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N.C.'s County Leaders Tackle Road Funding in Summit

Posted December 6, 2007 6:55 p.m. EST
Updated December 6, 2007 7:23 p.m. EST

— Counties will have to make up for an expected $65 billion shortfall in the state's transportation budget over the next 25 years.

But county commissioners meeting in Raleigh Thursday for a transportation summit expressed concern about where they would get the funding to build roads not covered in the state's budget.

"Between schools, sheriffs and human services, our budgets are strapped, as well," Wake County Commissioner Joe Bryan said.

"We do not want to be going to the public and asking to be using their tax dollars for transportation, which is a responsibility for the state of North Carolina," he added.

State law has limited counties from financing roads for nearly eight decades. It started with the Great Depression when they had no money and could not afford to build and maintain roads.

But a law passed earlier this year now allows counties to voluntarily participate in the finance and maintenance of roads.

"Circumstances have changed," Johanna Reese, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said. "This is something that DOT is looking at to use as a long-term tool in the toolbox."

The state has struggled to meet the demands for road funding because of limited funds, rising construction costs and unprecedented growth.

In a report issued last year, the DOT estimated a need for $122 billion over the next 25 years for road projects, but predicted there would be only $57 billion available under existing revenues.

That means a new challenge for many county leaders who insist they cannot afford to put road construction and maintenance into their budgets.

Rural county leaders said raising property taxes or other kind of taxes would not generate enough revenue to do so.

"I think it's going to hurt us drastically," Halifax County Commissioner J. Rieves "Judge" Manning Jr. said.

He said, for example, Halifax County might get $250,000 from a tax increase in a year, but the cost of a mile of roadway is about $1 million.

"It's going to be a nightmare, in my opinion," Manning said.

But many across the state said they might not have much of a choice.

Several county commissioners would like the General Assembly to pass new legislation that would allow local leaders to raise certain taxes and fees without having residents vote on the measures.

"I don't know where the money is going to come from unless we raise property taxes," Durham County Commissioner Becky Heron said, even though she thinks road construction is the state's responsibility.

"They should kind of look at their books and see where they can be a little more conservative," she said.