Thanks to low interest rates and an urgent need to improve some state roads and buildings, Gov. Pat McCrory says the time is right to put before voters a $2.85 billion bond proposal. And he wants it done in November.
The governor’s idea makes sense and deserves the support of lawmakers.
Once dubbed the “good roads state,” North Carolina now has a lot of roads that aren’t very good. And if disrepair is ignored, the roads and bridges will only become worse and in some cases more congested.
About $1.45 billion in bonds would finance infrastructure improvements at state universities and community colleges, ports and historic sites, but a $1.4 billion bond package would go for roads. In the Triangle, for example, part of the money would pay for a delayed Raleigh project to transform a clogged street and railroad crossing intersection at the State Fairgrounds. All residents and most visitors are familiar with it.
Blue Ridge Road would be lowered to run under Hillsborough Street and railroad tracks. Eric Lamb, Raleigh’s transportation planning manager, cited it as “one of the highest-volume railroad corridors in the state with the combination of freight and passenger rail traffic.”
One good thing about the proposal is that most counties would see benefits, which is the way it should be with bonds allowing the state to borrow money in the name of the people. University of North Carolina system campuses all over would benefit, as would the members of the state’s 59-branch community college system.
There are items such as a water heater for the state crime lab. There is a proposal to solicit private money to match bond money to help N.C. State University finish moving its engineering school to Centennial Campus.
The sale of bonds enables governments to move ahead with projects that might be delayed forever if they had to wait for appropriations out of general operating funds. And thanks to recent state tax cuts helping the wealthy and businesses, the state will simply not have the revenue for such projects.
Therefore, with interest rates low, the governor is quite right to move ahead.
Naturally, the big question has been asked and answered. Will borrowing this much money put the state’s important AAA credit rating at risk?
Lee Roberts, McCrory’s budget director, offers an emphatic “no.” The state’s rating is sound, he says, and the money will be worth it. “We’ll be borrowing 20-year money to finance assets that will last 50 years or more.”
Some Republican legislative leaders seem to greet proposals from their fellow Republican McCrory with skepticism, no matter what the subject. Of the bonds, Republican Sen. Bob Rucho said, “It really is about whether the dollars and cents are there.” That might signal some rough going for the governor.
But timing is everything. First, these are real needs that can’t be neglected without institutions in the university system falling behind in the sciences and technology.
And once behind in those cutting-edge, ever-changing areas, it’s difficult to catch up. Community college enrollment has boomed, and that system is in the forefront of job training, so the needs are immediate.
Delay is risky as well in that, if the state waits on some of these projects, interest rates may climb, and that would mean more money would be needed or some projects would have to be cut.
Given the security in the credit rating, a vote this fall would be the wise decision. A state is in some ways like a home. It has to be taken care of to retain its value and its livability. And that means investment.