RALEIGH — The Senate gave bipartisan approval Thursday to the first rewrite in 24 years of a legislative blueprint for spreading state and federal transportation construction dollars across North Carolina.
The Strategic Mobility Formula scraps the 1989 Highway Trust Fund Act and sets new guidelines for making the best use of money for statewide, regional and local projects. It was proposed in April by Gov. Pat McCrory and reflects his push to link infrastructure improvements with economic development.
It won preliminary Senate approval in a 42-5 vote after Republican sponsors adopted changes, sought by Triangle Democrats, to upgrade state priorities for regional transit service, passenger trains and bicycle and pedestrian projects. After a final floor vote Monday, the bill will return to the House – where it passed on a 102-15 vote last month – for concurrence on minor Senate changes.
“This bill is a new plan for transportation,” said Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Gastonia Republican who co-chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. “We’ve worked hard to see all regions of the state have more opportunities than ever to fund all modes of transportation.”
Sens. Floyd McKissick of Durham and Josh Stein and Dan Blue of Raleigh had complained last week that the bill would make it nearly impossible to win state funds for the Triangle’s planned light rail lines and rush-hour commuter trains. They thanked Harrington and Republican Sen. Bill Rabon of Southport Thursday for writing compromise language into the bill when it moved through the Senate Appropriations Committee this week.
“They didn’t – and maybe this will make you all happy – ” Stein said Thursday, addressing the Senate’s Republican majority, “they didn’t do everything we wanted. But they did do something. And we appreciate their willingness to work with us.”
An urban advocate praised the Senate vote.
“This is a major piece of transportation reform in North Carolina that everybody can be proud of,” said Julie White, executive director of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition.
Under the new formula, 40 percent of all transportation construction money would be spent for projects of statewide importance, with an emphasis on creating jobs and cutting traffic congestion. That’s about $600 million a year for big airports, mainline freight railroads and major highways.
Another 30 percent ($450 million) would be divided among seven regions, according to population. The eligibility for regional money is broadened 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.
The bill includes Harrington and Rabon’s agreement to make regional money available also for regional bus and light-rail transit projects, and for commuter rail, Amtrak and other passenger trains that use standard freight tracks. The two had proposed earlier to make transit and passenger trains compete with local roads for the remaining 30 percent of state and federal funds, which will be split evenly among the 14 Department of Transportation divisions across the state.
The Strategic Mobility Formula directs DOT to use objective criteria to rank projects for funding. Local political input will count for 50 percent of the grade at the division level and 30 percent at the regional level, but state-wide project choices are supposed to be 100 percent “data-driven,” Republican leaders say.
The legislation gives DOT until August to work out criteria for evaluating projects, and for comparing roads with other modes. One Senate critic said it was wrong to approve the legislation without these details.
Sen. Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat, warned that the new DOT criteria will be shaped by special-interest groups. Small towns will end up with less money than they get now from the Highway Trust Fund, he said.
“The more rural you are, I think, the more at risk you are with this bill, ...” Nesbitt said. “We’re sitting here taking a pig in a poke, and saying we’re going to scrap what we’ve got. And we’ll find out later what we’re going to have.”
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Chapel Hill Democrat, criticized the bill for not giving higher priority to passenger trains and bicycle and pedestrian improvements. It was amended this week to protect money for greenways and other bicycle-pedestrian projects scheduled through 2015, but no state funds will be allowed after that.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, said he hoped the new law would improve prospects for widening a neglected section of Interstate 26 west of Asheville.
“We’ve had the old system, and it hasn’t helped,” Apodaca said. “You know I would love to be able to have a greenway between Asheville and Hendersonville, and ride a bicycle, and take a train. But right now I’d rather be able to drive between Asheville and Hendersonville. Hopefully this might give us a little light at the end of the tunnel.”
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