McCrory wants to study state's transportation, infrastructure needs

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comNovember 9, 2012 

When he was Charlotte’s mayor, Pat McCrory helped implement a 25-year plan that set priorities for transit investment to guide the city’s growth. Now the governor-elect says North Carolina needs a 25-year transportation and infrastructure plan “to send a clear signal to the business community of the state’s future investment in roads, railroads, bridges, ports, airports and other infrastructure.”

People in and out of government in Raleigh have been thinking along similar lines over the past couple of years.

“We’ve done a lot of work, and we’re happy to share that with the new governor,” said Gene Conti, who has served as outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue’s transportation secretary since 2009. “And what he does with that is up to him. There’s a lot of stuff out there, and we’re certainly sharing it with his transition team.”

A business-government logistics task force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, spent two years meeting in communities across North Carolina to assess the state’s long-term economic, mobility and infrastructure needs, and it reported its findings (PDF) in June. Recommendations included further looks at developing inland ports and investing in improvements to the Morehead City and Wilmington ports.

The state Board of Transportation updated its own long-range look this year with a 2040 Statewide Transportation Plan, based on a survey of expected needs and priorities from residents and local governments. The plan predicts that the state will need $94 billion over the next three decades to maintain the transportation system we have now, and $130 billion to build a better system. But the state can count on only $54 billion in state and federal transportation funds during the same period (see the red-and-blue bar graf, above, from the 2040 plan).

In its own study (PDF) published this summer, the N.C. Chamber of Commerce warned that the state will need to find new revenue sources to meet its growing transportation needs. “We realize that funding is the linchpin in this discussion,” Lew Ebert, the chamber president, wrote in a newspaper column (PDF) published in October.

Chamber officials warn that North Carolina can't count on the gas tax to pay for its transportation needs. Tax collections are beginning to decline because U.S. drivers are paying lower taxes per mile as their cars get more miles out of each gallon of gas. Many political leaders are reluctant to push the tax rate higher, and there are growing numbers of electric and other alternative-fuel cars that don't use gas -- or pay gas taxes -- at all.

"We need a hard, serious discussion on whether the gas tax is sustainable for the future," said Gary Salamido, the N.C. Chamber’s vice president for government affairs. "It’s our general position that it’s not a sustainable funding source.”

Tommy Harrelson was DOT secretary under the last Republican governor, Jim Martin, for three years in the early 1990s. He likes McCrory’s push for more long-range transportation planning.

“I would say there’s been good work done, particularly in marrying logistics needs to a transportation plan,” Harrelson said. “They haven’t been fully implemented, but they’re beginning to do that. I think Pat is correctly thinking much more long-term than we traditionally have been thinking. That’s worth doing, to fully engage the business community and everybody, to have an idea where we want to go and hold ourselves accountable for what gets done.”

That's what McCrory says he wants to do.

“Transportation and economic development have to be integrated,” McCrory said in a Sept. 26 interview with The N&O’s Craig Jarvis. “Right now we don’t have that cooperative relationship. That’s what the customers are telling me throughout the state.”

Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, said McCrory showed during his 14-years as mayor that he appreciates the economic importance of transportation infrastructure planning. Charlotte political and business leaders agreed in the 1990s to make rapid transit a central part of land-use planning. Their plan was to focus growth around five corridors and give commuters an alternative to cars and congestion.

"It's a guarantee that in certain corridors, employees can get to work in a guaranteed amount of time, " McCrory said in a 2006 interview in his mayoral office. "Not just next year, but 30 years from now. And that's a guarantee employers are going to start looking for."

In 1998, then-Mayor McCrory teamed up Democrat Parks Helms, then chairman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners, to push for a half-cent local sales tax to help finance transit improvements. They spent time in Raleigh persuading legislators from both parties to authorize the local option tax for Mecklenburg. Then they sold the idea to Mecklenburg voters, who approved it in 1998. The sales tax enabled Charlotte to double its bus fleet and add new routes, and it paid 28 percent of the cost for the city’s first 10-mile light-rail line.

"He was the architect, the leader, the visionary for Charlotte’s investment in a transit-land-use vision plan," Morgan said Friday.

“And while the build-out of the plan is going to take longer than anticipated, because of the problems that public revenues have faced, Charlotte will be working toward that vision for the rest of our lifetimes," Morgan said.

"It is a transit-land-use program. Transit-oriented development is a key component of making rail successful, and also generating tax bases and densifying the development patterns of Charlotte. We’re giving people options. In addition to the the suburban options we have for housing, people can choose housing that is more transit-oriented, and more dense," Morgan said.

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