N.C.'s Transportation Funding Could Be Short for Another 30 Years

Thu September 24, 2020 - Southeast Edition
The Center Square



North Carolina's transportation needs exceed its resources, members of the NC FIRST Commission said Sept. 21.

Ward Nye, co-chairperson of the commission, explained that the state's funding model could continue to cause project delays for the next 30 years.

"[The North Carolina Department of Transportation's] 10-year construction program has a capital project backlog of nearly $50 billion," Nye told the NC House Select Committee on Finding Strategic Transportation Planning and Long-Term Funding Solutions. "Based on that, and our existing revenues, it will take until 2050 to fund these projects which have been identified by local governments as an immediate need."

The NC FIRST Commission, which includes local elected officials and business and community leaders, spent the past 16 months examining transportation trends. Its members have been exploring other funding models for the state.

About 54 percent of North Carolina's state transportation funding comes from its motor fuel tax, 25 percent is derived from the NCDOT's Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and 21 percent comes from the highway use tax.

The Tarheel State's highway use tax, at 3 percent, is lower than most of its neighboring states and has remained the same since the 1980s, a commission report found. Technology changes also have led to a reduction in travel and an increase in eco-friendly vehicles, research showed. The federal Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which set aside billions of dollars in emergency transportation funding for states, expires at the end of September.

A recent survey by the commission showed North Carolinians ranked transportation at the same level of importance as health care in the state.

"And that's during a pandemic," Nye said.

According to the commission, people in the eastern part of the state ranked roads and infrastructure as higher priorities than health care and education funding, while those citizens in the west said transportation was their second priority after health care. Most of the unfulfilled infrastructure requests are in rural areas, survey results showed.

"Rural [residents] don't believe their transportation system is in good condition," Nye said. "Their roads are too narrow and pose safety issues. Further, their main connector routes, [which] would serve to improve the local economy and employment access, are not perceived as priority projects."

The NC FIRST Commission is still working on a formal list of recommendations for lawmakers, but Nye said the group plans to find ways for the private sector to balance the financial weight.

The commissioners are conducting a pilot program that would use GPS technology to collect revenue based on mileage. Lawmakers, however, raised questions about privacy and civil liberty concerns. NC FIRST also is reviewing a tool that shows how much revenue would need to be generated to fix specific transportation scenarios.

"States across the nation are all seeking answers to these challenges," said Nancy McFarlane, a former Raleigh mayor and co-chairperson of the commission. "North Carolina is ahead of the curve in many ways. Many of the recommendations coming out of studies have already been adopted by North Carolina, such as changing the motor fuel tax formula to grow with the state's population and indexing DMV fees."