Road Worrier

Road Worrier: NC leaders hope road dollars can sweeten a sour economy

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJuly 15, 2013 

— We need jobs. We don’t have a lot of money to spend on new roads and transit projects. So let’s focus those few dollars where they will stimulate job growth and economic development.

That’s the argument behind a law, approved last month by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory, that will shape state spending priorities for transportation projects worth $6.4 billion over the next decade. And it’s an old idea, long popular with voters and political leaders.

But state and local planners and engineers are focused more on easing traffic jams and reducing travel times. They are not confident that new roads can sweeten a sour economy.

The hope that transportation investment will deliver economic improvement was alluded to in a 1921 law that established our state highway system. It has been a staple of campaign platforms since then. It was a campaign pledge for McCrory.

So when the governor’s appointees to the state Board of Transportation got their hands on the nuts and bolts of the new Strategic Mobility Formula law last week, they wanted to see McCrory’s priorities reflected in the criteria and weighting that will be used to evaluate new roads and capital projects for transit, aviation, rail and ferry service improvements.

They were disappointed.

An advisory group of state and local planners and transportation professionals had spent the last few months developing these recommended spending guidelines. The group agreed that when the state Department of Transportation decides which major statewide projects get built, “economic competitiveness” should count for only 10 percent of the score.

The work group gave more weight to two transportation fundamentals: cutting travel times (30 percent) and improving transportation in congested areas (also 30 percent). Improving safety got a 10 percent share, and a miscellaneous category called “multi-modal (& freight + military)” was worth 20 percent.

Without even a few minutes of discussion, board members declared their intent to boost the weight given to “economic competitiveness” before they approve the new guidelines and report to a legislative oversight committee next month.

“What I hear from (board members) is, gee, I thought economic competitiveness was so important, and it got only a 10 percent rating,” board chairman Ned Curran, a Charlotte real estate executive, said after the meeting.

“All of us see a very important connection between infrastructure investments and job creation. When we have an unemployment rate like we’ve had at a sustained level, what can we do to jump-start it?”

Transportation board members lost political power a few years ago when former Gov. Bev Perdue took away their authority to approve highway contracts – a decision now left to the DOT secretary. But they’ll have considerable impact when they firm up the weights and criteria that guide these spending decisions.

Most of the board’s conversations last week took place in small-group meetings that were closed to the public. A scheduled July 23 discussion of Strategic Mobility Formula rules will be open to the public, but Curran said he had not decided whether board members will hold more small-group talks in private.

Board members want to test the new formula by plugging it into a couple of projects, just to see how it would grade them.

How will DOT rate the economic competitiveness of controversial projects such as the troubled Garden Parkway toll road in Gaston County?

In an April briefing for legislators, DOT gave the Garden Parkway a perfect 100 score in economic competitiveness – even though an earlier DOT study predicted that the project would actually send North Carolina jobs across the border to South Carolina.

As it turns out, state and federal highway officials agree that such big projects do not stimulate much economic development beyond the commercial opportunities they create for property owners around the new exit ramps.

“The Garden Parkway would not likely draw more growth to the Charlotte region, although it could change land use patterns near the new road,” the Federal Highway Administration wrote in its response to a federal court lawsuit filed by environmental groups against the project. “Instead, growth depends on land availability and price, the regional economy, other infrastructure, location attractiveness and amenities, and local political and regulatory conditions.”

DOT attorneys have said the same thing in lawsuits over other projects.

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