One of the bright spots in the 21st Century Transportation Committee's deliberations is a visionary proposal that would establish a comprehensive approach for funding transportation systems. It came out of a subcommittee headed by Sam Hunt of Burlington, a former state legislator and former transportation secretary.
His group proposed giving local governments in the state's urban areas the ability to hold referenda to impose local sales and other taxes to help build transit systems. That would extend to such urban areas as the Research Triangle, the Triad counties of Guilford and Forsyth and other fast-growing cities the ability to do what Charlotte has done with its highly popular Lynx rail system.
Not every urban area needs light rail, of course. But many urban areas do need a way to explore, finance and develop transit systems that could make use of rail, buses, trams, express lanes or other innovative ways to move people about more quickly and efficiently. The idea has met a warm legislative reception from lawmakers representing areas that are facing the same traffic congestion concerns that have spurred interest in public transit.
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, is principal sponsor of the “Congestion Relief/Intermodal Transport Fund” bill and is chair of the House Transportation Committee. She believes the bill has the votes to pass in her committee, but it must also go to the House Finance Committee, where Durham Democrat Paul Luebke is senior chair. He has long had concerns about the effect of sales taxes on lower-income citizens. He supports mass transit options, but questions whether taxes that have a regressive effect are the right way to finance them.
Given that objection, Rep. Carney is reluctant to push her bill through the transportation committee only to see it founder in the finance committee. With lawmakers hoping to wind up their work within weeks, a better course may be to build support for the idea of a comprehensive financing system and act on it next session.
This is an issue that needs broader leadership. It would be an ideal time for House Speaker Joe Hackney, House Majority leader Hugh Holliman, Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue and Gov. Mike Easley to weigh in on the opportunities this bill offers. Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who earns credit for pushing to build the Lynx system and defending Mecklenburg's mass transit funding mechanism, could help, too. It's time for state leaders to step up and sound off.