Running out of gas with two critical transportation questions
by By Tom Campbell NC SPIN executive producer and moderator
100,000 new residents call North Carolina home each year. From 1990 to 2010, our population grew by 44 percent and vehicle travel increased 63 percent. 54 percent of our major urban highways are congested, 44 percent are in poor or mediocre condition and out state is behind the curve meeting today’s needs, with no plan for the future.
Before we can address these problems there are two critical questions that must be answered: Who makes the decisions which projects to fund and how will we fund them?
Having served on the North Carolina Board of Transportation I saw first-hand that powerful legislators, influential DOT Board members and the governor made road decisions. The Perdue administration eliminated decision-making power from the DOT Board. Governor McCrory’s transportation initiatives went further, uncoupling the funding formula established by the 1989 Highway Trust Fund that allocated money equally to 14 highway division districts, instead replacing it with the Strategic Mobility Formula that would allocate funds based on data and local input.
The new formula allocates 40 percent of available road funds to projects of statewide significance, 30 percent to regions in the state and the remaining 30 percent divided equally among the 14 highway divisions for local projects that address safety, connectivity and congestion. While this is a major change in the allocations of funds it still doesn’t provide specificity as to who makes the decisions which projects to fund.
The Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee met this week and raised that question, admitting they didn’t clarify those details prior to approving the Strategic Mobility Formula. Despite assurances from DOT Secretary Tony Tata that local wishes would be heard we still don’t know who makes the final decisions or how they will be made.
Even more critical is where we will get needed funds. Most states fund about 20 percent of road mileage but in North Carolina 80 percent of the responsibility for roads falls to state government. Current state revenues amount to about 3 billion dollars per year, with the federal government adding another billion; both federal and state funds are declining. More than 60 percent of state transportation revenues come from the gas tax, but with more fuel-efficient vehicles our gas usage is declining. Further exacerbating the problem is the legislature’s cap on gas taxes at 37.5 cents per gallon.
We are literally running out of gas (money) at a time when we need to be dramatically improving roads, ports, rails and transit. In 2008, Governor Easley’s 21st Century Transportation Study projected needs at 25 billion dollars greater than expected revenue projections.
Like it or not more money is needed and those who use transportation (most everyone) will have to pay. Options include higher gas taxes, more toll roads, taxes levied on yearly vehicle miles traveled, increased funding from local governments, higher vehicle sales taxes and license fees or a major public transportation bond referendum, using the state’s borrowing power and tax revenues to pay off the debt.
It is time we face the music. Replacing one funding formula with another isn’t real transportation reform. Governor McCrory promised us a comprehensive plan and this plan must include specifics on who will make transportation decisions and how current and future needs will be funded.
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