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N. Carolina Panel Hopes to Solve State’s Transportation Woes

Mon February 11, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Giles Lambertson

A North Carolina panel of legislators and private citizens has been handed the task of herding the state’s highways and public transit facilities into a new century. Success will be measured in how many billions of dollars in construction funds the panel can find and to what degree competing urban and rural interests can be unified behind a final plan.

The process is in its early stages, but a sense of urgency is driving committee members. An interim set of recommendations is expected for this summer’s “short session” of the General Assembly with a more complete package of recommendations ready by the end of the year for the 2009 “long session” of the Assembly.

The 21st Century Transportation Committee was formed in response to a hard piece of truth: North Carolina, the sixth-fastest growing state in the country (according to the U.S. Census Bureau), is not providing highways and public transportation systems to serve a larger population.

“North Carolina roads are marked as a C-minus system,” said Steven Zelnak Jr., co-chairman of the committee’s finance subcommittee. “That is quite a comedown from its reputation as ’The Good Roads State.’”

The decline in infrastructure is evident in metropolitan areas of Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham and Greensboro-Winston-Salem, where freeways are becoming clogged and transit systems are either inadequate or nonexistent. The failure is statistically represented in a round figure: 2,100. That is the approximate number of bridges in the state judged to be structurally deficient, a label that makes state leaders nervous in light of the bridge disaster last summer in Minneapolis.

The crisis also can be measured in dollars. The operative number is $65 billion, which is the shortage between expected transportation revenue over the next two decades and anticipated infrastructure expenditures during the same period.

“The cost of construction and construction materials has gone up very sharply in the last four years because of the rise in the price of oil,” Zelnak said from the Raleigh, N.C., home office of Martin Marietta Materials, where he is president and CEO. “The state has a tremendous amount of needs and insufficient resources to meet it.”

The assignment given the panel by legislative leaders is to “study the transportation infrastructure needs of the state.” That simple sounding task is divided into four components — finance, intergovernmental, prioritization and efficiency, and interaction of different modes of transport.

Zelnak said, “one of the key things the finance subcommittee is doing is we are looking at how other states have constructed their finance options.” To that end, the December meeting of the subcommittee explored funding differences between North Carolina and six other states — Texas, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia.

Differences were noted in the level of local property taxes earmarked for highways, how state and local jurisdictions share funding of roads, motor fuel taxing levels (North Carolina’s is second highest at 30 cents a gallon) and innovative funding options such as private-public partnerships, long-term leases, toll roads and taxing districts.

Another idea being explored by the committee — and by other states, as well — is the taxing of a vehicle for miles traveled instead of taxing fuel consumed by the vehicle.

“Increasing fuel mileages are being mandated by Washington, so people aren’t going to be paying as much tax because they won’t be buying as much gas,” Zelnak explained.

Yet red flags have been raised. Monitoring the miles a vehicle travels begins to be a privacy issue. If “Big Brother” watches how far a citizen drives, could he not also calculate where a vehicle has been driven?

Zelnak said North Carolina is not “inventing” anything in considering the miles-traveled option of taxing motor vehicle use. “There certainly are issues with that option. It is not a clean solution.”

Zelnak said public transit will “play an increasingly important role” in moving people in North Carolina, but carving out that role will require some study. “We have to ask what kind of transit and where does it make sense?” Zelnak said. “You are going to have some kind of transit solution in the major metros. It does make sense in Charlotte and in some other areas of the state.”

The intergovernmental subcommittee is looking at jurisdictional responsibilities and the interaction of federal, state and local jurisdictions. Whereas the intermodal subcommittee has been charged with looking at everything from freeways to commuter trains to bicycles so officials can understand the role of each mode of travel in meeting the state’s needs.

N.C. Rep. William “Bill” McGee serves on the fourth subcommittee — prioritization and efficiency. A series of presentations in the first three subcommittee meetings left panelists with a lot to “sort out,” McGee observed in late January. “The expectation is that at the next meeting we will really begin to get into some detailed ways we can prioritize or demand more efficiency.”

New efficiency in highway construction might take the form of a project czar, or of an office that would serve as an umbrella authority for a project. McGee, who is the minority whip in the General Assembly, said some consideration is being given to “putting a project into the hands of one entity and have that one entity handle a project from start to finish.” Such an office would have to interface with each level of government and coordinate all the input and responsibilities that come with multiple funding sources.

The other piece of the subcommittee’s work has to do with setting priorities on spending. This alludes to complaints from metropolitan areas that too much funding is funneled to rural areas despite greater documented need in the cities.

A crescent running from Wilmington on the coast up to near Raleigh and Greensboro and back down to Charlotte is a high-growth area. The northeast, northwest and mountain areas of the state nonetheless want a full share of transportation funding and therein the conflict brews.

“Some have said, well, we have plenty of good highways, just no cars on them,” McGee said, referring to well-built roadways in areas of relatively little traffic. “It’s been said that the money has to be spent where the traffic is. But in certain areas of the state where the traffic is just passing through, those areas still need to have good roads. It is important to their economies. So we have some problems to look at.”

Zelnak doesn’t believe anyone is to blame for the fix the state finds itself in. “I think we have just been overwhelmed with population growth. The impact of it probably came faster than people thought it would. All of a sudden you look up and you are getting deterioration of infrastructure at a much higher rate than expected and the cost of fixing it has gone up significantly.

“We are just going to have to find ways to finance it. I don’t think anyone has been negligent.”

If a wave of major new construction and maintenance work comes out of the committee’s report, companies such as Martin Marietta Materials will benefit, of course, which Zelnak acknowledges.

“I think there is support for (the committee’s work) from a business standpoint,” he said, “but if you just step back and look at the situation in the longer term, by 2030 we are expected to have another 4 million people in this state. This really has to do with quality of life issues and economic development for this state.”

Other studies of North Carolina’s highways have been made in previous years and recommendations issued, mostly with negligible impact. Consequently, some observers are skeptical this one will bear any more fruit. McGee is not among the skeptics.

“It is coming to a point where some decisions will have to be made because of the shortfalls we see in the next 20 to 25 years,” McGee said. “I have a feeling that this group is working toward something that will make a difference. Of course, every other group that has met has said the same thing.” CEG

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