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Toll Road Bill Moves Further Down Legislative Pike

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A key House committee signed off on a statewide toll road bill Thursday after proponents said the pay-to-drive legislation would relieve urban traffic congestion.

A majority on the House Finance Committee recommended the bill to the full House, even though members fretted about creating a new turnpike authority that could issue bonds and condemn property for projects. The bill could be heard on the House floor next week.

"Our population has expanded in North Carolina, but we have not been able to put in the infrastructure to meet that growth in our state," said Rep. Jim Crawford, D-Granville, the bill's sponsor. "This gives us the way to build future roads or alternative routes. This is strictly for new roads."

The proposed North Carolina Turnpike Authority would build and operate turnpike projects with the help of the Department of Transportation, private consultants and construction companies.

Bonds would be issued to pay for a road. Toll revenues would pay back the bonds. Toll booths would be removed when all of the revenue bonds are repaid and money is set aside to maintain the road.

Members questioned whether the authority would simply create another level of bureaucracy. Six of the seven authority members would be chosen by the governor; the seventh would be the transportation secretary.

"What will be they be doing that the current DOT cannot do?" asked Rep. John Rayfield, R-Gaston.

The authority will do business differently than DOT, said deputy transportation secretary David King, describing its potential style as "nimble" and "entrepreneurial."

King envisions the authority contracting with outside firms and persuading investors to buy into the revenue bonds, whose proceeds will cut construction time dramatically.

Transportation officials say the authority needs the power to condemn property for highways, as DOT does, to accelerate road construction.

The authority also would be required to present annual work plans that would have to be approved by the Board of Transportation. Legislators also would receive quarterly reports. The authority probably will focus on just 10 projects in the next decade, he said.

"This will be a very lean (authority)," King said.

DOT needs at least $550 million extra annually to pay for unfunded projects on the Transportation Improvement Plan, improve maintenance of current roads and increase money for public transportation, according to a legislative report.

About 30 states have some kind of toll road authority. Last year the General Assembly approved construction of a single private toll project. A Virginia company has agreed to build a road and bridge north of Hickory.

Others said the state should focus more on funding mass transit projects before building new roads for more cars.

"It's a philosophical difference," said Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake. "I don't see this bill as something that could help our air quality."

The bill went through several versions and a subcommittee before the House Transportation Committee approved it in June. The bill has yet to go to the Senate.

Rep. Andy Dedmon, a subcommittee member who is also on the finance committee, said he had some problems with the authority concept at first but later changed his mind as the authority's power in the bill was narrowed.

Dedmon, D-Cleveland, said he was worried that "basically we were going to have a two-headed dragon overseeing the building of roads.

"Any of the rest of us who travel the interstates ... you see that we have a traffic load that's to the brink of what can hold," he said. "It's the best alternative that we have."

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