RALEIGH — Although he’s warned repeatedly that there is no new money in state government, Gov.-elect Pat McCrory said Thursday he could envision putting up a 25 percent state share of funding for a multibillion-dollar rail transit plan in the Triangle.
“If they meet the same criteria that I asked for when I was mayor of Charlotte regarding federal match, and also if they meet the ridership potential, and the right land use, I will be working with my secretary [of transportation] to support those types of efforts,” McCrory said during a news conference to name his final three cabinet secretaries.
“But regardless of where you put roads or transit, they have to meet certain criteria before they have my support, and, I assume, the support of the Department of Transportation,” McCrory said.
McCrory called the press conference to introduce his latest appointments. They are retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony J. Tata, secretary of the department of transportation; Sharon Decker, secretary of the department of commerce; and Bill Daughtridge, secretary of the department of administration. Neal Alexander will serve as director of the State Office of Personnel.
During his planned remarks, McCrory reiterated that his appointees are being directed to find efficiencies in government, collaborate, and share resources. In past press conferences, he said those goals were set forth because money is tight and the economy is lagging.
“There’s no new money that’s going to fall out of the sky,” he said Wednesday to 1,100 bankers and business leaders at a meeting in Durham.
McCrory offered no details of where the money would come from if the Triangle rail project did meet his approval.
“I suppose his words are cautious,” said David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation studies at UNC Charlotte. He is author of a study concluding that the Triangle project would not reduce vehicle congestion or travel time, the very benefits supporters tout in seeking the outlay needed to fund the project.
“He’s not saying no, he’s not saying yes. I think that’s an appropriate thing at this point” since the governor-elect does not have a study before him to analyze, Hartgen said.
“Regional travel is growing so rapidly the only solution is to increase highway capacity,” Hartgen said. “We can’t go back to a mode of travel that is twice as slow.”
And, he said, light rail is a local issue in which the state and federal governments should not be entangled.
However, he acknowledged, in the past few days the Federal Transit Administration issued a new proposal on how to evaluate transit projects.
“It basically says [federal officials are] going to back off hard criteria for federal funds,” Hartgen said. “If that’s the case, then this is basically going to be a political shootout” among power players in Congress to determine who gets transit money.
Hard criteria include factors such as cost-effectiveness, local support, and economic development, with some additional consideration for items including environmental justice.
“On all of those criteria, the [Triangle] proposal does not score as well as other proposals nationally,” Hartgen said.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners has not placed a referendum on the ballot to fund the rail project with a half-cent sales tax increase. Voters in Orange and Durham counties have approved a half-cent sales tax to help pay for the ambitious tri-county transit project.
“Those plans are probably not viable without a Wake component. Those cities both in Orange and Durham are way below the (ridership) threshold” for light rail, Hartgen said.
It is “extremely unlikely that either of those proposals would get federal funding,” he said. There are no other cities of similar size anywhere in the country that have light rail service.
And then there is “a political issue,” Hartgen said.
“The Washington establishment now is Democrat, and the North Carolina administration is Republican. I find it difficult to imagine that any of these three proposals will get approval,” Hartgen said. “In fact, the Wake County proposal already has been rejected by the feds years ago, and the current proposal is not all that different.”
State funding decisions would have to go through the General Assembly, he said.
Legislators, Hartgen said, “would ask the same questions: ‘Why are we doing this? Why are the people of North Carolina funding a plan that is essentially local in nature and likely to have very little impact” on traffic congestion or economic development?’”
Hartgen added, “If they had a plan and they approved it tomorrow, it could not be open for at least seven or eight years with all the environmental reviews and all the other reviews required.”
By comparison, he noted, the Charlotte plan was 15 years in development. Actual approval and then construction didn’t come until 10 years after an initial vote of the people.
“We haven’t even had a vote in Wake County, we haven’t even had commissioner approval,” Hartgen said.
In naming Tata as secretary of transportation, McCrory hailed his “unique qualifications” for the job.
Tata is the embattled ex-superintendent of Wake County schools who was fired shortly after school opened in fall 2012 amid divisive school board politics.
McCrory said as deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2006-07, Tata “has planned and implemented multiple operations involving complex transportation infrastructure challenges ranging from planning operations involving ports, airfields, rail, and highways to designing and implementing extensive infrastructure plans in developing countries,” McCrory said.
“If he can do it in Afghanistan under fire surely he can do it in North Carolina,” McCrory said.
McCrory tasked him with developing a 25-year transportation and infrastructure plan, reorganizing the department to meet the state’s needs and growth, and making sure the current organizational structure fits the growth patterns and demographic changes of the state.
Tata also is charged with developing a long-term structural and financial plan for road and infrastructure maintenance, and working with the Commerce Department and Department of Environment and Natural Resources on the state’s economic development strategy.
Commerce appointee Decker, of Rutherfordton, worked with McCrory at Duke Power. She is recovering from a bout with the flu and a recent foot surgery and did not attend the news conference.
McCrory said she will lead administrative efforts to develop the brand and the strategy for North Carolina’s economy, and solicit the private sector’s input into the development of that brand.
She will be “a key adviser” to help the legislative and executive branches develop tax reform and economic development policies, to help retain and recruit new industries, and implement reform to keep up with competition in neighboring states and the rest of world, McCrory said.
Decker also will work to create strategies to recruit new businesses to the state while working to grow existing industries, while finding growth niches for companies and for each region of the state, McCrory said.
Daughtridge, a former legislator from Rocky Mount, is expected “to conduct an immediate review of all state assets, what should be kept and, frankly, what should be discarded or sold,” McCrory said.
He will work with other department heads to undertake “a total review of all contracts and all procurement procedures” to eliminate aspects that are confusing to vendors, McCrory said.
Alexander, of Denver, N.C., will help establish the culture of customer service that McCrory is promoting, and provide guidance “to bring it down throughout the field to all levels” of government, McCrory said.
He will be expected to implement market-based practices to motivate, attract, and retain talent “to fix our broken government,” McCrory said.
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.