NC rural interests easily win bigger share of transportation money

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 7, 2013 

— Without comment from urban legislators, a House committee yielded to rural complaints Tuesday with a unanimous vote to shift the distribution of state transportation money in Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed Strategic Mobility Formula.

McCrory and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata want to reserve 40 percent of an expected $16 billion over the next decade for statewide and major regional transportation needs – a new priority that is expected to help tackle freeway congestion and other big-city problems.

They propose to divide another 40 percent by population among seven regions across the state, with the remaining 20 percent shared among the Department of Transportation’s 14 divisions, where local political leaders would have a big say in the spending decisions.

The House Appropriations Committee amended the plan to provide 30 percent shares by population for the regional and equally among divisions. That would make the state-regional-division money split 40-30-30, instead of the original 40-40-20.

The rural boost won the blessing of Rep. William Brawley, an urban Republican from Mecklenburg County, the Strategic Mobility Formula legislation sponsor.

“Putting more money in control of the local folks does not impact the ability of worthy regional projects that have support from being funded,” Brawley said. “But it does allow the local units to have more protection from concerns about the money being all sucked up in a few big projects.”

The agreement did not stop other rural legislators from pushing more changes – all opposed by Brawley and defeated in committee votes – to reserve even more transportation money for small-town needs.

“I fear what this program will do to our rural areas,” said Rep. Winkie Wilkins, a Democrat from Person County. “It’s something in my district we live with already. We’re in a highway division with Wake County and Durham County, so we’re accustomed to sitting on the floor waiting for the crumbs to fall off the table.”

The Strategic Mobility Formula, proposed by McCrory last month, would be the biggest overhaul in state transportation spending policy in 24 years. It would cancel the 1989 Highway Trust Fund Act, reduce spending on DOT operations and maintenance, and steer a bigger portion of transportation dollars to capital projects. The legislation now moves to the House floor.

The Appropriations Committee reversed a major change in the money formula that had been approved last week in a contested vote by the House Finance Committee. It restored McCrory’s and Brawley’s original proposal to eliminate a guarantee in state law that the N.C. Turnpike Authority will build three projects that have fallen from favor among Republican state leaders: the Mid-Currituck Bridge and Cape Fear Skyway on the coast, and the Garden Parkway in Gaston County.

Brawley said it would be wrong to reserve state funds for the turnpike projects. But he said the Garden Parkway and Mid-Currituck Bridge eventually will be built after they are evaluated along with other projects that compete for state funding.

Asked how he could know the projects would be built if they are to be rated in a “data-driven” analysis of costs and benefits, Brawley said, “I don’t.

“But they all tell me how great their projects are. And if they’re correct, then their projects will score high.”

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

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