Traffic's bad, bridges are old – what's new?

Traffic's bad, bridges are old – what's new?

In 2009, state must resolve its transportation funding dilemma

This is not news, but it's an important reminder for anyone who goes anywhere in North Carolina – or depends on goods and services that move about this state:

Our highways are far too congested, especially in urban areas, notes the Reason Foundation in its annual compilation of state-by-state transportation concerns. The state ranked 48th in urban interstate congestion and 29th out of 50 in traffic fatality rates per miles traveled.

Bridges are old and need replacing. Says Berry Jenkins of the transportation advocacy group NC Go!, “Our bridges are aging out of usefulness and safety faster than we can pay to repair or replace them.”

Funding for transportation is inadequate and declining at a time when transportation project construction costs are shooting through the roof. The state Department of Transportation has released figures showing that two main sources of revenue for a majority of the department's annual budget are producing far less income.

Reporter Bruce Siceloff of the News & Observer wrote that there's a $66 million decline in revenues from the state's gasoline and diesel fuel taxes and from the highway use tax on sales of vehicles.

That decline has appeared at a time when the state's population is increasing by about 200,000 residents every year, putting more strain on transportation infrastructure such as roads, bridges and other facilities. But at the same time, drivers are trying to drive less to save on fuel costs – and with the state gasoline tax now capped at a maximum of 29.9 cents per gallon, fuel tax income isn't keeping up with demands for new roads.

That's not all. The N&O also notes that the cost of construction has doubled in the past six years. And the cost of asphalt cement has more than doubled from $400 a ton at the beginning of this year to $805 a ton last week.

The problem is so enormous that it can't be solved by trimming here and there, or even fully restoring funds diverted from the Highway Trust Fund 1989 to make up for loss of revenue to another program when the fund was created.

It's going to require a critical rethinking of the way North Carolina finances its transportation services. That's a key reason legislative leaders last year set up the 21st Century Transportation Committee to examine the transportation challenges facing the state and make recommendations for change.

That committee has discussed a bond package of up to $2 billion to jump-start the state's construction program. It also recommended creation of a congestion relief and intermodal transport fund that would give local governments new ways to pay for transit projects, boost state ports and rail facilities and expand passenger train service.

Next year a new governor and a new legislature will take office. Among the very first issues they take up should be adopting a comprehensive approach to transportation funding. It may cost more money, but we cannot afford to put it off any longer.