Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina Chamber is pushing lawmakers to spend somewhere between $3.5 billion and $10 billion over the next 15 years to update the state's roads, bridges, rail lines and ports, a move that will require the state to find new revenue sources.
"2015 needs to be a year of action, where North Carolina leaders make decisive, long-term commitment," said N.C. Chamber President Lew Ebert during a news conference Wednesday morning, hours before lawmakers were getting ready to begin their work in earnest for the year.
Ebert and other speakers outlined problems stemming from congested roadways and rapid growth of the state's population, pointing out that it has become harder for manufacturers to get goods to distribution centers.
Jerry Cook, vice president for government and trade relations at Winston-Salem's Hanesbrands, said his company and others in the area have problems getting drivers to haul loads from their factories to warehouses because of the time lost on U.S. Highway 52. The state has studied how to raise money and improve its transportation network for more than a decade now.
"We don't need to study this anymore. We know what the answer is, and it's time to go after it," Cook said.
However, going after it will require money that the state currently isn't raising. Ebert pointed out that much of the state's transportation funding relies on gas taxes, which drop off when the price of gas drops, as been happening in the short term. Long term, more fuel-efficient cars and cars that don't use gas have meant less revenue for the state to build roads.
This type of big building and repair program would mean big changes to state tax policy and could be hard to push through the legislature. But the N.C. Chamber has a track record of pushing big policy shifts through the legislature. It was a coalition led by the chamber in 2013 that pushed through major changes to the state's unemployment insurance system over the objections of Democrats and liberal groups.Federal Communication Commission filings show that the chamber is already buying up air time on television stations to further its campaign. Along with the chamber, other politically potent groups, such as the North Carolina Farm Bureau, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the North Carolina Association of Realtors, have also signed on to what is being called the "Coalition for a Prosperous Future."
Gov. Pat McCrory has already talked about a road-building program that would tap what is thought to be a $1.2 billion bond, and lawmakers are already talking about what mechanisms they might use to borrow the money.
Chamber Vice President Gary Salamido said the chamber supports what he called a "short-term financing solution" state leaders are already talking about. But the state, he said, needs to look toward ensuring an adequate source of construction funds for years into the future.
A report issued by the chamber Wednesday points to 16 different fundraising sources the state could tap. They include taxes on vehicle miles traveled, a statewide sales tax, heavy vehicle fees and different types of titling taxes.
Officials with the chamber did not specify which of those long-term funding options it would favor, saying only that it was up to lawmakers to make those decisions.
It's unclear how the Republicans who control both the House and the Senate will react to a plan that would, in essence, require them to raise taxes.
Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, a key transportation leader in the House, said there may be no way to fund the needed projects without raising the amount of tax dollars coming in.
"We're about a decade behind in infrastructure building," Torbett said. "There's absolutely no way under the current structure to make up for that lost decade."
But Republicans have run on a message of budget austerity and low taxes, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bill Rabon said he didn't think GOP leaders would move off that stance. The General Assembly, he said, may look at different road-funding options, but he said it was unlikely for leaders to sign off on a plan that would raise taxes overall.
"As far as people paying more for what they're getting – no," said Rabon, R-Brunswick.
While lawmakers debate how to pay for transportation improvements, there's likely to be a fair amount of discussion over what to pay for.
Speakers at the chamber news conference said that, in addition to improving roads and bridges, the state should look at improving rail lines and adding multi-modal centers that allow tractor-trailers to move goods from roadways to rail to the ports.
Taking trucks off the roads, said Charles Edwards, of the North Carolina Center for Global Logistics, will mean less pressure to build roads and make existing roads safer.