NC Republicans consider eliminating the state’s Turnpike Authority

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 2, 2013 

TRIEX04.NE.080112.CCS

The first cars drive down the new section of road at the opening of the second part of the new toll road, the Triangle Expressway, on August 1, 2012. The overpass is the toll gantry, which records the vehicles as they pass underneath to assess the toll. Tolls will begin to be charged to motorists starting Thursday, August 2, 2012.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

— As Republican state leaders try to make transportation planning more efficient and less political, they will have to figure out what to do with the N.C. Turnpike Authority.

Created in 2002 with orders to plan and pay for a list of bridges and expressways across the state, the Turnpike Authority represents the state’s biggest transportation innovation in decades.

It incorporated cutting-edge technology into the successful opening of the 18-mile, all-electronic Triangle Expressway. It has developed a trail-blazing plan to build an Outer Banks bridge in partnership with private investors.

But the turnpike authority also has its roots in the old Democratic political leadership that no longer controls state government. And it is encumbered with the same fiscal and environmental challenges that have thwarted big infrastructure projects for decades.

The House and Senate have endorsed different proposals to dissolve the Turnpike Authority. And, with the support of Gov. Pat McCrory and his transportation secretary, Tony Tata, legislative leaders are trying to cancel the statutory mandate for three toll projects the Turnpike Authority has been working to deliver over the past six years: the Mid-Currituck Bridge and Cape Fear Skyway on the coast, and the Garden Parkway in Gaston County.

Rather than let politicians decree that these three projects must be built, they say, let them compete on their own merits. McCrory’s proposed Strategic Mobility Formula would have the Department of Transportation set spending priorities according to a “data-driven” analysis of each project’s costs and benefits.

The House Finance Committee discussed a 31-page bill Thursday that would write the Strategic Mobility Formula into law. Turnpike critics defended language that would remove guarantees for the three toll projects, and submit them instead to competitive evaluation with the new formula.

“These projects are not eliminated – they are now part of the formula,” said Rep. Robert Brawley, an Iredell County Republican. “I think we’re all much better served if we support the formula and leave it up to the DOT, let them make the decisions.”

But Rep. Paul Tine, a Dare County Democrat, successfully championed an amendment to keep the three toll projects protected by state law. Tine is concerned mainly about the Mid-Currituck Bridge to the Outer Banks, and he found allies among supporters of the other two projects.

“They told me these projects will compete well (under the Strategic Mobility Formula), but we don’t yet have the formula so we can know how they will compete,” Tine said later. “The formula is supposed to undo the politics, but we’re going to use politics to develop the formula.”

There is no legislative opposition to plans for building the rest of Raleigh’s 540 Outer Loop as a toll road, after the successful launch of the Triangle Expressway portion. The Monroe Connector-Bypass in Union County also remains written into law, but it has been stalled by environmental and legal challenges that also have been mounted against two other toll projects.

Tata chaired his second meeting of the Turnpike Authority board Thursday and welcomed a new member, Scott Aman of Roanoke Rapids.

The board scheduled its next meeting for July 11, but nobody in the room knew whether the Turnpike Authority will still be in existence then.

The state Board of Transportation would take over toll-road duties and the Turnpike Authority would be eliminated under separate legislation also moving through the General Assembly. Different forms of the proposal have cleared both chambers, but House and Senate members are at odds over unrelated parts of the same legislation.

Tata said he could not predict what the legislature will decide about the three toll projects and the turnpike agency itself.

“We’re just waiting to see what happens so we can move forward,” Tata said.

Perry Safran of Raleigh, a turnpike board member for the past 10 years, said he could not predict whether the board would be eliminated before it has the chance to meet again.

“Either we’re here or we’re not, and either way is OK with me,” Safran said. “That Senate bill does remove all existing members, which includes Mr. Aman, who just got sworn in. If it says all gone, we’re all gone.”

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

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