Gov. Pat McCrory said a 10-year transportation plan unveiled Wednesday would get politics out of the decision-making process, reformulate spending, and expand the number of projects and jobs they support.
Over the next 10 years, with no increase in funding, the “data-driven” Strategic Mobility Formula the governor showcased Wednesday would fund 260 projects supporting 240,000 jobs, Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said. The current 10-year plan has 175 projects supporting 174,000 jobs, according to state officials.
Stubborn transportation problems such as a loop around Greensboro, repairs to Interstate 95, metropolitan congestion, and port services would have a better chance of construction funding under this program, officials said. The initiative has resulted in some out-of-the-box thinking, such as a high-speed interstate from the Triangle to Hampton Roads, they said.
Under the plan, statewide, regional, and division tiers would split $16 billion over the next 10 years. Statewide and regional tiers each would receive 40 percent, or $6.4 billion apiece. Division projects would get the other 20 percent. The Transportation Department’s trust fund would address capital construction projects, and its highway fund would address operations and maintenance.
The program earned immediate support from Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, who also were in attendance.
“The House stands ready to move whatever legislation is necessary to get this plan realized as quickly as possible,” Tillis said.
A number of House and Senate members who are expected to file bills to launch the new program were at the event.
“On balance I thought it was a very significant step forward,” said David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation studies at UNC Charlotte. “Basically it says let’s change the way we allocate those funds.”
Hartgen said he also liked the new plan forcing various transportation modes to compete head to head for funding.
“That will significantly identify both pluses and minuses of various intrastate intermodal proposals such as rail service and longer distance commuter services like HOV lanes or commuter pools from distant counties,” he said.
“Right now we do not have a long-term, strategic transportation policy to connect our strong economic regions to give us the most bang for the limited dollars that we have available, and this is a gap that we’re trying to close,” McCrory said.
“We’re not just moving people, we’re connecting them to greater opportunities, jobs, health care, education, recreation centers,” Tata said.
“We’re continuing to invest in regions throughout the state, but we have to ask ourselves a question. Are we investing in the right way?” he said.
“The Strategic Mobility Formula that we introduced today addresses that fundamental question,” Tata said. “It improves our ability to have the highest impact, and focus on the greatest needs, to better align our infrastructure with commerce, which will increase opportunities for all North Carolinians.”
Tata said 1.3 million people are expected to move to North Carolina, the country’s fourth fastest-growing state, in the next 10 years, at the same time that revenue is expected to decline $1.7 billion.
“Our motor fuels tax is declining, even when factoring in population growth, because vehicles are more fuel efficient, so we’re losing about 2 percent a year in our revenue,” he said.
“In addition, our motor-vehicle fees remain flat and unchanged over several years and our highway-use tax revenue, while increasing from the lows during the recession, are still off their pre-recession highs, so all three revenue streams are flat or decreasing or down from previous highs,” Tata said.
“Another discussion that has to be had is the revenue discussion, and what types of funding are we authorized to do as a department,” Tata said. That will occur “down the road.”
In the meantime, “we have to find a more efficient and strategic way to fund, distribute, and prioritize transportation projects that will have the biggest impact statewide, regionally and locally,” Tata said.
“The Strategic Mobility Formula is data- and fact-driven to ensure we are investing in areas with the most pressing needs, to reduce travel time, reduce congestion, attract business, enhance safety, improve the quality of life for all North Carolinians,” he said.
At the state level, project selection will be 100 percent data driven. The data include benefit-cost analyses — does it reduce travel time and how much does it cost? Does it reduce existing congestion. Does it increase economic competitiveness, and will it increase the value of economic competitiveness within the criteria? Does that mode carry freight? Is it multimodal?
There are seven regions, each of which pairs two divisions. They would submit projects through a process that is 70 percent data-driven, with 30 percent local input for ranking.
At the regional tier, criteria are similar to the state level. Projects could overlap state projects.
Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker said the regional plan especially would help in the state’s economic opportunity zones, where “unemployment has been so stubborn. It’s going to take some transformational thinking, some transformational work” to tackle those endemic problems, and this plan moves in the right direction.
The division tier allows for the greatest local input. Decisions will be 50 percent data driven and 50 percent local ranking input from metropolitan planning organizations, rural planning organizations, towns, and counties. Data-driven criteria include benefit-cost analyses, the scope of connectivity, localized congestion, safety concerns, and road shoulder width.
“I particularly like the reference to shoulder widths,” Hartgen said. “That’s a real problem in rural areas. It’s the single most effective thing we can do to reduce rural highway accidents and fatalities.”
Another benefit to the new funding framework, is “it unhinges us from thinking in a constrained way, and [allows] thinking in an unconstrained way what projects are best for North Carolina,” Tata said.
For example, he and Decker have discussed “a high-speed connector, an interstate from the Triangle to Hampton Roads” as an economic engine. “Right now there’s no ability to really plan for that because of the way the money is distributed, and so nobody even thinks of it.” He cautioned such a highway is not on a construction plan.
Tata said the new plan likely would not allow for repairs to I-95 on a statewide basis, but it could be advanced as a regional plan for those stretches where congestion is highest, from Lumberton to Fayetteville. And adding tolls to I-95 would remain a possibility for consideration, he said.
“I don’t want to get into naming specific projects,” Tata said, but some multi-modal and rail projects “bubbled up to the Top 10 list” under the new plan because they “helped move freight, helped decrease congestion, helped connect ports and that kind of thing.
“And there are some highway projects that move up from a state perspective,” he said.
“I think you’ll see an effort to address some things in the Triad area, the loop around Greensboro,” congestion around the state, and port improvements, Berger said
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.