Roads win, rails lose, ferries up

Transportation budget, passed by House panel, takes traditional route.

Staff WriterApril 22, 2011 

— Transportation spending changes endorsed Thursday by a divided House budget subcommittee would require riders to pay tolls on all ferries, put curbs on the state's ability to accept federal rail grants, and focus more spending on roads and bridges.

"We're moving back to a true transportation fund," said Rep. Fred F. Steen II, a Rowan County Republican. He voted for the proposed transportation budget, forged primarily by House GOP leaders. "That's important, because this money should be going mostly to roads and road maintenance."

Two dissenting Democrats criticized cuts that could weaken rail and ferry travel. Their view was shared by a Republican who said he would vote for the budget anyway.

"I have stated my concern about whether we're moving back toward being a roads department, as opposed to a transportation department," said Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County. But he supported the budget's emphasis on more money to maintain roads.

Rep. Ric Killian, a Mecklenburg County Republican who co-chairs the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, said the budget would focus about $700 million more on maintenance and construction projects to improve safety and relieve traffic congestion.

Some of that money is rerouted from other areas. Much of it is simply shifted from similar funds controlled by legislative formulas that already include roads and bridges.

A Department of Transportation official said the state already has stepped up spending for road and bridge upkeep.

"What's important is the General Assembly's direction to keep our internal focus, which we have done since 2009, on improving pavements, improving the maintenance condition and reducing the substandard, structurally deficient bridges," said Jim Trogdon, DOT's chief operating officer. "It will increase what is dedicated to them."

If the proposed transportation budget is approved in early May by the full House and later this year by the Senate and Gov. Bev Perdue, it will:

Require travelers to pay tolls on the four ferry routes that are now free, and to pay higher rates on the three ferries that now charge tolls. State ferry appropriations from the Highway Fund would be cut by more than $10 million a year.

DOT is conducting a traffic and revenue study to determine how high the ferry tolls should be. New rates probably would include multiple-ride discounts and monthly or yearly passes. No changes are expected before early 2012.

Force the DOT Rail Division to consult the legislature before it accepts federal railroad grants that would commit the state to as much as $3 million in matching capital funds or in annual operating and maintenance costs. If the state's commitment rose above $5 million, DOT would have to receive the legislature's approval before it could accept the grants.

The tighter controls would be applied to any money DOT receives out of $624 million it recently requested in federal high-speed rail grants. It would not affect $520 million the federal government previously committed to North Carolina.

Require commercial database vendors and others to pay 3 cents per record for large volumes of data provided by the Division of Motor Vehicles on records about drivers, vehicles and crashes. The state hopes to rake in at least $5 million a year in new revenues.

Cut $8.7 million a year from state spending for high school driver's education classes, and authorize local schools to charge students up to $75 each.

Rep. Ray Rapp, a Madison County Democrat, said four county school superintendents have warned him that the $75 fee will prevent poor students from taking driver's education classes. They'll be able to get their licenses at age 18 without the classes.

"And this really is a safety issue, too, if we've got some of these youngsters who are not getting driver education," Rapp said.

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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