New transportation panel braces for battle

Posted December 15, 2015

— A new House committee studying the state's future transportation needs met for the first time Tuesday, with members openly acknowledging they face an uphill battle with their statehouse colleagues over funding.

Chairman Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, said the House Select Committee on Strategic Transportation Planning and Long Term Funding Solutions is not intended to be an oversight panel for the current strategic transportation plan nor for a controversial proposal for toll lanes on Interstate 77 near Charlotte. Instead, he said, its goal is to study what needs to come next and how to pay for it.

"We're looking at what’s coming over the hill in the next 25 years," Torbett told the committee.

That could include proposals to expand secondary arteries that served as major thoroughfares before the federal interstate highway system was created in 1956, such as N.C. Highway 49 from Charlotte to Asheboro. Torbett said the state already owns additional land around many such roads, purchased for future expansions that haven't yet happened.

"We're not saying, 'No more new roads,'" Torbett said. "We're saying, 'Also look at the assets we have.'"

The panel will also study port modernization, aviation expansion and planning for autonomous vehicles, as well as expansion of light rail in urban areas. Torbett said it will be important to take into account that millennials will be the main customers in 25 years, and where they choose to live and how they get to work may differ from the current system.

"Right now, light rail may be an oddity," he said. "In 25 years, it may be a mainstay. It may be how most people get around in metropolitan areas."

At the top of the list, Torbett said, are "megaprojects" like fixing the state's stretch of Interstate 95, a long-standing problem.

Staffer Amna Cameron said the federal highway bill signed into law last week includes a 5 percent funding increase for North Carolina.

"That’s great, but what that really represents is it covers inflation. I don’t expect any sizeable change, but we were anticipating a 5 percent cut. That is great news," Cameron said.

The new law, known as Fixing America's Transportation Act, or FAST, also designates two North Carolina corridors as future interstates: U.S. Highway 70 from Wake County to Morehead City, and the future Interstate 495 corridor to Norfolk, Va. However, she said, federal funding for those projects is "not necessarily secure."

The issue of funding at the state level occupied much of the panel's first meeting.

"It does come back to money," said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, warning that the panel will need to propose funding sources for any projects, whether that's through tolls, higher gas or travel taxes or another major bond.

"It’s really going to come down to political will, because there’s not enough money to do all these things anytime in the next hundred years," Dollar, the House's chief budget writer, told the committee. "Hopefully there’ll be a strong enough product that will come out of this process that will help some members muster the political will to do what needs to be done – if they actually want to do something serious about transportation long-term."

Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, seconded Dollar's concern. During her three terms as House Transportation Committee chair, she said a similar bipartisan committee had come up with a package of proposed projects that failed to get out of her own committee due to its price tag.

"We are not investing in infrastructure," Carney said. "We’ve had plans, we’ve implemented little snippets here and there, but there has not been the political will to make those things connect."

Carney noted that the House had initially included $400 million for roads in next year's bond referendum but agreed to strip it out in the final deal with the Senate.

"Money is at a good percentage of borrowing right now, and yet we as a body took the whole transportation bond out. That’s political will," she said. "Whatever we come up with, we’ve got to then sell it to our other colleagues and sell it to the public."

Torbett expressed optimism that improving efficiency at the state Department of Transportation could help make funding increases for roads more palatable to lawmakers who are generally opposed to higher spending. He added that it's a powerful tool for economic development.

"Infrastructure will bring 10 to 11 percent on investment," he said. “That’s information we need to get our colleagues and our folks to understand."

The panel has four subcommittees – primary arteries, secondary roads, ports and rail and public transportation and aviation. They're scheduled to meet again Jan. 4.


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