News: Quick Takes

Committee would look to get more money for transportation needs

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, on Feb. 28 addresses the House Transportation Committee. (CJ photo by Barry Smith)
Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, on Feb. 28 addresses the House Transportation Committee. (CJ photo by Barry Smith)

 

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s infrastructure needs help, and the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday took a step toward setting up a “blue ribbon committee” to study highway and transportation needs, including ways to grow the budget.

The committee would study options for increasing transportation funding, including transportation bonds, revenue changes, local government participation, and tolling. The speaker of the House and president pro tem of the Senate would appoint the 20-member committee. Twelve of the members would be legislators, four would represent the public, and the remaining four representing various business sectors.

“We are currently $54 billion short of meeting those needs over the next 10 years,” Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, told the committee. Torbett is a sponsor of House Bill 92 and co-chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

“In my estimation, we are about 20 years behind in keeping our infrastructure up to at least par with what the citizens of North Carolina both need and also deserve,” Torbett said.

The committee could make an interim report to the 2018 short session of the General Assembly. It would be expected to make a final report, including recommendations, to the 2019 regular session of the General Assembly.

While the Transportation Committee gave the bill a favorable report, it didn’t get the committee’s unanimous support.

Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, asked whether the state’s highway funds already had money going unspent.

“How much money have we got sitting around that we can’t spend because of the way we design and get our highways ready?” Cleveland asked. “If we decide to build a road or resurface a road, it’s not something that’s done in two months, six months, five months, or five years. … If we can’t spend the money, why raise it?”

While Cleveland didn’t get a specific answer to his fund-balance question, Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, one of the committee’s co-chairmen, estimated the fund balance at between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion.

“That money is committed; it’s just not spent yet,” Iler said. “We’re talking about long-term in this bill.”

Torbett said the current fund balance is about double the normal amount, partially because the state is transitioning from its old funding system to its new funding system.

Cleveland said lawmakers a couple of years ago made changes that funneled about $1.5 billion more into highway funding.

Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, spoke in support of the bill, saying the state is going through a change in demographics. She noted that President Donald Trump has said infrastructure building is a priority.

“I just hope and pray that comes to fruition and the money follows what we’re being told,” Carney said. “I hope that we all understand from my perspective that we’ve got to step up and invest. None of this is free. None of it is on the cheap.”

The recommendation for the blue-ribbon committee came out of an interim House study committee looking at long-term funding solutions for the state’s highway system. The bill will now go to the House Rules Committee.