News Columns & Blogs

Road Worrier: Rivalry between NC Senate and McCrory includes competing road-building plans

Rush hour traffic heading north on U.S. 401 has to merge from multiple lanes down to one just after Ligon Mill Road. The 2.3-mile stretch of U.S. 401 near Wake Forest is scheduled to be widened from 2 to 4 lanes between Ligon Mill Road and Louisbury Road, at a cost of $8.6 million.
Rush hour traffic heading north on U.S. 401 has to merge from multiple lanes down to one just after Ligon Mill Road. The 2.3-mile stretch of U.S. 401 near Wake Forest is scheduled to be widened from 2 to 4 lanes between Ligon Mill Road and Louisbury Road, at a cost of $8.6 million.

Gov. Pat McCrory and state Senate leaders worked together two years ago to improve how North Carolina sets spending priorities for transportation projects, but this year they’re at odds over how to raise more road money and where to spend it.

McCrory is pushing a bond issue to borrow $1.37 billion for new roads and – as part of a second $1.48 billion bond for infrastructure improvements – another $300 million for ports, railroads and other nonhighway transportation needs. House leaders have set money aside in their budget to start repaying the borrowed money.

Senate leaders oppose McCrory’s road bonds. Their budget would bump up state spending for highway construction and port improvements every year, instead of taking on debt.

“Fiscally, (with) this bond, we’re borrowing money to do projects that the Senate doesn’t have to borrow a penny to do,” said Sen. Bill Rabon, a Brunswick County Republican who co-chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

The governor claims credit for inspiring legislators to find more road-building money.

“That discussion wasn’t even on the radar screen within the legislature just a short five months ago when I gave my State of the State speech,” McCrory said in an interview for Domecast, a News & Observer podcast. “Initially, I think, they were surprised to hear the major emphasis on the need for infrastructure and preparing our state for the next generation. … So just to get that dialogue going is a major success.”

The rival proposals come with competing lists of road projects that would be added to the state Department of Transportation’s work schedule over the next decade.

McCrory and Senate Republicans say they are guided by the Strategic Transportation Investments law that they and House leaders enacted in 2013. DOT uses the law to rank projects across the state according to consistent, objective and transparent criteria.

A redesigned interchange or widened road might score better than other projects, for example, if it does more to reduce traffic congestion, promote economic development or improve safety. The new law is supposed to remove political influence from decisions about how to spend money.

Different lists

The governor and the senators say they would spend the new money on projects that would have been included on DOT’s 10-year construction schedule already, if they’d had that money in the first place.

But they don’t apply the new law in the same way. McCrory doesn’t want to promise that his bonds will pay for a new road if DOT has not secured all the necessary environmental permits to start construction. So his list bypasses some higher-ranked projects that don’t have all their permits in favor of lower-scoring ones that are ready to go.

The Senate doesn’t consider permits and doesn’t skip anything on DOT’s ranking list. That doesn’t sound like a big distinction, but the different approaches produce two mostly different lists. Only five DOT projects, including the U.S. 401 widening in northern Wake County, make the cut on both the Senate and McCrory rosters.

Rabon says DOT’s objective guidelines have been circumvented in McCrory’s approach.

“It sort of goes against what we worked so hard for in the Strategic Transportation Investments,” Rabon said. “Because it doesn’t go straight down the list. In my view, it’s putting politics back in it. … We can’t just pick and choose projects here and there.”

Dirt roads

He also objects to one item on McCrory’s list: $50 million to pave dirt roads.

“Most of them are less than a mile long, and 76 are dead-end roads,” Rabon said. “I don’t see borrowing money to pay for dirt roads.”

McCrory and the Senate would make around $1.3 billion available for additional road needs in 10 years, but the governor’s bond money would become available more quickly and could be spent sooner than what the Senate would provide in a decade.

“My issue is, I don’t think that’s enough money for the new roads we need throughout the state,” McCrory said. “But we’re making progress.”

Competing plans for new highway spending

The list of additional highway construction projects that would be covered by the Senate budget shares only five projects in common with Gov. Pat McCrory’s road bond list.

One of these is in the Triangle: $35 million to widen U.S. 401 in Franklin and northern Wake counties. Both plans also promise $217 million for Interstate 40 upgrades in Iredell, Forsyth and Davie counties.

Both proposals would spend more in Forsyth County than anywhere else, mostly for the long-delayed Winston-Salem Beltway. But the competing plans advance different sections of the Beltway.

Here are other highlights from each plan:

McCrory transportation bonds

Borrows $1.37 billion for highway projects, including:

Wake: $26 million to tunnel Blue Ridge Road beneath Hillsborough Street and railroad tracks at State Fairgrounds.

Forsyth: $448 million for five I-74 Winston-Salem Beltway projects.

Cleveland: $134 million for three U.S. 74 Shelby Bypass projects.

McDowell: $89 million for two U.S. 221 widening projects.

Beaufort/Martin: $72 million to widen U.S. 17.

Cumberland/Robeson: $54 million for part of the I-295 Fayetteville loop.

Statewide: $50 million to pave dirt roads.

McCrory’s $1.48 billion infrastructure bond list also includes:

▪ $125 million for the Morehead City port.

▪ $75 million for the Wilmington port.

▪ $50 million for railroad improvements.

▪ $50 million for other nonhighway transportation.

Senate budget

Increases the annual construction budget to provide $1.3 billion over 10 years for added projects, including:

Wake: $73 million to widen N.C. 50, $7 million to widen Avent Ferry Road.

Wake/Harnett: $27 million to widen N.C. 55.

Johnston: $24 million to widen N.C. 242.

Orange: $11 million to widen Buckhorn Road.

Forsyth: $537 million for three I-74 Beltway projects.

Wayne: $230 million for U.S. 117 freeway upgrade.

Scotland/Hoke: $163 million to widen U.S. 401.

Gaston: $124 million to widen I-85.

Dare: $106 million for two improvements to U.S. 158.

Transylvania: $87 million for new section of N.C. 215.

New Hanover: $84 million to upgrade College Road.

Buncombe: $74 million to widen Wilma Dykeman Riverway.

Carteret: $72 million to widen Arendell Street and U.S. 70 bridge.