NCDOT should share more power with locals, legislators say

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comSeptember 10, 2013 

— Legislators complained Tuesday that the state Department of Transportation is not giving local elected leaders their fair share of the vote on spending decisions under the state’s new Strategic Mobility Formula law.

Local priorities are supposed to count for 50 percent of the decision when transportation projects are approved at the local level, and 30 percent on regional projects. But DOT has said it will delegate half of this “local” vote to its 14 division engineers – regional administrators whose job description includes loyalty to the governor.

“Is the division engineer a local person or a state person?” asked Rep. William Brawley of Charlotte, co-chairman of the House Transportation Committee, at a daylong meeting of House and Senate transportation leaders. He worried that division engineers would choose projects favored by their boss, Transportation Secretary Tony Tata.

“Quite candidly, if General Tata calls you up and says, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ I would expect you to say, ‘Yes sir, that’s what we’ll do,’ ” Brawley said.

Tata sprang to his feet.

“I would never make that phone call and say, ‘Do project X,’ ” he said.

The Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee got its first briefing Tuesday on DOT plans to implement the Strategic Mobility Formula, a new law aimed at making smarter use of transportation dollars by blending local input with objective, “data-driven” analysis of highway, transit, rail, ferry, aviation and bicycle-pedestrian projects.

Committee members raised concerns about the share of money that would be set aside for non-highway projects – some saying it was too much and others it wasn’t enough. There were arguments about which road projects get extra credit for linking rural workers with urban job centers and whether transit investments deserve the same consideration.

But House and Senate members appeared to agree that DOT should give a bigger voice to local elected officials who serve on urban and rural transportation planning boards. The Strategic Mobility Formula says DOT’s analysis counts for 70 percent of the decision on regional projects and 50 percent on projects at the DOT division level – with “local” input taking up the rest.

“We sold (the new law) on 30 percent local and 50 percent local, and now you say they’re only going to get 15 percent and 25 percent,” said Rep. Frank Iler of Oak Island, the transportation committee’s other co-chairman.

DOT’s proposal for implementing the new law focuses increased responsibility on the 14 division engineers, who oversee transportation decisions in five or more counties apiece. Tata promised to address legislators’ concerns, but he said he sees division engineers as local representatives.

“I think they are protective by nature of those counties and the projects that need to be done,” Tata said. “They go to school, they go to church, they live in those communities.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown. On Twitter @Road_Worrier.

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