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This road funding idea needs dead end

North Carolina doesn’t have enough money for roads and other transportation needs. Now a dispute between Union County towns and the state could make the problem dramatically worse.

If the towns prevail, they could force the state to take responsibility for maintaining local roads statewide. That would be a massive shift, one the state could not possibly afford, and could lead to even more dilapidated streets than we currently have.

This episode could make Chris Christie’s traffic jam look like child’s play. It starts with the fact that for years the state has been giving Union County towns treatment that no other county has enjoyed. For reasons that are not clear, the state has been maintaining local subdivision roads in Union County towns but not in most municipalities in the other 99 counties.

Louis Mitchell, the N.C. DOT engineer who oversees the greater Charlotte region, wrote to Union’s 14 towns last fall saying the arrangement had come to his attention and would no longer stand. The state would keep responsibility for major roads as it does statewide, he said, but going forward the towns would need to pay for streets that “are part of subdivisions and having the characteristics of serving only adjacent properties.”

This did not go over well with towns such as Weddington. They much preferred keeping their tax rates extremely low and letting the state (that is, taxpayers like you and us) take care of their streets.

Mitchell told the editorial board Tuesday that at least some of the towns have obtained legal opinions arguing the state should have to continue to maintain local roads. They say the state maintains local roads in unincorporated areas of counties, and so should have to do so also in incorporated areas that don’t get other local road money from the state.

Mitchell said he is meeting with lawyers this week to discuss the issue, but worries that the towns might have a case. He said he intends to send a revised letter to the towns soon.

But, he warns, if local streets fall into the state’s lap, “I can’t tell you the resources are there and the priorities are there. I can tell you the resources are not there.”

The state already helps many towns pay for street maintenance with something called Powell Bill funding. More than 500 municipalities share a pot of about $146 million. (The state also covers roads in very small towns that aren’t eligible for Powell Bill money.) But some eligible towns, like Weddington, don’t want the help and don’t take it. And why should they, if they can slough off all road responsibility onto state taxpayers?

Mitchell thinks Union County towns might have found a loophole in the law that will keep the state on the hook for local responsibilities. But we’ve seen how this legislature treats local governments. We expect Union’s golden goose is cooked, and this time, deservedly so.

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