If N.C. Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson needed to be reminded of why he was invited to Morrisville for a transportation forum, his journey to Town Hall during Thursday evening’s rush hour likely did the trick.
But as a former mayor of Durham and a current Durham resident, Tennyson is familiar with the broader region’s growth and resulting congestion. Morrisville, which was first established at the intersection of two state roads, looks to the state Department of Transportation, Tennyson’s agency, for much of the work that has been done and must be done to improve traffic in town.
Thursday’s forum was primarily for town officials and Tennyson to discuss those problems and explain to residents what it takes to fix them. Tennyson used the opportunity to praise Gov. Pat McCrory’s Strategic Transportation Investments law, which he said has made funding choices more transparent and consistent than they had been under the previous system, which was established in 1989. Others have criticized the law for improving the efficiency of fund distribution without making necessary adjustments to increase fund revenue.
Tennyson acknowledged that revenue problems persist on a statewide and national level, noting that the federal gas tax, a $1 billion-per-year source of transportation revenue for the state, has not been adjusted since 1993.
“If (the gas tax) had kept up with inflation, we would be getting almost $2 billion from that source, and that money goes into the highway trust fund,” Tennyson said. “If we had an additional billion dollars a year, we would be talking about a lot more projects that could be built.”
Adding to problems caused by the gas tax’s stagnation is the advent of more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles, which produce less gas tax revenue but have no less of an impact on roads.
Tennyson also touched on a fundamental tension between municipal governments and state and federal agencies. The NCDOT, he said, has mobility – that is, decreasing congestion – as its chief priority. Towns, though, are more apt to prioritize access – building roads along property that could be developed to increase the town’s tax base.
That difference in priorities is especially relevant for Morrisville, where congestion is worsened by out-of-town commuters using state roads designed for mobility when Morrisville also needs them for access.
Tennyson’s visit comes about two weeks before groundbreaking will take place for the first phase of the town’s McCrimmon Parkway extension. The road will bypass N.C. 54, which backs up during rush hour near Morrisville’s town center.
That project is funded by a 2012 municipal bond with some NCDOT funding applied to improve intersections, and Tennyson pointed to it as an example of the initiative local governments must take to finance and build roads when use is increasing at a rate state and federal revenues can’t keep up with.
After Tennyson’s remarks, town transportation staff walked the audience through the status of other ongoing and future transportation projects, including the proposed Wake County Transit Plan, which will be on the Nov. 8 ballot as a referendum; the widening of Morrisville Carpenter Road; and the addition of sidewalks near the town center.
Multiple residents expressed some frustration with recent rezonings that will allow hundreds of new homes along already congested roads in Morrisville and along its border with Cary.
Morrisville Mayor Mark Stohlman said the town is legally obligated to approve rezonings that meet legal standards, as much as he and other town officials might prefer to do otherwise. Stohlman said he also worries about the amount of time it takes to propose, approve and build a road, which is often too long to effectively react to problems as they arise.
“It’s not legal for us to say you can’t build because we don’t have the roads yet,” Stohlman said. “If something is zoned a certain way and people are allowed to build, there is nothing we can do to stop it. We might vote no, but we’ll be sued within three months and we’ll lose that lawsuit.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan