McCrory quiet on how to pay for transportation improvements

April 24, 2013 

They don’t want to say it. They don’t want to whisper it. They certainly don’t want to talk about it. But in figuring how to revise the state’s formulas for future spending on transportation, Gov. Pat McCrory and his secretary at the Department of Transportation, Tony Tata, are going to have to face something that no-tax Republicans try to avoid: To meet the need for roads and renovations and rail transit, North Carolina is going to have to find some additional revenue. Meaning money. Meaning...easy now, GOPers...some kind of tax.

When it comes to transportation, in North Carolina the rubber has met the road.

The News & Observer’s Bruce Siceloff, otherwise known as the Road Worrier, laid it out after Tata and McCrory had discussed in Raleigh a game plan for setting priorities on spending the state’s transportation dollars. What they didn’t discuss was a way to pay for transportation expenses. That’s a problem when it comes to planning.

Siceloff noted some sobering facts: The state is one of the country’s fastest-growing, with 1.3 million more residents expected by 2023, just 10 years from now; transportation revenue from the feds and the state, however, are going to drop by $1.7 billion in that time. Gas tax collections are dropping, fees associated with owning motor vehicles are flat and the highway use tax on car sales are low.

A tough one

The governor, for his part, is in a pickle. Nothing in his 14 years as mayor of Charlotte is comparable to the problems he’ll face as governor. And Tata, formerly the Wake County school superintendent, may be a former Army General and logistics expert in that field, but determining transportation priorities for a state that’s rapidly headed for a population of over 10 million is bigger than any of his previous experience as well.

But the real crunch for McCrory and Tata may be the prospect of having to convince Republicans now running the General Assembly that some sort of additional transportation tax may not just be helpful, but may be a necessity. Without adequate and varied alternatives for transportation, the governor’s much-ballyhooed goal of creating jobs will be stopped in its tracks.

This is a not-uncommon problem for GOP politicians who win elections. Their campaign-speak of lower taxes and belt-tightening runs up against the reality of maintaining government and the services people expect from it. One of the main things they expect is good roads and efficient ways to move themselves and in the case of business people their products from Point A to Point B.

Wherefore revenue?

Other states, yes even some run by Republicans, have had to look at additional transportation fees and taxes. And Massachusetts is looking at raising something like $165 million for transportation with additional taxes on tobacco. (North Carolina should raise that tax for various needs. Hiking taxes on tobacco here would not be nearly as unpopular as it once would have been.) A sales tax supplement also would be an alternative, though most citizens favor taxes for transportation that fall on those who use roads and rail.

Absent additional revenue, the governor will be looking at tensions that could well divide the state he needs to bring together. Urban corridors are where growth is liable to be more intense, and those areas will need more in the way of transportation money. That could alienate rural areas that think their own needs are critical. Repairs are an increasing expense, but some new roads are needed. Rail between urban areas is the future, but where will the money come from?

Tata said, that “discussion of revenues” will happen over “over the next year or two.” The troops, General, will have to move faster than that.

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