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N.C. Panel Considers Remedies to Transportation Shortfall

Wed April 09, 2008 - Southeast Edition
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) A state panel likely will recommend at least two courses of action to remedy North Carolina’s transportation funding shortfall: ending an annual transfer of road money to other uses and supporting a huge road-building bond package, the commission’s chairman said March 24.

“There is a growing public appetite for transportation solutions,” chairman Brad Wilson said after the 21st Century Transportation Committee met in Raleigh. “Those solutions are going to cost money.”

The committee, meeting seven weeks before the Legislature reconvenes, has not decided exactly how it would repay the debt created by a bond package. Panel members also haven’t chosen the projects the debt should fund or whether to provide more local tax options to counties for buses and light rail.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Mike Easley created the committee last October. It’s charged with finding a way to narrow over the next two decades the difference between transportation revenues and highway and public transportation needs, estimated by the Transportation Department at $65 billion.

The committee, which took public comment in Charlotte and Wilmington this winter, will meet again before the General Assembly returns May 13.

Stephen Zelnak Jr., chief executive of Martin Marietta Materials, said the finance subcommittee is leaning toward recommending that the $172 million annual transfer from the Highway Trust Fund to the state’s general operating fund be phased out. That money could go toward paying back a $1.8 billion bond package for transportation that Zelnak’s subcommittee also is considering.

The transfer essentially pays the state for a tax that used to go to the operating fund before the trust fund was created in 1989. The fund is used primarily to build urban loops, widen four-lane intrastate highways, and improve and maintain roads.

The bond package, which voters would have to approve in a statewide referendum, is another likely recommendation by the full committee, provided that it remain around or above $2 billion, Wilson said.

“If we want to recommend a bond it needs to be big enough so it’s really worth the endeavor,” Wilson said.

The Legislature would have to approve any panel recommendations.

Representatives of a coalition of environmental and social service advocacy groups asked the full panel to stay away from recommendations that would worsen smog or encourage sprawl.

Ending the trust fund transfer shouldn’t be done hastily because the money helps pay for needed state services, said David Farren, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a coalition member.

Another panel subcommittee also unveiled a proposal that would expand to about 30 the number of metropolitan counties that could approve local tax options to pay for public transportation needs, from buses to light rail. About a half-dozen counties now use such authority, according to documents presented to the commission.

“The public is ready for an alternative,” said Sam Hunt, a former DOT secretary and subcommittee chairman. “I am an advocate for good transportation and I think public transportation is a part of that.”

Under the draft proposal, the new local tax money would provide matching funds to tap into a new state fund and federal grants to pay for public transportation projects. Mecklenburg County used proceeds from an extra half-cent approved in 1998 to help build a light-rail line that opened in November.

The proposal doesn’t say, however, where that new state fund would get its money, equal to $161 million annually on average over the next 12 years.

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