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Turnpikes Add Trouble for McCrory’s Bill

The turnpikes add some extra weight to the bill, which may end up sinking it.

Tue May 14, 2013 - Southeast Edition

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Some North Carolina lawmakers say the governor’s transportation overhaul will be a tougher sell after a House committee added several turnpike projects to the bill May 2.

The House Finance Committee added an amendment to Gov. Pat McCrory’s plan that would authorize the Cape Fear Skyway, the Garden Parkway and the Mid-Currituck Bridge. The projects have divided lawmakers in the House and Senate, which has already tried to return them to the Department of Transportation to compete with other projects based on firm data that supports their potential impact.

McCrory supported the Senate’s move.

Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg and the bill’s lead sponsor, said the projects were originally removed because they had not yet been bonded and should go through the new formula for prioritization that McCrory’s plan will create.

The plan establishes three tiers of projects with the goal of directing more money toward construction projects that can justify their potential impact. Currently, funding is divided evenly among the state’s 14 Department of Transportation divisions. Statewide and regional projects ranked mostly by data would receive 80 percent of transportation funding over the next 10 years. The remaining 20 percent would be shared equally among the state’s 14 transportation divisions based on data and local priorities.

The exact formulas that will be used to prioritize projects still need to be worked out by the transportation agency, which would be required under the bill to begin reporting to the General Assembly in August.

Rep. Paul Tine, D-Dare, said he doesn’t want to count on those formulas to advance a bridge and parkway project that are poised to begin and come with millions in sunk costs. He submitted an amendment restoring all three projects to the NC Turnpike Authority’s list of projects.

"We’re asking to undo these projects right at the finish line and leave them up to a process that we won’t find out until after the vote," he said.

The 22-mi. (35.4 km) parkway linking Gaston County and west Charlotte has been opposed by newly elected state legislators and challenged in court by environmentalists. Both projects had been on track for completion in 2016. The Cape Fear Skyway — a 9.5-mi. (15 km) toll road and high-rise bridge — is in its preliminary stages.

Supporting Tine’s amendment were lawmakers from other economically depressed regions of the state.

Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, said his area in the northeastern part of the state is part of the fourth-poorest congressional district in the country but could greatly benefit from access to Virginia’s thriving Tidewater region, where he hopes to ease access to foreign markets using the port of Norfolk. The Mid-Currituck Bridge could help make that possible, he said.

"From an economic standpoint, this bridge is critical for us to complete the proposed changes to create a foreign trade zone in northeast North Carolina that will truly bring prosperity to a region long overdue for it and will change the dynamics for decades to come," he said.

Rep. Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston, said his voters have opposed the Garden Parkway over the last several election cycles, and it’s far from a done deal. He and other opponents said the amendment defeats the purpose of a bill designed to advance projects on merit alone and would make its passage more challenging.

"It’s just a political hot potato, and putting highways into statute is just the wrong way to do it," he said.

The Senate move returning the projects to DOT came through an amendment to a House transportation bill in March. The two chambers couldn’t reconcile their separate versions of the bill.

The amendment passed 17-11 on May 2. The updated bill will head to the House Appropriations Committee next.

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