Well, this is going to be interesting. Republicans long squawked when Democrats were in power that the state Department of Transportation was a politicized agency whose Board of Transportation members used road decisions to benefit their business or political interests.
That was a fair complaint. When Beverly Perdue was elected governor in 2008, she distanced the board from road decisions by taking it out of direct involvement with picking and choosing roads. The reforms helped, but in North Carolina, politics still is in the transportation mix.
Bruce Siceloff, The News & Observer’s transportation writer who sometimes flies under the moniker of “Road Worrier,” reported Sunday on yet another curiosity in the state’s transportation system.
The state’s 36.75-cents-per-gallon motor fuels tax, one of the country’s highest, is supposed to benefit those who pay it through safe roads and bridges. But the money also goes to subsidize developers, billboard companies, utilities and other business people who pay little or nothing for DOT services. Now DOT is appropriately looking at new fees or increases over the embarrassingly low fees some of these interests pay. Those include fees for inspections, for examining new subdivisions to see what road or bridge improvements will be needed and for monitoring encroachments by builders and utilities such as the installation of pipes and cables along state roads.
The state also charges a relative pittance for trucks that exceed state limits on height, weight, length and width. If a truck is wider than 8 feet, 6 inches, for example, a $12 fee covers it for 10 days. That’s also the fee for exceeding length and weight standards. The DOT is looking at a modest fee increase, from $12 to $17, and another modest boost in the fee for hauling king-sized loads that would bring in just under $2 million in revenue. DOT says North Carolina’s charges still will be lower than those in other states.
Then there are billboards. The industry has political clout and was virtually unregulated for decades. DOT wants to double the $60 annual fee for a company to renew a billboard permit. Another fee, $200, is required to cut down trees and other vegetation that block the view of the billboard. That one-year fee would go to $600 under a DOT proposal.
DOT’s aim is simple and right. Average taxpayers filling up at the pump shouldn’t be investing in holding down expenses for billboard companies or ensuring that developers enjoy free and low-cost services to enable them to boost their profits in putting in a new subdivision.
But DOT’s board includes developers and business people, and while some may acknowledge that fees are too low, they’re wary of increases. DOT Board Chairman Ned Curran of Charlotte is in the real estate business and acknowledges fee-for-service is a legitimate idea, but he believes the fees should be low.
The fees shouldn’t be excessive, but they shouldn’t be too low, either. The billboard permit renewal fee of $60, for example, is ridiculous. DOT is proposing to double it. Instead, it should go up by a multiple of 10. The same should happen for oversized trucks.
And let’s have developers pay for all these inspections and expenses now paid by the taxpayers.
The state is leaving too much money on the table with regard to low fees or nonexistent ones. Republicans, including Gov. Pat McCrory, now have a chance to stand up for taxpayers and demand that private business interests pay their fair share.
GOP leaders don’t like to do that, and business interests certainly will complain and loudly. Businesses don’t want to pick up a tab taxpayers have covered. But DOT ought to establish and raise fees and give relief to motorists at the pump who are already doing their part to keep North Carolina on the move.