Editorial: Road bonds look likely

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A panel trying to solve North Carolina’s massive transportation funding shortfall is offering some encouraging news ó and some not-so-encouraging news.
What’s encouraging is that the 21st Century Transportation Committee, which was appointed last fall to address the state’s transportation revenue shortfalls, appears likely to recommend a step long advocated by many: Stop the annual transfer of $172 million from the N.C. Highway Trust Fund into the state’s general operating fund, a form of highway robbery that has contributed to the state’s tar-pit of a backlog in road building and maintenance.
That brings us to the not-so-encouraging side of the equation being study by the transportation committee, which counts Rep. Lorene Coates (D-Rowan) among its members. Don’t break out the champagne in the mistaken belief that ending the trust transfer will magically solve the state’s transportation funding problems, speed up interstate expansion projects and spawn a new and toll-less I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River. The state’s asphalt gap ó the difference between revenues and highway and public transportation needs ó has been decades in the making and is estimated at $65 billion. Cutting that gap significantly will require new sources of money, which is likely to include a massive road-building bond package of at least $1.5 billion (and probably more) to be paid back using the revenue formerly transferred out of the trust fund.
All of this is contingent on the legislature approving a phaseout of the transfer (which affects the overall budget), backing a road bonds package and voters approving the transportation bonds in a referendum. Meanwhile, expect the transportation committee to also recommend more public transportation options ó and more local-option taxing authority to pay for them ó for the state’s more populous counties. Those options could range from extending light rail service in metropolitan areas like Charlotte to expanding bus service for rapidly suburbanizing counties like Rowan.
Most local residents would probably be ecstatic to have local road projects completed and a viable timetable for replacement of the I-85 bridge. But, jangled by recession fears and $100 fill-ups, they may have second thoughts about approving a billion-dollar debt package, even with assurances it can be financed through the long overdue cancellation of the highway funds transfer. If such a package is in the future, as seems increasingly likely, state transportation officials and legislators should start planning their campaign now to pave the way to passage.