Road Worrier

Road Worrier: New transportation money formula could doom Triangle trains

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJune 11, 2013 

— State leaders are moving fast on a sweeping new transportation spending formula that will make it easier to find money for strategically important highway and freight railroad projects – and almost impossible to find money for passenger trains, sidewalks, bicycles and regional transit.

They’re scrapping North Carolina’s antique Highway Trust Fund. For decades, it created artificial obstacles that stymied efforts to solve some of the state’s worst transportation problems.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed Strategic Mobility Formula, now zipping through the legislature, deftly dismantles the old barriers.

At the same time, it creates new barriers that appear likely to kill prospects for money to build greenways or upgrade Amtrak service.

Also in jeopardy are Triangle plans – endorsed by Durham and Orange residents who have voted to increase their local sales taxes – for light-rail lines and rush-hour commuter trains that could eventually reach beyond the region as far as Greensboro and Goldsboro.

After the Highway Trust Fund law passed in 1989, the narrow Interstate 85 Yadkin River bridge was allowed to deteriorate for years – because its replacement would have robbed nearby Piedmont counties of money for their own roads and bridges. Likewise, the neglected I-95 grew into a $4.5 billion need that could not compete with local priorities in eastern counties.

The Perdue administration engineered an end-run around the Highway Trust Fund to fix the I-85 bridge. State leaders now are trying to find a toll-road compromise that would fix I-95 without burdening local drivers.

Under McCrory’s new plan, 40 percent of all transportation construction money would be spent for projects of statewide importance. That’s about $600 million a year for our aging interstates and other big needs. But this statewide money would be reserved only for big airports, mainline freight railroads and major highways.

Another 30 percent ($450 million) would be divided among seven regions. The eligibility for regional money is broadened a bit to include ferries and second-tier highways. McCrory and legislative leaders want to use some regional money to improve commuter routes into the cities, so small-town folks can drive to urban job centers.

Drive. Not take a bus or a train to work.

Members of a Department of Transportation advisory group have worried that pushing regional commuter highways will encourage urban sprawl. Hearing of their qualms at a Board of Transportation meeting last week, Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said he might have to “modify” the group’s makeup in order “to support the governor’s vision.”

Republican leaders have not supported making Amtrak or transit trains eligible to compete for statewide money.

When the House approved the Strategic Mobility Formula bill in May, it did include multicounty transit projects – such as a proposed Durham-to-Garner commuter train – at the regional funding level. But the anti-transit strain is stronger in the Senate, where two committees have agreed to cut transit out of the regional money.

Trains vs. road needs

Just as I-85 and I-95 needs took a back seat to local priorities in recent years, Senate leaders say that all types of passenger trains – Amtrak and transit – should compete against minor road and bridge needs at the local level.

The remaining 30 percent of transportation money would be split evenly among DOT’s 14 divisions. Wake and Durham counties would share about $34 million a year with the five other counties in DOT’s Division 5.

A planned light-rail line from UNC-Chapel Hill to Duke University would win state funding only if it was rated higher than local road and bridge needs in Division 5 – and also in Orange County’s Division 7, which is centered in Greensboro.

“The division money really isn’t substantial enough to help with those kinds of projects and also address the other needs that local municipalities have,” said Damien Graham, public affairs director for Triangle Transit.

The Senate approach sparked objection last week from two Republican business executives who represent Charlotte and Greensboro on the Board of Transportation – and from Democratic senators in Wake and Durham counties.

“I don’t understand why you would take public transit out of the regional consideration, or statewide for that matter,” Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, said at a Senate Finance Committee meeting. “We’re talking about trying to get commuter rail from Goldsboro to Raleigh, rail from Raleigh to Durham and Chapel Hill, and Charlotte’s trying to expand outside Mecklenburg. Why would we not have at least the possibility of getting regional funding for public transportation?”

Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Gastonia Republican, is one of the Senate transportation leaders who agreed to cut transit out of the running for regional money.

“I’m of the opinion that people at the local level, in the (DOT) division, would have the better understanding of what the transit needs would be,” Harrington told Stein.

A better overall approach

Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, worried that it would be hard to win local funds for passenger train improvements between Raleigh and Charlotte, “because you cross through four or five divisions, I reckon.”

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, wasn’t allowed to pursue his transit questions when committee debate was cut short.

The 1989 debate that led to the Highway Trust Fund was long and tortuous, ending in a compromise adopted by a Republican governor and a legislature controlled by Democrats. There is broad agreement in Raleigh that McCrory’s Strategic Mobility Formula offers a better overall approach to making good use of limited transportation money.

But the legislation appears set to define new groups of winners and losers for the next 24 years – trains for freight yes, trains for people no, for example.

And the legislature is being asked to approve it quickly, before DOT works out the detailed criteria that will be used to rank one project over another.

A Senate floor vote is expected in the next week or so.

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