Come up with clear criteria for urban loops

Let's start with this premise: When a high-ranking N.C. Department of Transportation engineer says, “I don't know how they arrive at their priorities,” the process for deciding where to spend this state's urban loop money is way, way too murky.

That doesn't mean the projects that have been funded weren't worthy. It does mean that an important process is ripe for manipulation by special interests and politicians. That's wrong.

The N.C. Department of Transportation ought to come up with objective, openly disclosed criteria and a consistent process to guide decisions about these costly projects. Some sort of cost-benefit analysis should be a part of that process, but it should not be the sole factor.

Observer reporter Steve Harrison recently delved into how the state spends its millions earmarked for building urban loops. He found that N.C. DOT has no easily explainable process for deciding which projects to fund.

An example: Fayetteville, a small city in Eastern North Carolina, will expand its I-295 loop this year with $284 million in state money. That project is ahead of the completion and critically needed expansion of Charlotte's congested and delayed I-485 outerbelt, which serves the state's most populous metropolitan region.

Decisions such as that one raise questions – and with good reason here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg – about whether the state spends loop money sensibly.

Critics say N.C. DOT should let a cost-benefit analysis determine where it spends urban loop money. That would ensure that pavement goes where the most cars are – and presumably where the need is most pressing.

DOT says that everyone who pays into the system should share in the money.

Both views have some merit. But the fact is, N.C. DOT can't point to consistent, objective criteria to explain many urban loop decisions.

It's counterintuitive that a project in a less-congested area would wind up ahead of a project here, where roads are overwhelmed. Yet there's value to Charlotte, too, in having roads statewide that address broad needs – so long as what DOT decides makes sense. Right now it doesn't.

DOT needs to come up with firm criteria that include these factors:

A systematic analysis that shows where loop projects rank among statewide urban roadbuilding needs.

An analysis that shows what taxpayers are getting for their money.

Fairness in spreading around urban loop money.