Highways to the future

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 18, 2014

Give Gov. Pat McCrory credit. While most people in politics are focussed on Election Day 2014 — or 2016 — he wants to talk about the transportation of the future. Wednesday, the governor and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata unveiled “25-Year Vision for North Carolina: Mapping Our Future.” The plan covered everything from a new section of interstate in the northeastern corner of the state to bicycle and pedestrian facilities statewide.
And McCrory wants to start by borrowing $1 billion to $1.5 billion to get things going.
This may be what McCrory does best — put aside immediate political concerns to look at the bigger picture. Tackling tough transportation problems was a hallmark of his years as Charlotte mayor. There, too, McCrory outlined a 25-year plan. His vision for a light-rail system in Charlotte initially met great skepticism, but it proved to be on-target. The Blue Line, as it’s called, “fueled the South End’s rebirth and touched off nearly $2 billion in new construction in its first three years,” according to the Charlotte Observer. A 9.3-mile northern extension to UNC Charlotte is under construction and set to open in 2017.
The state’s population is expected to swell from 9.5 million in 2010 to 12.5 million by 2040; expanding road capacity at the same pace is a virtual impossibility. So McCrory outlined a multifaceted plan that calls for improving highway connections, upgrading U.S. highways 70 and 64 to interstates in the eastern part of the state, improving public transportation and more. He also talked about new ways to raise money for transportation to replace or supplement the gas tax. The word “tolls” does not appear in initial press releases, but the plan does call for “optimizing public-private partnership” — a red flag to toll opponents. Construction of I-77 toll lanes between Charlotte and Mooresville is funded by just such a partnership, between the state and Cintra S.A. No one has donned red berets, but a strong resistance movement has taken shape.
The biggest roadblock to McCrory’s plan will be the legislature, which tends to either ignore or dissect the governor’s initiatives and then offer up dozens of its own. What emerges can be a frustrating hodgepodge rather than a cohesive plan. Just ask educators.
By putting this plan on the table, McCrory is initiating an important discussion. His plan may well fall by the wayside. But he’s set a time frame — 25 years — and outlined concrete steps. The issue is too critical for lawmakers to brush aside. As McCrory said, “companies want to invest where they know there is a strong vision for moving people and products.” McCrory has that vision.