Gov. Pat McCrory’s 25-year transportation plan gives an in-depth view of the challenges and opportunities North Carolina’s network faces, from the mountains to the coast. It will require more than a strong sell to convey the broad transportation funding reform required in our state. Residents and our elected leaders need to better understand why we face this dilemma, and the fact we are all part of solving this problem.
Unfortunately, few residents recognize the effect of the transportation system on economic development, safety, job creation and our basic quality of life. Nor do they understand how our state actually compares with others in how we all pay for this system or how much. We are hung up on the fact that our gas tax is higher than neighboring states. There’s little recognition about how costly, long and difficult it is to build transportation infrastructure. We can’t decide congestion is too bad one year and have a new road, lanes or bridge the next. And we can’t wait to find the dollars needed to address transportation needs.
The governor’s plan identifies between $94 billion and $123 billion in needs by 2040. The gas tax – our current largest source of transportation funding – isn’t sustainable. Over the next 10 years, our state will generate about $2 billion less in transportation revenue because of declining gas tax dollars. That’s due to increased vehicle fuel efficiency. Every year we pay slightly less to drive the same mile of road. This means we also contribute less, per mile, to maintain the roads and bridges we use.
People contend they shouldn’t be penalized for better fuel efficiency, but that has nothing to do with it. Drivers with higher fuel efficiency cars already save by paying less overall for fuel. They still consume the same mile of road, whether in an SUV, hybrid or electric car.
As for how we pay, and how much we pay compared with other states, this is a key misperception. It’s important to acknowledge that unlike most states where counties or cities maintain (and pay for) roads, we rely mostly on state dollars to maintain and expand our transportation system. In fact, we have the second-largest state-maintained system – more than 80,000 miles. Only Texas is larger.
This is important because the primary way North Carolinians pay for their use of the transportation system is through the gas tax. In other states, where counties and cities collect revenue as well, there are local fees, sales taxes, property taxes, tolls and other fees and taxes on top of their gas tax. According to the Federal Highway Administration, when the total costs are compared, we pay $510 per capita versus the national average of $657. We just don’t have a laundry list of local taxes and fees in lieu of our “high” gas tax.
So, given the declining sustainability, growing population, aging roads and bridges and well-documented transportation needs, how do we solve the problem? Everyone benefits from the transportation network. We all get goods, services, food and more that must come by truck, rail or plane. Even folks who don’t drive use the transportation network. And a good system helps attract new industries, distribution and logistics hubs and jobs. Because of this, some revenue component must apply to everyone.
The bottom line: Everyone must share in the burden of improving our transportation system. We can’t say “no tolls,” or “no more gas tax,” or “no sales tax” and still raise the funds needed. Failure to act is a disservice to the next generation. Failing to act means safe roads aren’t a priority in our state. Failing to act means that we think status quo – more congestion, less connectivity to rural areas and missing out on economic opportunities – is a good plan.
McCrory’s visionary plan should be embraced, and now’s the time for visionary thinking about how to fund this transportation system.