Gov. Pat McCrory’s new transportation plan is titled, “Mapping our future,” but it will also map his own.
If he can push it through, he could set his administration on a course to make a broad and lasting contribution to the state’s welfare and progress. If the ambitious plan gets bogged down over which projects should get top priority and how to pay for them, McCrory’s map will be a record of ineffectiveness and a failure to meet the state’s needs.
The plan calls for $1 billion in borrowing to “kick-start” projects that are ready to go. But that’s only a sliver of what the plan describes as the state’s needs in the next quarter century. To upgrade ports, replace ferries, build roads and improve mass transit between now and 2040, the plan estimates it will cost between $94 billion and $123 billion.
That cost demonstrates why this plan will be as much about political design as it will be about engineering. The first real project will be drilling a passage through a Republican-led General Assembly that has shown a granite-like resistance to taxing and spending.
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In that regard, McCrory and Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata have taken effective early steps. Tata has tried to answer legislative skepticism by stressing efficiency within his department and in its approach to projects. His next step is to define a vision for the state’s transportation needs now and in the future. The third step, the big one, will be selling and funding that vision.
This last step presents a two-sided problem. On one side, it’s a huge expense to meet. On the other, the traditional source of transportation funding – the state gas tax – is falling short as cars become more efficient. Raising the tax isn’t feasible. At 37.5 cents per gallon, it’s already much higher than our neighboring states. For competitive reasons, Tata says, the gas tax might have to be lowered even as the demand for transportation spending rises.
When the next legislative session opens, the governor will have to propose not only $1 billion in borrowing buts also a new type of tax dedicated to transportation needs plus other ways of raising revenue, perhaps through increasing fees and adding tolls. That will be a test of McCrory’s leadership and his political deal making.
Further complicating the revenue picture is the shrinking role of the federal government in transportation funding. Congressional gridlock and anti-spending fever in the House have tightened federal resources for road building and other transit needs. The 18.3-cent federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993 and no longer generates enough money to keep up with construction costs. The Highway Trust Fund is in the red.
Robert Puentes, director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said the days of federal largesse for state transportation projects are over. It’s now largely up to the states to come up with ways to maintain and expand their transportation infrastructures. “States are starting to wake up and understand they really are in the driver’s seat,” he says.
Some state and local governments are asking voters to approve borrowing for transportation improvements, and voters overwhelmingly are saying yes, Puentes says. But he adds that the key to getting approval is selling the projects with clear evidence of what they are and why they are economically justified. Voters will not approve heavy borrowing for vague or speculative projects, he says.
Some states are also joining with private companies that want to invest in transportation. Some have allowed private companies to widen highways in congested urban areas and recoup the cost plus profit by imposing tolls on the new and faster lanes. Meanwhile, freight companies are willing to pay more if improvements can make deliveries swifter and more reliable in an economy that relies more on Internet sales.
The governor has pledged to take the politics out of transportation projects. That’s a noble idea, but not a useful one. If he expects the General Assembly to join him in tackling a bill that starts at $94 billion, he better get ready for a lot of political work. A promising first step would be to cultivate bipartisan support in the General Assembly. There are enough Republicans who recognize the value of transportation projects in their districts and the general needs of the state to team with Democrats to form a majority.