Rural representatives wary of changes in transportation spending

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comApril 30, 2013 

— Rural legislators worried Tuesday that small-town transportation needs could languish at the expense of big-city projects if the state adopts Gov. Pat McCrory’s plan to throw out a system that has governed statewide transportation spending priorities for 24 years.

McCrory’s Strategic Mobility Formula would continue to distribute money for local spending while focusing a new 40 percent share on statewide and major regional projects that reduce congestion, speed travel times and boost economic development. A big part of his pitch is a pledge to focus spending more efficiently, relying on data to identify projects that can deliver the most benefits.

“The statewide projects will be driven almost exclusively by data and will be based on how they impact the ability of the overall state to compete,” Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said Tuesday at a House Transportation Committee meeting.

The Strategic Mobility Formula, announced April 18 and outlined in more detail Tuesday, would replace the 1989 Highway Trust Fund Act, a rural-urban compromise that focused on paving dirt roads and building four-lane highways and urban loops.

Legislators began thumbing through details of McCrory’s plan in a 31-page bill sponsored by Brawley, trying to figure out what their home districts might gain – and what they would lose.

“In the western part of the state where I live, we have a lot of miles of unpaved roads,” said Rep. Edgar Starnes, a Republican from Catawba County. “How do you prioritize unpaved roads across the state?”

McCrory and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata say they’re aiming for simpler, clear guidelines to align the state’s shrinking transportation tax revenues with its greatest needs. But getting there involves complicated changes that will affect everything from sidewalks to trains and airports.

Jim Trogdon, Tata’s chief deputy for operations, told committee members that DOT should move to a more efficient spending model right away, and then figure out how to raise more money to meet the transportation needs of a fast-growing state.

“Let’s over the next 12 months determine the direction we need to go in North Carolina to solve this problem, the revenue problem, in the long run,” Trogdon said.

Rep. Paul Tine, a Democrat from Dare County, said he liked a suggestion by McCrory that the state could boost rural economic development by giving residents of northeastern counties a better highway connection to job opportunities in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area.

“But as we move toward data-driven decisions and taking the politics out of it, it might not matter what the governor said about it,” Tine said. “So is there some provision I’m missing?”

The transportation committee voted without dissent to endorse the Strategic Mobility Formula as sketched out in Brawley’s bill. There are more details to come, including the particular criteria that would be used to rank project priorities, and other committees will have their debates before McCrory’s plan reaches the House floor.

Later, Tine said he wanted to make sure that rural legislators have a hand in shaping the final product.

“There’s a concern, with a majority of legislators representing 15 counties, that the other 85 of us might not be considered along the way,” he said. “There’s a rural-urban divide in this state right now, and it’s getting bigger and bigger.”

Brawley acknowledged the tensions between rural and urban interests but said he believed the whole state would benefit from a new approach.

“I don’t know that we’ve been very well served by having pieces of good roads connect to pieces of very poor roads,” Brawley said. “Everybody would benefit if the whole road is a good road. Rural areas can’t attract factories if you can’t ship your product.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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