Charting N.C.'s transportation future

Brad Wilson has seen the future of transportation. It's the Volt.

For a man leading the effort to figure out how North Carolina will meet its future transportation needs, that's sobering news.

Why? A sales tax on motor fuels is the biggest generator of revenue for our state's highway funds. But the fuel efficiency of new vehicles continues to increase, especially hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles. Among them is the eagerly anticipated, battery-powered Volt, which GM hopes to market by late 2010. Its designers envision a car that in a typical American's driving day will use no gas at all.

That means as drivers and automobiles on our highways increase, sales of gasoline won't keep pace, and funding for road building and maintenance will lag. Some state officials look toward 2030 and see a $65 billion gap between transportation needs and revenues.

That gulp-provoking gap is not the only bad news. Our transportation system is overloaded and getting more so, for these reasons:

Population is growing rapidly. By 2030, it's expected to increase from 9 million to 12 million, making this the seventh largest state.

While state revenues for road construction have remained relatively flat, construction costs have soared – up 75 percent from 2002 to 2006.

A recent study found vehicle miles traveled in the state increased by nearly 50 percent between 1990 and 2002 and are expected to go up another 50 percent by 2020.

‘Good Roads State' no more

The result? North Carolina's one-time reputation as the “Good Roads State” is gone. A national study published a year ago put North Carolina:

Fourth among the states in worst congestion on urban interstates.

In the top 10 on rural interstates and rural primary roads in poor condition.

Twelfth highest in percent of deficient bridges (31 percent).

Wilson, a lawyer and chief operating officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, heads the 21st Century Transportation Committee, a 24-member panel appointed by the governor and the legislature to recommend ways to meet our transportation challenges. Area members include Rep. Becky Carney of Mecklenburg County, Sen. David Hoyle of Gaston County and Bank of America executive Charles Bowman of Charlotte.

Some of its recommendations will surely involve major changes in funding – probably starting with a bond issue of more than $1 billion.

But a big bond issue isn't a fix. Nor, Wilson says, would the problem be solved by dealing with the usual political talking points: stop transferring revenues out of the state Highway Trust Fund; reform the state Department of Transportation; root out waste, fraud and abuse in road funding. The problem, he says, is structural: A funding system designed decades ago doesn't meet today's needs, let alone tomorrow's.

The funding gap is a national challenge. Mary Peters, the U.S. secretary of transportation, observed, “We're burning less fuel as energy costs change driving patterns, steer people toward more fuel efficient vehicles and encourage more to use transit,” she said. She thinks new sources of revenue are needed at the federal level, too..

What other states are doing

Several states are considering other variations of the user-pays model.

Oregon is piloting a road user fee, taxing motorists not for the amount of fuel they use but for the number of miles they drive. The Iowa Public Policy Center is road-testing a study of road user charges in five states, including North Carolina.

Florida is building a lot of toll roads. Indiana leased a toll road to a private firm for $3.8 billion. Texas and California are using HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes.

Wilson's committee has established one point beyond doubt: Motor fuel taxes alone won't pay for the roads we need, and haven't for years. It's time for a new approach.