Last week, reports in The N&O chronicled the theatrics over an altered letter to legislators using the borrowed electronic signature of the Department of Transportations chief operating officer. Dubbed by some letter-gate, the effort was a last-minute attempt to restore funding for two controversial proposed toll highways in next years budget. What is euphemistically being referred to as an editing suggestion from the Governors Office actually reversed DOTs informed recommendation to spend the money on other pressing needs.
The whole episode would be mildly amusing if it were only an isolated example, rather than the tip of the iceberg.
The temptation for pork barrel projects is understandably great. Last year, the DOT spent $5.4 billion, well over a quarter of the states total budget of $19.7 billion. The long-term payoff can be huge for those who happen to buy real estate in the path of progress that they help steer. For the two mega-projects at the center of the recent shenanigans, the Garden Parkway and Mid-Currituck Bridge, the personal financial interests of the legislators, other public officials and well-connected land speculators have been well documented.
So, where are we with the much ballyhooed DOT reform effort spanning the last two administrations? My simple thesis is that the ultimate measure of DOT reform is whether the projects that serve our most pressing transportation needs are the ones actually being funded. By that benchmark, the new ethics rules and structural reforms of recent years have yet to succeed.
Later this summer, the DOT board will vote to adopt North Carolinas next long-range transportation plan to guide $60-$120 billion in spending through 2040. Unfortunately, there are many examples of questionable, politically influenced projects still on the list DOT formulated decades ago.
Lets start with the two in the spotlight last week, remembering that they have only been delayed one year so far. A delay means taxpayers still face hundreds of millions in state subsidies over 30 years because the toll revenues are expected to fall far short of the construction costs:
• The $1 billion Garden Parkway would be a new 22-mile-long southern bypass of Gastonia, with the goal to relieve traffic on Interstate 85. DOTs own study refutes this notion and also concludes that the southerly route of the project would result in a net job loss to South Carolina.
• The $600 million Mid-Currituck Bridge across Currituck Sound near Corolla would spur development of vacation homes, mostly for out-of-state visitors, on a fragile, receding barrier island now home to only a handful of North Carolina residents.
Here are some more of the pet projects on DOTs highway build-out map:
• $400 million for the initial phase of the $1 billion Corridor K bypass and tunnel project through the remote Snowbird Mountains. Project proponents have yet to substantiate a transportation purpose to justify the massive investment and environmental destruction.
• $1 billion in combined bypass projects along U.S. 70 in Eastern North Carolina. The main purpose is to prop up a port in Morehead City that is ill-suited to compete in the global economy.
• $600 million to add a section Interstate 74 across the Green Swamp in Brunswick County, a nationally significant biological hot spot. North Carolina and private groups have already invested millions in preserving this little-trafficked area for hunting and conservation.
• And then theres the $700 million Monroe Connector/Bypass toll highway east of Charlotte, where the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the DOT misled the public and permitting agencies by downplaying its impacts and ignoring more cost-effective alternatives. The redo of the environmental study will allow reconsideration of DOTs own estimate that the existing corridor could be upgraded for only $15 million.
In all, the proposed Long Range Transportation Plan has about $15 billion in these and other legacy projects being kept alive by the same kind of political pressure we all witnessed last week. These expensive proposals have never been evaluated through a public process to determine whether they really are our states top transportation priorities. Especially in these tough fiscal times, shouldnt we take out that red pencil again for some additional edits?
David Farren is a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and directs its regional Transportation Initiative out of the Centers Chapel Hill office.