Politics & Government

McCrory pitches ‘strategic, visionary’ bond packages

Gov. Pat McCrory said Friday that he will urge the legislature to let North Carolinians vote in November on a pair of bond proposals that would have the state borrow $2.85 billion, to take advantage of low interest rates and move quickly on needed improvements for state roads and buildings.

“If we’re going to be competitive, especially for jobs and to maintain our great quality of life, we’ve got to continue to invest for our next generation,” McCrory told a group of businesspeople and local elected officials from the Triad area.

A $1.45 billion package of infrastructure improvements lists projects in 64 counties, including $500 million for University of North Carolina system buildings, $200 million for community colleges, $300 million for railroad and state port upgrades, and $200 million for state historic sites and parks, including Jordan and Falls lakes.

A separate $1.4 billion roads package has money for 27 highway projects that failed to win funding in the state’s new Strategic Mobility Formula for setting highway construction priorities.

“Those next projects in line below the funding line, that had environmental documents ready, became the bond projects,” Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said. “So it is consistent with the Strategic Mobility Formula.”

The proposals have a ways to go before they get on a ballot.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican and a Senate Finance Committee chairman, said the big question will be whether the state can afford the borrowing.

“It really is about whether the dollars and cents are there,” Rucho said.

Lee Roberts, the state budget director, said the state can safely borrow the $2.85 billion without putting its AAA credit rating at risk.

“We’re not going to raise taxes or resort to gimmicks for these bonds,” Roberts said. “We’ll be borrowing 20-year money to finance assets that will last 50 years or more.”

In the Triangle, the Highway Patrol would get a new training academy if the bond issue is approved, and State Bureau of Investigation buildings would undergo major renovations.

Revives Raleigh project

A long-sought Raleigh project, which was about to be shelved after it failed to win a place in the state Department of Transportation’s 10-year road plan, would transform a clogged street-and-rail intersection at the State Fairgrounds. Blue Ridge Road would be lowered to run under Hillsborough Street and a pair of railroad tracks.

“It gets heavily congested there,” said Eric Lamb, Raleigh’s transportation planning manager. “This has one of the highest-volume railroad corridors in the state with the combination of freight and passenger rail traffic.”

The UNC package would steer money to 10 campuses. The list does not include UNC-Chapel Hill. The three biggest campus projects are for engineering buildings at N.C. State and N.C. A&T State universities, and a $115 million “science/STEM” complex at Western Carolina.

“That’s been focused on science, technology, engineering and math, which is vital to help the UNC system meet our workforce needs for the future,” Roberts said.

With $77 million in bond money, to be matched with gifts and private contract funding, NCSU would build a 227,000-square-foot structure that will complete the move of its Engineering School to Centennial Campus, officials said.

McCrory’s proposal also includes money for smaller renovation projects, such as a roof repair for Dorton Arena at the State Fairgrounds, and $50 million to pave 113 miles of gravel roads.

“It’s strategic and it’s integrated,” McCrory said. “And it’s visionary. As governor and each one of us, it is our job to prepare for change as opposed to react to change.”

Business groups and the construction industry are interested in transportation bonds, but finding champions for replacing a water heater at the crime lab or demolishing old psychiatric hospitals – projects included in the $1.5 billion in proposed infrastructure projects – could be more challenging.

A sales job for McCrory

Becki Gray, vice president for outreach at the conservative John Locke Foundation, said it would be McCrory’s job to sell the bond plan to the public.

“These are assets we as citizens of North Carolina own,” Gray said. “Like any asset, maintenance is required to maintain the value of that asset.”

She said she hopes legislators resist any urge to attach their local projects to the list in exchange for their vote.

Gray said she was also encouraged that legislators are considering different ways to direct more money toward roads. House Bill 927, filed this week, would phase out transfers from the Highway Fund to the general fund and increase a slew of fees on drivers to develop a stable source of money for roads.

“The funding source is something we need to take a good, hard look at,” Gray said. “Our current system is not meeting the needs we have for transportation in North Carolina.”

McCrory wants North Carolinians to vote in November, when towns have municipal elections, though many rural areas have no elections scheduled.

Roberts said he didn’t know how much of the state’s electorate would be asked to come to the polls to consider only the two bond packages. He said it would be worth the expense of opening extra precincts, and risking the low voter turnout, to take advantage of low interest rates that will climb higher in future years.

McCrory called on business and political leaders to help him sell his bond proposals.

“We’ve got a lot of educating and communicating, not just with the legislature but with the rest of the state,” McCrory said. “I’ll be traveling the state through the next several weeks.”

Triangle bond project highlights

▪ Widen U.S. 401, N.C. 96 in Wake County to State Road 1103 in Franklin County, $33 million

▪ Tunnel Blue Ridge Road under Hillsborough Street and railroad tracks near State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, $26.6 million

▪ State share of Engineering Oval project at N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus, $77 million

▪ Office of Information Technology Services eastern data center replacement, Raleigh, $31.1 million

▪ State Highway Patrol training academy at Garner, $25.6 million

▪ State Bureau of Investigation renovations, Garner, $6.1 million

▪ N.C. Central University School of Business, Durham, $4 million

▪ Blount Street Rehabilitation Project, downtown Raleigh, $3 million

Source: Governor’s Office