How should N.C. pay to build more roads?

McCrory, Perdue say a system overhaul is needed, including changes in what Transportation Board does.

10/03/2008 12:00 AM

10/03/2008 6:21 AM

Gubernatorial candidates Bev Perdue and Pat McCrory say they want hefty changes in how North Carolina builds roads – though some of those shifts were put into place months ago.

The next governor will help figure out how to pay the enormous tab for the state's growing burden of clogged roads. Another problem, some say, is how decisions are made on when and where to spend road money.

The state Board of Transportation, whose members represent local districts across the state, makes the call on spending, all the way down to approving a stoplight. Money is parceled out through a formula that doesn't consider factors such as traffic congestion.

“The board has evolved into a shadow legislature,” said David Hartgen, a transportation analyst at UNC Charlotte who also writes for the John Locke Foundation. “They see their job as bringing home projects to those counties. That's wrong.”

One board member recently resigned after The News & Observer of Raleigh reported he had steered road work along commercial property he owned. The member, Louis Sewell of Jacksonville, raised money for Democrats Perdue and Gov. Mike Easley. Another board member and Perdue fundraiser resigned in January after trying to raise money from country singer Randy Parton and others building a theater in Roanoke Rapids.

McCrory, a Republican, said he would not appoint someone to the board who raised money for him, though contributors could serve. He wants a smaller board appointed based on expertise.

“It should be a statewide plan that they're approving, with interconnectivity,” McCrory said, “not ward politics with everyone trying to get their share of the pie.”

Similarly Perdue said the Transportation Board should act as a planning board.

“Board members will no longer be voting on projects,” Perdue said Tuesday in Charlotte. “We're going to leave decisions up to the experts and engineers.”

She wouldn't commit to banning fundraisers from the board. She said any ban would extend to all boards, but she first wants to create an endowment funded by nonprofits that would fund candidates in the governor's race. That would eliminate the need for fundraisers, she said.

The two major party candidates agree on changes to the board, as well as some of the larger roads-and-rails questions.

What they don't fully address is questions of where transportation money will come from and how road construction projects should be chosen, say some observers.

“Neither of them is getting at the fundamentals,” said Hartgen of UNC Charlotte.

Unlike nearly every other state, North Carolina pays for roads at the state level. There are no county-maintained roads.

The road-building burden has grown immensely in the past decade as population growth has strained highways. A spike in the prices of oil-based asphalt has made road construction costs soar.

The need for more roads helped prompt the legislature to create a special commission to suggest overhauls. The group will make recommendations on how to fund $64 billion in transportation needs over the next dozen years to prepare the system for 2030, when the state is predicted to be the seventh most populous.

McCrory and Perdue both call for halting the shift of $170million a year from the highway trust fund, which pays for road construction and repair, to the state's general fund, which covers virtually all other state spending.

“Bev will end the $170 million transfer during her first term” as governor, Perdue's Web site says. She co-sponsored legislation in 1989 that created the trust fund but also began the transfer of money.

McCrory's Web site says: “State legislators will no longer be able to fund their pet projects by stealing money from the Highway Trust Fund.”

Perdue and McCrory both propose changing the current funding formula, which helps ensure rural areas receive a share of road money. Perdue said the formula needs to be re-examined and ultimately will look different but did not offer specifics. McCrory said a new formula for divvying out road funds should consider congestion, safety, the environment and economic development.

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