The News & Observer, Sept. 2, 2004

DOT changing strategy

By BRUCE SICELOFF, Staff Writer

North Carolina's transportation officials plan to spend less on new highways over the next 25 years while putting more money into maintenance, upgrades, technology and mass transit.

Drivers would still see new highways, urban loops and traffic lanes under a long-range plan that the state Board of Transportation is expected to approve today. But in a significant shift in priorities, the share of state transportation spending for such projects would drop to 26 percent from a recent 45 percent.

Road planners say the state can make its transportation dollars go further by controlling its appetite for expensive new construction.

They recommend setting aside more money to maintain and upgrade highways, with improvements aimed at making back roads safer for motorists.

They also want to synchronize traffic signals to let drivers move along urban streets more smoothly, easing congestion and air pollution.

Rail and other transit services would expand for suburban commuters, and for elderly and disabled rural residents who take shuttles to keep their appointments at city medical centers.

Spending decisions by the legislature and the Easley administration have reflected this broader array of transportation priorities in the past few years. The 35-page plan going before the Board of Transportation contains guidelines and spending targets to turn these recent trends into long-term policy.

"If you drive in any of our urban areas during rush hour, including the smaller cities like Wilmington and Fayetteville, you can see why we develop both road rage and air-quality problems," said Nancy W. Dunn of Winston-Salem, a transportation board member who headed a three-year effort that produced the new plan.

"Any time you have a lot of congestion, it's inevitably going to be a problem in terms of air quality and convenience, and people being able to get to their jobs on time. Transit has a role to play in all of those things."

Shortfall expected
The plan promotes a new approach to easing congestion with the development of "strategic highway corridors." It doesn't endorse specific projects, but it mentions a proposal to upgrade U.S. 64 and N.C. 49 between Raleigh and Charlotte to relieve Interstate 40 and I-85.

Planners with the state Department of Transportation say the state faces a shortfall of nearly $30 billion in transportation funding over the next 25 years. They estimate that it would take $84.7 billion to meet the state's transportation needs, including $66.6 billion for highway construction and upkeep. The state expects to have only $55.5 billion, primarily from state fuel and highway use taxes, vehicle fees and federal aid.

The long-range plan urges state leaders to find more money for roads and other transportation expenses, but it does not recommend specific tax increases or other funding sources.

Several business and political leaders agreed the state has hard choices to make on transportation spending. But they were not enthusiastic about raising taxes or reducing highway construction.

"There are a lot of roads in the rural parts of the state that do need to be widened," said state Sen. Clark Jenkins, a Tarboro Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee.

He expressed concern about the rising costs of the Triangle's commuter rail project, and he noted that legislators are probing for ways to reduce environmental and other expenses related to highway construction projects.

State Rep. Daniel F. McComas, a Wilmington Republican who also helps lead the transportation oversight panel, has been working to help shepherd Wilmington's planned urban loop to completion.

The new transportation plan would not change current state commitments, Dunn said. But McComas, a trucking executive, was concerned about scaling back such projects in the future.

Voters approved a series of urban loops in a 1980s bond referendum, McComas said. "And we need to deliver that."

McComas said North Carolina also should invest more in mass transit, and he worried how the state could pay for it all.

"It causes me heartburn," McComas said. "It's going to be a big cultural change for people to start using transit. But you can only pave so much. You need to start looking today at the needs for tomorrow, and those transit needs might be 20 years down the road. But we also have some needs from yesterday that we haven't taken care of."

Call for new highways
One of the state's leading business lobbyists said North Carolina has made progress in reallocating its transportation dollars to improve road and bridge upkeep.

"A weakness in our planning in the past had been the typical politician's desire to build new roads but not to put enough money aside to maintain them," said Phillip J. Kirk Jr., president of N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. Now, he said, the state should halt the practice of raiding the Highway Trust Fund to balance the budget, spending transportation tax revenues on non-transportation needs.

Kirk said that he had not seen the proposed transportation plan but that he would oppose its call to increase non-highway spending at the expense of highway expansion.

"With North Carolina growing so rapidly, we would not be supportive of that," Kirk said. "Bike paths are great, too, but they're no substitute for highways."

Staff writer Bruce Siceloff can be reached at 829-4527 or bsicelof@newsobserver.com.