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If you live in these Wake County towns, prepare to pay more to drive your car

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VIDEO: Recent winter storms have created an overabundance of potholes on roads and highways in Raleigh and surrounding areas. See how to report ones that need repairs to local agencies.

If you drive in Cary, you've probably noticed potholes, rough pavement and roads that could benefit from other upgrades.

Chalk it up to the tremendous growth Cary has seen over the years, with increased traffic putting more and more of a strain on streets.

Now the town wants to spend more money on street maintenance, but it will cost many residents some extra cash.

And Cary isn't alone: Three western Wake County towns are considering increasing the vehicle license fee, or tax, to boost revenue for street maintenance and other transportation projects.

In Cary, the vehicle tax would double, from $15 to $30, with two-thirds of the additional money going to street maintenance and one-third for sidewalks.

Morrisville's tax would also double to $30, and the Apex fee would jump from $15 to $20.

The fee increases might not sound like much, but Cary Town Manager Sean Stegall says it would help the town to spend $7.1 million in the year ahead on street maintenance.

When it comes to streets, Cary has two things working against it — mileage and age. Since 1998, total mileage of town-maintained streets has grown from 302 to 480, an increase of 58.9 percent. And streets that were new in the early 2000s are now in their teens.

Cary grew rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, "and a significant amount of remarkable infrastructure was built during that time frame," said Jerry Jensen, director of Cary's Transportation and Facilities Department. "The infrastructure built at that time is now showing signs of age and deterioration, and attention to maintenance is due."

Cary's goal is to resurface 5 percent of its streets annually. But over the years, the dollars available for that work have varied widely, from a low of $470,000 in 2004 to the recommended $7.1 million in the year ahead, when some $923,000 in bond proceeds will sweeten the maintenance pot.

In recent years, Cary has tried to slow the pace of maintenance needs through preventative measures, the street-maintenance equivalent of flossing and brushing regularly. Those measures include patching holes, sealing cracks and rejuvenating pavement that's in good shape.

"These strategies help keep our pavements in good condition and prevent them from deteriorating at a faster rate," Jensen said.

Starting in 2015, Cary has spent an average of $6 million annually on street maintenance. Jensen said that average will have to grow.

"Funding for maintenance will need to increase annually to account for price escalation in construction costs and the addition of new town streets to our system," he said.

In the 2018 edition of Cary's Biennial Citizen Survey, respondents gave the town a C-plus grade on street maintenance. That's up, barely, from a C in 2016.

By comparison, they gave the town a B for sidewalk maintenance and a B for maintenance of traffic signals.

When asked to name the biggest issue facing Cary, 75 survey respondents said traffic. Only growth-related issues, with 147, got more mentions. In particular, survey respondents called on Cary to turn its attention to Cary Parkway, High House Road and Maynard Road. Also on the list but farther down were Morrisville Parkway, Harrison Avenue and N.C. 55.

In the preface to his 2018-19 budget request, Stegall acknowledged Cary's road needs and the relative dearth of dollars to meet those needs.

"This is a structural budget issue that will need to be rectified in the next couple of years as we continue to seek long-term capital financing methods for our maturing community," he wrote.

In the winter, potholes are a constant challenge for drivers. This video from the Utah Department of Transportation shows how potholes form because of winter weather.

Morrisville and Apex

In Morrisville, the fee increase would generate an estimated $292,000 this year.

Town Manager Martha Paige says the money would help the town evaluate its public transportation needs and explore options for supporting Wake County's transit plan.

Paige pointed to a problem that most growing towns likely face — state dollars for town street maintenance, so-called Powell Bill funds, don't come close to meeting the needs.

"Our Powell Bill revenues have averaged around $550,000 the last several years," she said. Meanwhile, "the town is spending approximately $1 million to $1.2 million in road improvements each year."

In Apex, town leaders have been aggressive in raising the vehicle tax — from $5 to $10 in 2016-17, from $10 to $15 in 2017-18 and possibly from $15 to $20 for the year ahead.

In years past, Apex shoveled some of the proceeds into its general fund; starting July 1, all of the money would flow to the transportation project fund, said Town Manager Drew Havens.

"By having all the funding go to transportation projects, we are providing a clear connection between the fee collected and the expenditures the revenue funds," he said.

But in Apex and other Wake County towns, "transportation projects" aren't always road projects; often, they're sidewalks. Apex, for example, might spend $1.2 million on sidewalks in the year ahead, and Cary would divert a third of the revenue from its vehicle tax increase to sidewalk projects.

Jensen, the Cary transportation director, said he had no qualms with spending vehicle taxes on sidewalks. "Sidewalks are an important mode of transportation in Cary, not just streets alone," he said.

Havens took much the same position. "Bike, pedestrian and vehicle accommodations are within the same right-of-way and sometimes part of the same project," he said. "All have an impact upon our transportation network, so we don't have an issue with defending the use of car tax dollars for any transportation-related project."

But in some Wake towns, not all vehicle taxes support transportation projects, whether streets or sidewalks.

While Apex no longer diverts $5 of its vehicle tax to the general fund, Knightdale, for example, funnels a third of its vehicle tax to the general fund, and one-third of Garner's $15 tax goes to general government operations.

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack
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