year) and Raleigh-Durham ($1,350) area drivers are essentially the same, while drivers in Greensboro and Winston-Salem on average face $901 in expenses because there’s less congestion in the Triad.

Statewide, congested and deteriorating roads and those that lack improved safety features cost drivers $5.7 billion, according to the TRIP report. North Carolina has the second largest state-maintained highway system but ranks fourth-lowest in the nation for per-mile capital spending on those roads.

There are more than six million drivers in North Carolina. Wilkins discouraged calculating a statewide driver average because congestion figures were available only in the three metro areas.

Charlotte-area motorists spend 40 hours a year in traffic, compared to 25 hours in 1997. The average rush-hour trip is now 25 percent longer in Charlotte and 17 percent longer in the Raleigh-Durham area compared to a non-rush hour trip, the report said.

The calculation of the three regions is based on the per-driver cost for congestion, additional vehicle costs for driving on poor or mediocre roads and the economic costs of accidents.

Without a solution to generate more money to build new roads, widen new roads, repair bridges or make safety improvements, the state’s quality of life and ability to attract and retain new businesses will decline, said Marc Finlayson, co-chairman of NC GO!, a coalition of local governments and road-building trade groups.

A state blue-ribbon transportation commission recommended in 2008 raising the tax on car sales, raising vehicle registration fees and even charging motorists for every mile recorded on a vehicle’s odometer as a way to make up for a state gasoline tax eroding as people drive less and with more fuel-efficient cars.

Lawmakers approved last year the commission’s idea to expand to all 100 counties the option to raise local sales taxes for public transportation projects, but otherwise the “Legislature hasn’t really had the courage to enact many of these suggestions,” said Tom Crosby with the AAA Carolinas Motor Club.

Wilkins urged Congress to reauthorize the law setting out federal transportation funding to provide more road-funding stability, since federal revenues pay for about one-fourth of North Carolina’s road projects.