NC lawmakers to look at allocation of road money

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The Charlotte Observer reports a growing number of legislators want to rewrite the state’s road funding formula to give more weight to traffic volume and congestion.

Many Charlotteans stuck in traffic snarls, such as the daily bottleneck on south Charlotte’s still-unwidened stretch of Interstate 485, say they’re getting shortchanged.

They insist that the city sends millions of dollars to the state capital and doesn’t get enough in return for roads.

Mecklenburg, the state’s most populous county, receives more money for road maintenance and construction than any other county.

But when spending is measured on a per-capita basis, according to N.C. Department of Transportation and census data analyzed by the Observer, Mecklenburg ranks 89th out of the state’s 100 counties.

DOT spent an average $3,756 for each North Carolinian during the past 10 years, but $2,967 per person in Mecklenburg. That statewide average would have boosted Mecklenburg’s share of DOT money since 2000 by 27 percent, or $721 million.

On April 6, a legislative transportation committee will hold a public hearing on whether the state should update its 21-year-old formula for apportioning most road construction money.

Mecklenburg and the state’s other major urban areas have sought changes to the system for years. Now, a consensus for an overhaul seems to be building among urban lawmakers from both parties.

Over the past decade, Mecklenburg received 7.7 percent of the road funding. But it was home to 9.7 percent of the population last year.

N.C. Department of Transportation officials emphasize that transportation spending is not about matching dollars with head counts. It’s about building a network that can move people and goods across the state.

The state has spent $1 billion on I-485 since 1989, DOT officials said, and more than $100 million in state funds for the city’s light rail, emphasizing that transportation means more than paving roads.

The city also is counting on state dollars for roughly $75 million of the $300 million for a planned commuter rail line and, eventually, more than $250 million for light rail.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said the city has received a disproportionate share of transit money, and applauded the administration of Gov. Bev Perdue for using a new funding mechanism, essentially installment payments to the contractor, to finish the I-485 loop.

“Things are moving in a much better direction,” Foxx said, though he added that the state’s urban areas historically have not gotten their due in road money.

The gripes of unfairness echo in the state’s other large cities. Wake County, which includes Raleigh, ranked 90th in per capita spending over the past decade and got 7.5 percent of the road funding for 9.6 percent of the population.

“Road projects need to be built for roads that are used a lot,” said Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. “Building four-lane roads where there are no people doesn’t make sense.”

Mecklenburg and the state’s other major urban areas have argued for several years that the state’s system of paying for roads shortchanges them. The list of critics has expanded to include members of both political parties whose comments, at least on this issue, are hard to tell apart.

“The No. 1 complaint we hear from citizens is congestion,” said Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat and House Transportation Committee chair. “Why aren’t we addressing that?”

Carney and Rep. Rick Killian, a Charlotte Republican are among those who want to rewrite the state’s road funding formula, called the “equity formula,” to give more weight to traffic volume and congestion.

The formula was created in 1989, under then-Gov. Jim Martin, a Charlotte-area Republican, with goals that included ensuring that nearly everyone in the state lives within 10 miles of a four-lane road, an intrastate system.

The formula cuts the state into seven districts and divides money among those districts. Half of the money is based on each district’s population. A quarter of the funding is determined by the miles of unfinished road in each district needed to complete the four-lane intrastate system. And the last quarter is divided equally among the districts. Mecklenburg’s district includes a dozen surrounding counties.

The equity formula does not affect urban loop funding. That is a competition among the state’s largest cities. The equity formula has generated a competition between urban and rural areas.

Over the past decade, the county with the fewest people, Tyrrell, got the most road money per capita. Tyrrell, in Eastern North Carolina, had a population of 4,078 in 2009 and is best known as the last county that Outer Banks-bound travelers pass through before they get to Dare County’s beaches.

Gaston County ranked 98th. It had 208,958 residents in 2009, including a healthy share of Charlotte commuters. Just ahead of Gaston was Union County, ranking 97th, with a population of 198,645.

Tyrrell County proportionally received so much money over the past decade in large part because of the expansion of U.S. 64, said Van Argabright, a top project manager at DOT. That project, though, mostly benefits other counties, he said.

“The primary reason you do that is to get people from Raleigh to the Outer Banks,” Argabright said. Tyrrell’s funding “is going to look distorted because of that. A lot of what they’re getting is a statewide project…We try not to focus on the boundaries.”

“The problem isn’t with the money we get from the equity formula. The problem is the misallocation of the money we have. Fixing that would solve maybe all the congestion issues we have in these two cities.”

State Sen. Clark Jenkins, an Edgecombe County Democrat, doesn’t want to see the equity formula changed to take money away from rural areas. But he agrees that DOT needs to find new money to reduce traffic congestion in the cities.

“The bottom line is we need more money, and it should go into the congested areas,” said Jenkins, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The other major proposal is to raise more money, most likely through taxes.

“It’s that simple. We don’t have enough money,” said Allen Tate, chairman of the board and founder of Allen Tate Co., who heads the Charlotte Chamber’s regional roads committee.

Several study groups have pushed proposals to raise revenue over the past decade, but lawmakers avoid pushing anything that remotely resembles a tax increase.

“If they want us to do more, provide a different level of service, we need to have a conversation about what it takes to make that happen,” said Stephanie King, the transportation department’s accounting director.

Like other urban leaders, Tate wants to see congestion factored into road funding, but he echoed state officials’ emphasis on blurring the boundaries. The major traffic arteries in and out of Mecklenburg extend into neighboring counties, he said.

“Whatever we do can’t stop at the county line,” Tate said. “We have to take a regional approach to this.”

Click Here to view the entire Charlotte Observer article.

Anyone who wants to speak or provide comments in writing for the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee April 6 meeting is invited to contact Bob Weiss of the legislatures’s Fiscal research Division (bobw@ncleg.net or 919-733-4910) by March 31.

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