Legislators responsible for transportation spending agreed Tuesday that North Carolina faces a widening revenue shortfall of "crisis" proportions, and they began talking about big and little ways to close the transportation money gap.
"We're looking at between a $30 billion gap just to stay up and a $90 billion gap to do what we need to do," said Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican who co-chairs the Senate Transportation Appropriations Committee. "That is a crisis."
Rabon's committee was meeting with its counterpart in the House, whose co-chairman echoed his concerns.
"The state hasn't kept up with its transportation needs over the last decade," said Rep. John Torbett, a Stanley Republican. "We need to do something, and I concur with Sen. Rabon's comments."
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The House is considering Rabon's bill, which won quick approval in the Senate, to trim the gas tax for a few months and then increase the tax in coming years. The gas tax rate changes with the ups and downs of oil prices. Economists for the legislature and the Department of Transportation say Rabon's tax changes could generate as much as $1.2 billion more for DOT by 2020 - with the exact increase depending on exactly what happens with oil prices.
These increased gas tax collections are expected only to bring DOT back in line with revenue projections it made last year before oil prices plunged, taking future gas tax revenues with them. Although the Senate bill could push the gas tax as much as 7 cents higher than it would be under current law, the increase will not wipe out DOT's money worriers.
Burt Tasaico, DOT program analysis engineer, gave senators and representatives a rundown on studies that have recommended new funding sources that could raise hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation each year - including a higher tax on car sales, higher fees for overweight trucks, and eventually a fee based on miles traveled rather than gallons of gas consumed. Gas tax collections are beginning to fall even as more cars travel more miles.
"Over time we have used a user-based fee: you use a system, you pay for it," Tasaico said. "Society has changed over time, and the way we collect revenues may need to be shifted."
Mike Holder, DOT chief engineer, outlined recommendations to start collecting fees from developers, billboard advertisers and other businesses for services that DOT now provides for free or below cost, and to generate extra road-repair money from overweight trucks that pound the pavement. There were recommendations to generate extra income from businesses that would pay to have their names promoted, utility lines buried and telecommunications gear installed along the roadside.
"You can get about $12 million to $13 million (per year from these proposals) - which is in some respects not a whole lot of money when you look at a $1 billion maintenance budget or an overall $4 billion budget for DOT," Holder said.
"In the grand scheme of things," Torbett replied, "it might not be a whole lot of money. But in this day and time, $5 is a whole lot of money."