Editorial: It’ll drive you loopy

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 24, 2008

If you wonder why North Carolina sometimes seems to be running around in circles on its road funding problems, look no further than the N.C. Board of Transportation’s recent decision to pump $270 million into the Fayetteville highway loop.
With road money drying up around the state, you might ask how Fayetteville was able to secure such a handsome pre-holiday gift, courtesy of the Board of Transportation. It didn’t hurt that Fayetteville is the hometown of both Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett and Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, the Fayetteville Democrat who pushed for funds to build the bypass around the city. There are, of course, valid arguments for completing the loop. Fayetteville is home to the nation’s largest Army post, and the growing city is handling increasingly heavy traffic counts, as Tippett has pointed out. But does Fayetteville have worse traffic problems than Charlotte, where completion of the I-485 loop isn’t expected for another decade? Worse than Raleigh, where work on the I-540 outer loop in Wake County may not be completed until 2030?
Given the backlog of projects around the state ó including replacement of the I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River ó taxpayers might well wonder why this particular loop road has such a high priority. For that matter, they also might wonder why this kind of loop expansion project is being funded at all right now, when the state can’t afford to adequately maintain existing roads. Are we to believe it’s simply coincidence that Fayetteville gets the nod now, as Tippett prepares to leave office? Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus ó and he’s well-connected in Raleigh.
Coincidentally, the DOT board made this funding decision as the the 21st Century Transportation Committee was finishing work on its list of recommendations for meeting North Carolina’s multibillion-dollar highway funding shortfall. The list has some ideas that are likely to gain traction in the legislature next year, such as ending transfers from the Highway Trust Fund into the general budget and expanding toll projects. Legislators also may consider increasing vehicle registration fees, but increasing the highway use tax from 3 percent to 4 percent of a car’s sales price isn’t likely to fly when dealerships are already struggling to move vehicles off their lots. However legislators revise funding mechanisms, they need to maximize transparency while minimizing good ol’ boy connections.
There’s no doubt that North Carolina needs to reformulate the way it raises and distributes money for road maintenance and construction. But to make any substantive changes, legislators first have to convince taxpayers that, however revenue is raised, funds will be spent efficiently and distributed fairly, with an emphasis on improving existing highways. There’s a long history of mixing politics and pavement. The decision to spend $270 million in the outgoing DOT chief’s hometown is a good example of why taxpayers may be skeptical that anything is going to change, even with a change in state leadership.