William H. Carstarphen of Charlotte is chairman of NC Go!, whose members include local chambers of commerce, regional transit systems, construction industry associations and consulting engineers. He recently spoke with assistant Q editor Burgetta Eplin Wheeler. Excerpts:
Q: What's the situation with North Carolina's interstates as your group sees it?
A: We think our interstates are deteriorating, and we don't see evidence of the state's ability to finance their modernization and in some cases their improvement. Under our current system of financing transportation needs, NC Go! has recommended in our "Fill the Gap" program that we consider using tolls on interstates to provide the funding necessary to maintain and modernize them.
Q: What's the most critical need?
A: Our most critical needs are maintaining and improving ... what we already have.
Q: How did we get to the place where we can't pay to maintain our highways?
A: Part of the problem is that the interstates were built largely with federal funds, 90 percent in most instances, and the federal dollars are simply not available. The burden of maintenance has fallen more heavily on the states. Unfortunately, our transportation funding policies simply do not generate revenues to do what we need to do as well as what we want to do, which is a political question.
We think at NC Go! that while the condition of our interstates is an example, it's only part of the problem. The problem is our current system of funding is no longer adequate.
Q: What funding avenues are you proposing?
A: No. 1 is, to kick-start our lagging repair and maintenance efforts at NCDOT, that we consider a billion-dollar transportation bond immediately.
Q: What are the chances of that happening?
A: We have had some interest and support from members of the General Assembly with whom we have spoken. At the same time, they are wrestling with a number of items. Quite honestly, we doubt it will get consideration in the session that's ending right now, but we hope it gets serious consideration in the long session.
We also have urged the General Assembly to end diversions from the trust fund.
Q: What does that mean?
A: The Highway Trust Fund is one of the two principal funds that pay for highway construction in North Carolina. The trust fund was created back in the '80s to supplement funding abilities. Unfortunately, the General Assembly has diverted funds from the trust fund that most people think should go to transportation needs.
Q: What else would help?
A: While [North Carolina's] gas tax has gotten a lot of attention, and we support the gas tax, we don't think it should be diminished or even capped because our needs are so urgent. But if you look at other funding sources, our surrounding states ask their citizens to participate more in funding transportation than we do in terms of highway-use taxes, which are basically the taxes you pay when purchasing a vehicle. If you look at Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina, they all have a higher tax on cars, and we think that is a legitimate area to look at.
We also have suggested that the General Assembly consider giving local governments, counties, cities, even regions, more discretion in local-option funding for local transportation needs.
We think other large metropolitan regions -- Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem -- as well as medium-sized urban areas should have the ability to decide how to fund transportation needs and given options to let voters decide how to fund those.
We think that package should include the ability to place tolls on urban loops, or regional primary highways, so long as those revenues generated go exclusively to that region, that city or that county.
The final major point we made in our "Fill the Gap" program is that we hope it will generate some discussion about these needs. The final suggestion we made is that it's really time to begin looking at a different way of financing highways and transportation in North Carolina. We have relied on the gas tax so long, and as gas consumption was growing and the tax was growing, it generated a reasonable stream of revenue. Now with the resistance to the gas prices that will continue to escalate, and given the fact that the good news is we are beginning to build more efficient engines and are consuming less gas, the net result is the gas tax is less and less a rational way to finance transportation costs.
We suggest we begin looking long-term at other options, one of which is currently in use in the state of Oregon, and that is a "vehicle mile traveled" charge. The technology exists today, as we see on toll roads where people zip through and a computer automatically deducts a toll from their toll card, the technology exists to develop a system that would charge vehicles and vehicle owners on the basis of the amount of mileage they drive, the time of day they drive -- during high congestion times, of course, the fee would be higher -- and the weight to their vehicle.
Obviously as we see more and more heavy trucks on our highways, we see more and more deterioration of the concrete and asphalt surfaces. That is a factor that needs to be recognized, and it's not recognized in the gas tax.
Our transportation system -- not only our highways but our ports, our airports, local transit -- is so vital to North Carolina's economy that we can't afford to let this system deteriorate as it's beginning to do.