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How McCrory could lead on transportation

By acknowledging that N.C. can’t pave its way to happiness

Twenty or so years ago, an old-timer was showing a rookie reporter around Raleigh.

“That’s the highway department there,” the old-timer said, pointing.

“Highway department?” the rookie asked. “I thought it was the Transportation Department.”

This gave the old-timer a long, knowing laugh. “Yeah, well. It’s the highway department,” he said.

How right he was. It may be called the DOT, but North Carolina’s transportation department has long been almost exclusively about pavement.

That’s changing a bit now, but the shenanigans involving the Monroe Connector/Bypass remind us of the department’s engrained culture. The DOT has mishandled efforts to build the $725 million bypass and the episode points to needed changes in transportation policy that Gov.-elect Pat McCrory should help usher in.

First, the N.C. DOT’s turnpike authority submitted a badly flawed assessment of how the Monroe bypass would affect the environment. A federal appeals court put the project on hold as a result.

Now, Observer reporter Steve Harrison details another peculiarity in the state’s efforts to build the road. Its backers have long believed that building it would be crucial to launching Project Legacy, a mammoth office and industrial park in Union County. At 5,000 acres, Legacy would be the size of 2 1/2 Ballantynes, bring 20,000 jobs and attract $2.3 billion in investment, supporters say. Yet the N.C. Turnpike Authority never mentioned it in its environmental impact statement, even as it was simultaneously touting it as a benefit of building the bypass.

If building a road would spark 20,000 jobs, you’d think organizers would be yelling it loud and proud. They couldn’t, though: The environmental impact of such a large project might have kept the state from getting the needed federal permits.

But the turnpike authority, no doubt with legislators and businessmen in its ear, is hellbent on getting it built. It has no incentive to undercut its own efforts with an honest environmental assessment.

The fight, along with one over the equally dubious proposed Garden Parkway in Gaston County, is the byproduct of a stubborn transportation industrial complex that has not come to terms with the reality of North Carolina in the 21st century. That reality: North Carolina is and will remain one of the nation’s fastest growing (and increasingly congested) states; those newcomers are congregating mostly in urban areas and want and need various transportation choices; and there will never be nearly enough money to build all the highways that some legislators and contractors want.

Of course North Carolina will need more roads as it grows. It also will have to vastly diversify its transportation options and better maintain the roads it already has.

Transportation Secretary Gene Conti seems to get this. McCrory does too. He did more than any politician to make light rail a reality in Charlotte.

Will McCrory take that same sophisticated understanding to the state capital? We hope so, but we wonder whether Art Pope and the other most conservative backers of his will allow it.

Who McCrory names to replace Conti will speak volumes. It needs to be someone whose record shows an understanding of North Carolina’s urbanization and changing transportation needs. It needs to not be just another highway department czar.

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