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Road Worrier: House members wade into NCDOT’s long-term money needs

Hoping to build on legislative consensus that produced a hefty increase last year in state spending for roads and bridges, a 20-member special House committee has settled in for a hard slog of day-long, twice-monthly meetings aimed at drumming up the will to spend even more on transportation.

The legislature last fall boosted transportation spending by $440 million a year, largely with a 30 percent hike in fees North Carolinians pay for car registrations, driver’s licenses and other motor vehicle documents.

The new state budget also extended a sort of truth-in-taxation effort that had begun a few years ago: It ended the transfer of millions in gas taxes and DMV fees to the general fund, so the money will no longer be spent on non-transportation needs.

But state Department of Transportation engineers are still playing catch-up in the race to build new bridges faster than DOT inspectors reclassify old ones each year as “structurally deficient.” DOT will spend $453 million to replace 491 bridges over the next two years, while about 300 more bridges are added to the needs-replacement list.

Even with the recent increase in funding, DOT leaders expect to trim the share of structurally deficient bridges, now 17.5 percent statewide, to only about 15 percent. Worn-out bridges are just one of DOT’s pressing concerns.

“These bridges are safe, but they have reached the end of their useful life,” Mike Holder, DOT’s chief engineer, said Monday. “Structurally deficient bridges are the department’s top concern.”

Holder was speaking to a subcommittee of the House Select Committee on Strategic Transportation Planning and Long-Term Funding Solutions, created in December by House Speaker Tim Moore. During a pause Monday in a dozen briefings delivered over five hours, committee members learned they will return for all-day sessions on the first and fourth Mondays of each month, continuing at least into April, when the 2016 General Assembly convenes.

Panel members submitted to the guidance of Rep. John Torbett, their chamber’s chief transportation wonk. It was Torbett who developed the House’s aggressive proposals for increased DOT spending last year, and he eventually got a few of the items he wanted when the House found compromise with the Senate.

DOT now is cranking up a Torbett-inspired program that won’t save money but is intended to make the department more responsive to the public: a promise to fill potholes and fix other problems within 48 hours after somebody complains about them.

Given the state’s relentless growth in population and traffic, coupled with the deterioration of transportation infrastructure from ferry boats to Eisenhower-era interstates, DOT reckons that the expected state and federal money streams will fall $32 billion short of what North Carolina needs by 2040. That’s just the estimate for keeping roads and bridges in their current condition. Upgrades to the transportation system are linked with a projected money gap of $60 billion to $94 billion.

This is an election year, so there was no talk Monday about higher taxes – or anything like last year’s big increase in DMV fees. Torbett plans to school his committee about the state’s transportation needs and the impact of not meeting them.

“We need to make it so commerce can more freely flow, so it can be more profitable,” Torbett said in an interview. “If (truck drivers) can drive only eight hours (a day) and they’re stuck three hours of it in traffic, what good does that do for commerce?”

Any big-money ideas are more likely to come in future years, he said.

Demonstrating his mastery of arcane transportation and funding issues, Torbett sometimes stepped in at Monday’s meeting to field questions that other legislators directed at DOT managers. He praised the priorities spelled out in Gov. Pat McCrory’s “25-Year Vision” for long-term transportation improvements – and then he deflected a suggestion by Rep. Nelson Dollar that the governor should come up with a way to pay for them.

That will be the legislature’s job, he said.

“That vision he has, it’s a strong vision,” Torbett told Dollar, a Wake County Republican and the only Triangle legislator on his committee. “I think that’s our responsibility, to provide infrastructure that’s adequate for the people of North Carolina.”

Berry Jenkins, a former DOT manager who lobbies for road contractors, said he was glad to see House members taking a comprehensive look at the state’s long-term need for transportation funds.

“The question is, do they have the political willpower to do something about it?” Jenkins said. “And we don’t know whether the Senate is plugged in to this or not. At some point, obviously, they would have to be.”