New highway funding formula gets tentative House nod

The House on Wednesday approved Gov. Pat McCrory's plan to divvy up money for highway construction by emphasizing projects that will boost North Carolina's economy.

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Matthew Burns
RALEIGH, N.C. — The House on Wednesday approved Gov. Pat McCrory's plan to divvy up money for highway construction by emphasizing projects that will boost North Carolina's economy.

House Bill 817 scraps the current road-funding system that evenly divides construction money across 14 districts and shifts money away from secondary road maintenance to plow more funding into new construction.

Under the proposed "strategic mobility formula," leaders in the state's 14 transportation divisions would have control over only 30 percent of the state's road-building dollars. The remainder of the funds would be split between projects deemed to be of high statewide importance, which would get 40 percent of state funding, and those of importance to regional areas, which would get the remaining 30 percent.

Selection of those larger projects will be primarily data-driven and not based on politics, and the new formula would help state leaders better account for the impact of roads in attracting businesses to or keeping big industrial players in North Carolina

"Our population is increasing. The amount of money that we are able to raise for transportation is decreasing," said sponsor Rep. William Brawley, R-Mecklenburg. "We need to be very strategic and very efficient in how we spend the remaining money on projects."

Rather than splitting along the usual partisan lines, the 86-23 vote for the bill on its second reading divided some rural lawmakers from their urban colleagues.

"This is a rural-urban bill, and we are making some decisions for the future of North Carolina with regards as to how we're going to treat these two different areas," said Rep. Paul Tine, D-Dare. "I hope we keep a very watchful eye on that formula to make sure that we're balancing two policy decisions."

Lawmakers noted that the precise funding formula hasn't been hammered out, which left them with more questions than answers at this point as to how their local districts would be affected.

"This bill, to me, is a variation on the theme of we have to pass this in order to find out what's in it," said Rep. Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston. "I'd like to see something much more definitive on this one way or another, but this is as good as we're going to get at this point."

For years, lawmakers used the equity formula to ensure road projects – and the industry they brought – were evenly salted throughout a variety of legislative districts. Many saw this as a boon to rural areas at the expense of major urban centers.

Brawley said the changes would allow the state Department of Transportation to accommodate 175 to 260 more road projects, creating 174,000 to 240,000 more jobs, without using any additional funding.

Urban lawmakers said the new funding scheme is needed to ease traffic congestion and attract more industry to North Carolina.

"If you don't want growth, if you don't want the additional positive impact it has to your cities and counties, then keep the plan we're on," said Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston. "It is absolutely failing, and it will continue to fail."

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said the formula would let rural areas focus on major projects instead of trying to tackle them in bits and pieces over a long period.

"It's going to help our economy all across the state," Dollar said. "It is truly a strategic transportation bill, and I truly believe that this will once again make North Carolina 'the Good Roads State.'"

A final House vote is expected Thursday before the legislation shifts to the Senate.

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