Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Strategic Mobility Formula sheds some of the old inequities

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJune 24, 2013 

— Triangle leaders fretted for years about inequities in the “equity formula” created in a 1989 state law to guide the division of road-building dollars between urban and rural areas, because it ignored the costly problem of urban traffic jams.

Now the equity formula is gone, replaced by Gov. Pat McCrory’s Strategic Mobility Formula. Cutting highway congestion is one of the state’s new priorities in sweeping legislation ratified last week and awaiting McCrory’s signature.

“It’s a pretty dramatic and wholesale change in the law,” said Ed Johnson, executive director of CAMPO, the Wake-area transportation planning agency.

But what difference will the new approach make? Local planners and elected officials say that will depend on how the Department of Transportation works out the detailed new criteria that will determine how the state spends its road, ferry, airport, rail and transit construction money.

And however the money is doled out, the fast-growing Triangle will feel the limits of state and federal transportation tax revenues that are declining at 2 percent a year.

The Triangle will have a shot at funds for major highway improvements that can have statewide impact on safety, congestion and economic competitiveness. DOT expects to have about $600 million a year to spend at this statewide level.

But no single project will be eligible for more than 10 percent of that money over five years, or about $300 million. That probably won’t be enough for, say, the next widening project at the busiest stretch of Interstate 40 between I-540 and the Durham Freeway – where any new lanes probably will have to be elevated above the existing lanes.

“The next step out there is going to be really expensive, and I don’t think $300 million will cover it,” Johnson said.

DOT criteria for ranking projects will come into play when about $450 million a year is divided among seven regions across the state. Roads will compete with transit lines and ferry, rail and airport upgrades.

Two planned big-ticket transit projects that will need regional money are a light-rail line in Orange and Durham counties and a rush-hour commuter train in Durham and Wake counties.

Transit opponents will want these trains to be evaluated narrowly on how much they cut highway traffic.

But transit supporters will push for a broader view.

“In virtually every community you visit that has a light-rail system, the station areas become magnets for economic development,” said Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County commissioner. “That certainly has happened in Charlotte along their rail line. So I would hope to see the scoring related to the potential of spurring our economic growth.”

Eric Lamb, Raleigh’s transportation planning manager, agreed.

“Transit projects historically are not really effective as true congestion abatement,” Lamb said. “They’re better at shaping growth and economic development in a region.”

DOT officials are scheduled to brief a legislative oversight committee in August on the criteria they’ll use to rank road, transit and other construction projects.

Light rail also is part of Wake County’s transit plan, but the proposed line from West Cary to North Raleigh does not qualify for regional funds under the new Strategic Mobility Formula law.

Because it does not cross county lines, this expensive project will be forced to compete for part of about $34 million a year in division-level money for local needs that Wake and Durham counties must share with five other counties in DOT’s Division Five.

With 1.45 million residents, it is the most populous of DOT’s 14 divisions. While regional money is allocated according to population numbers, the division-level money is split into 14 equal parcels.

And at this level, the Strategic Mobility Formula retains some of the inequities of that old equity formula.

The sparsely populated northeastern corner of North Carolina includes DOT’s Division One – 13 rural counties with a combined 262,000 residents.

Equal shares for each division will mean unequal shares on a per-capita basis. For all transportation construction needs that are not covered at the state and regional levels, the Triangle’s Division Five will have $23 per person to spend each year.

In Division One, the per-person share will be $130.

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