Transportation could be bumpy issue for next N.C. governor
Editor’s note: After two terms in Raleigh, incumbent Gov. Mike Easley will leave office next year. This is one of a series of stories examining where the major-party candidates to replace him stand on several key issues the next governor of North Carolina is likely to address while in office. North Carolina’s primary is May 6.
By Gary D. Robertson
RALEIGH ó Urban drivers are stuck in traffic. Rural residents are waiting for their local highway to get a needed widening. By one estimate, North Carolina is $65 billion short of the money it needs to fix those road woes and the many others that will pop up in the next 20 years.
But none of the major-party candidates for governor are eager to impose new taxes or fees to make up the difference. Instead, in recent surveys and interviews with The Associated Press, they said their demands of accountability and improvements in bureaucratic efficiency will be enough to start North Carolina down the path to reclaiming its place as the “Good Roads State.”
“Before we start talking about any more holes to fill, I want to get that thing running as lean as possible, where people can trust that the money that’s going there is being spent wisely,” said State Treasurer Richard Moore, one of the Democratic candidates. “I don’t think people think that today.”
There may not be a more popular target for disdain this election year than the state officials who made decisions about North Carolina’s roads. Any discussion with the candidates about transportation invariably leads to their failings, especially those of the state Board of Transportation.
Many of the candidates specifically said the board takes politics ó rather than practical considerations such as congestion or the potential for economic development ó into account when choosing which road-building projects will move forward.
“Political pork drives their calendar,” said Republican attorney Bill Graham. “I think if you’re on the DOT board or you’re in a position of power, you get your road project first and everything else will just have to wait until they get down to it.”
Current board members have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to state political campaigns since 2000, and Moore has made an issue of his pledge to bar board members from taking part in political fundraising.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, said he would appoint board members who are experts in construction, land-use planning and business so they can make sound decisions based on the recommendations of Department of Transportation staff.
The Department of Transportation doesn’t fare much better in the eyes of the candidates than the board. A recent State Auditor’s performance report of the department found $152 million wasted on road projects in three years, while an outside review included comments from employees who believe their agency is too political and needlessly delays projects.
“North Carolina’s system is essentially getting away from our managers,” said David Hartgen, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who performs an annual examination of transportation trends among the state. Hartgen ranked North Carolina eighth in the nation in overall highway ratings in 1990. In 2005, it ranked 31st.
Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, Moore’s chief Democratic rival, said the department uses an “outdated, overly centralized decision making model.” It instead should use the expertise in the department’s 14 regional divisions to manage and work with local governments to complete urgent projects.
“On even simple things like purchasing and oversight, everything is done at the state level,” Perdue said. “There’s just innate inefficiency (in) controlling a bureaucracy that’s that large from one office in Raleigh.”
For much of the 20th century, North Carolina was considered a leader in road building and maintenance, earning the proud label of the “Good Roads State.” But this decade, the state ó second only to Texas in the number of miles of state-maintained roads ó has struggled under the weight of a surging population and a relatively flat revenue source in its gasoline tax, a key source of road-building dollars. At the same time, the costs of oil-based construction materials such as asphalt has soared.
“That’s where are today. We are in an unsustainable situation,” said Beau Mills, chairman of NC Go!, a coalition of local governments and road-building trade groups pushing for more road money.
While the candidates generally consider new taxes or fees to be more or less off the table in the short term, ending the $172 million annual transfer from the state’s Highway Trust Fund to the state’s general fund is a popular idea. The trust fund, created in 1989 and funded mostly by state taxes on gasoline and car sales, pays for the construction of urban Interstate loops, to widen four-lane highways and improve secondary roads.
“You can’t tax the public for roads and construction, rob the fund and then cry because you don’t have money. This is utter nonsense,” said Democratic candidate Dennis Nielsen, a retired Air Force colonel.
Moore is skeptical about eliminating the transfer, since it might lead to an overall shortfall in the state budget. GOP candidate Bob Orr, meanwhile, believes all additional road-building dollars should be held back until the Department of Transportation has proven it can wisely spend what it has.
“Throwing more money at a broken system can only result in more waste,” said Orr, a former Supreme Court justice. “The state is losing hundreds of millions of dollars simply because the N.C. DOT cannot deliver the transportation program it is charged with.”
Sen. Fred Smith, another GOP candidate and chief executive of an asphalt paving company, plans to put forward a $4 billion road-building bond if elected. He believes the bond, combined with some toll roads and efforts to reduce waste, would pay for the state’s immediate transportation needs. (Smith has said the company won’t bid on state government contracts if he becomes governor.)
Perdue said she was willing to consider letting counties and cities raise money on their own to make local transportation improvements, so long as voters approve. McCrory supported such an idea in 1996, when Mecklenburg County voters signed off on a half-cent sales tax increase helped build Charlotte’s new light-rail line. He said any statewide tax for transportation must also go on the ballot.
“And I’ve got a record of doing just that,” he said. “I’ve shown the plan to the people and taken it to the ballot.”