State might ask cities to maintain more roads

When the 21st Century Transportation Committee was set up a little more than a year ago with the task of coming up with plans for how North Carolina can meet daunting challenges in every area of transportation, among its many tasks was to ponder new ways of financing transportation and to come up with innovations.

It has made a good start, rethinking the way we approach transportation. Some proposals are still in the thinking stage, such as a plan that's giving many of the state's municipalities the fits. A panel chaired by Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Edgecombe, is looking at recommending that cities pick up responsibility for maintaining and expanding up to 5,000 miles of state roads that are within municipal borders. The idea is that the state would provide funding for the road maintenance through the N.C. Powell Bill, which helps pay for street projects, as well as establish a municipal infrastructure fund to help pay for shifting the burden to cities. Transit projects could also be eligible for the $56 million fund.

There would be obvious benefits to the state. It would relieve the state of having to maintain 5,000 miles of heavily traveled urban roads. It might benefit cities by allowing them to move quicker to meet local road needs.

Or it might be a big problem. For one thing, a lot of state roads within cities are not merely two-lane roads. Many are four or six-lane thoroughfares that move commuters back and forth between suburbs or nearby cities. Would the state provide funding simply for 5,000 center-lane miles, or 5,000 lane miles? It costs a lot more to maintain a multi-lane road.

And how secure would funding be? Cities are still smarting over the state's 2002 decision during a budget crisis to retain tax revenue that long had gone to local governments.

What's more, the current funding under the Powell Bill formula has not proved adequate. How would this proposal rectify that? And how would the formula keep up with the rapid increases in the cost of road maintenance?

This might indeed be a very good deal for the state, but how about cities? So far, the planning process has not put forward a persuasive case that this is a good idea for municipalities, their taxpayers or travelers. There are more questions than answers at this point. The subcommittee pondering this plan has a lot of work to do before it pushes more of the highway burden onto local governments.