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Rep. Fred Steen cals for end to DOT

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
Rep. Fred Steen, R-Rowan, says the average citizen thinks state government in Raleigh is broken.
Especially the Department of Transportation.
“What we have here,” Steen said, “is a department that has been riddled with politics, failing to set proper priorities and simply wasting too much money while calling for more.”
Steen said the Yadkin River bridge over Interstate 85 is a good example of a dysfunctional roads program that has left a bottleneck for travel.
“It is time we dismantle DOT and start over,” Steen told a crowded Rowan County Chamber of Commerce audience Tuesday morning at the Holiday Inn. The Chamber hosted its annual legislative breakfast, which also had Rep. Lorene Coates, D-Rowan, and Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, as guests.
As it did last year, much of the morning focused on roads and the need to expand the 6.8-mile segment of I-85 from Long Ferry Road to beyond Bill’s Truck Stop in Davidson County and replace the Yadkin River bridge.
Coates said the projected cost of that I-85 section has escalated from $175 million in 2003, when it was just weeks from being let out for contract before being pulled, to almost $400 million today.
The N.C. Turnpike Authority has done a preliminary traffic and revenue study, looking at how the project could be financed.
“In conclusion, this project is financeable through toll revenue,” the authority said in a March report. “It is constructible on a reasonable schedule, and it can operate as a toll facility without the use of cash lanes.
“There are major considerations on this project that are more about the public acceptability than about engineering and financial constraints. The decision to move forward as a toll project lies with the local and regional communities and the N.C. General Assembly.”
Assuming a lot of things fell in place, the Turnpike Authority says a contract could be awarded in mid 2009, which would allow project completion by 2013.
But the project sits in a non-attainment area in relation to the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards. A local regional transportation model needs to be updated in accordance with federal legislation, and it’s due for completion in May 2009.
“The project cannot move forward as a tolled or non-tolled facility until air quality conformity is met in May 2009,” the authority said, adding that a decision on tolling this project needs to be made by early summer of this year to help with the modeling process.
Another potential roadblock to a toll road is that the General Assembly would have to pass a law making it legal to place a toll on an existing road. The toll road also would need Federal Highway Administration approval.
Traffic diversions (for those trying to avoid the toll) would create potential problems for Spencer. Enforcement of toll violators would be difficult because a large percentage of users would be from out of state.
Then there’s the negative public sentiment toward tolls, political concerns and the marketing of electronic technology (transponders) that would aid in the tolling process, the authority said in a March report.
“We’re looking for answers, we’re looking for direction from you,” Coates told the Chamber audience Tuesday “We know the Chamber wants the bridge, but we need to hear from county commissioners and the city of Salisbury.”
The Chamber has set the “expeditious replacement of the I-85 Yadkin River bridge” as its top priority issue in 2008.
The bridge over the Yadkin is considered the seventh worst in the state. Its life span is supposed to run out in 2010, but DOT officials have said the 1955 northbound and southbound structures are sound.
“I pray the bridge is safe,” Coates said.
Coates is one of 24 members of the specially appointed 21st Century Committee looking at transportation issues in the state, and she said the group’s finance subcommittee has recommended that the Yadkin River segment be a toll road.
The committee also will recommend elimination of the Highway Trust Fund, whose funds often have been diverted ó raided, some would say ó to other parts of the state budget.
Voters also might expect a statewide voter referendum on a bond for highway funding ó $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion, Coates predicted.
As for Steen’s dismantling the DOT and starting over, Steen said it would start with allowing local control over local road projects, state control over strategic state corridors and federal control over its interests.
“We are generating tax revenue on the sale of gas that should be allowed to remain here in the county so we can handle our most pressing needs first,” Steen said. “The best government is the government closest to the people, and we need local control over our local roads.”
In Rowan, projects such as the Yadkin River bridge and the Old Beatty Ford Road interchange on I-85 should be priorities, Steen said. “However, since DOT is in such a mess,” he said, “we must consider public-private partnerships as a viable option to accomplishing these projects.”
Both Steen and Brock described a state government that’s not working overall.
Brock said there’s no long-term plan for the state’s direction and no effort to tighten the belt on spending. Government can’t tax its way to prosperity, he said.
“I would not have bought stock in North Carolina, if it were a company,” Brock added.
Brock said millions of dollars could be saved and 4,000 state positions eliminated if the General Assembly quit allowing unfilled positions to be funded.
Brock warned that the unfunded medical liability for state employees stands at $24 billion, and he noted that the state’s annual budget is only $22 billion.
He also reiterated his opposition to incentives for the recruitment of new employers and how incentives are unfair to existing businesses in the state. “Microsoft didn’t start out with an incentive program,” he said.
Companies would move here without incentives because of location and if the state put more effort into fixing its roads and tax structure, Brock said. He also spoke of the importance of training and retraining the workforce through the community college system.
Brock pushed for performance audits in state government to keep the General Assembly’s “feet to the fire,” and Steen spoke of the need for zero-based budgeting to capture “the waste and automatic add-ons that choke the taxpayers.”
“When was the last time we restructured our state government as a whole to stay in front of the curve?” Steen asked. I’ll tell you ó never.”
“… The fact is, if our state government was a business, it would have ceased to exist years ago.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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