A revamped North Carolina transportation program should include merit-based project selection, an increased emphasis on road maintenance, and a funding solution for Interstate 95. Those are among the 20 immediate recommendations set out in a new Policy Report prepared for the John Locke Foundation.
The report’s authors note their recommendations would require no new revenue. “In total the 20 recommendations would save about $21 million annually and would substantially realign and refocus the transportation program on needed and affordable activities,” said lead author Dr. David Hartgen, professor emeritus of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and president of the Hartgen Group.
The Hartgen Group and the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a libertarian good-government think tank, developed the report as new North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has signaled his interest in a major revision of the state’s transportation priorities. Hartgen and his co-authors sifted through 157 policy ideas from prior studies, plans, legislation, other states’ best practices, and suggestions from interest groups.
“North Carolina has the nation’s largest state-owned highway system, 72 airports, more than 120 transit systems, extensive intercity rail freight and passenger service, and several ocean ports,” Hartgen said. “These resources are a key element in the state’s economic vitality and are central to its economic progress.”
The 20 items listed for immediate action fall into three categories. The first category features six recommendations targeting “major changes,” Hartgen said. “These would increase maintenance and concentrate expansions on projects with statewide significance,” he said. “A key step is to constrain the four- to five-year State Transportation Improvement Program by merit-based project selection, then shifting some of the savings to maintenance, major projects, and rural safety.”
Within this group of recommendations, the report recommends devoting $150 million annually to a funding solution for I-95’s long-term needs, expanding the Mobility Fund by $100 million annually, and improving rural safety. Thanks to savings tied to the other recommendations, the overall impact of these half-dozen recommendations is a net savings of $50 million annually.
The second category features four items “intended to increase economic productivity and strengthen maintenance management and project selection, through head-to-head project evaluation, adding maintenance needs to funding formulas, and contracting out light maintenance,” Hartgen said.
Selecting road projects within a region or district, rather than a county, could save $50 million annually, and increasing performance-based maintenance contracting could save $20 million annually. But adding maintenance needs to funding formulas and building some logistics-related projects could cost $100 million annually. Together the four recommendations in this category would increase costs by about $30 million annually. “Despite the additional cost, if implemented fully these proposals would result in better system condition and improved economic productivity,” Hartgen said.
A third category features 10 lower-cost recommendations intended to strengthen long-range planning, Hartgen said. “This group of recommendations would refresh the state’s vision for transportation, prepare an updated long-range plan, and improve communications,” he said. “Organizational efficiency is also addressed through increased design-build flexibility and strengthened measures of performance and project delivery. With full implementation, these recommendations would save more than $1 million a year.”
Along with the 20 immediate action items, Hartgen and his colleagues highlight another 15 suggestions that deserve attention. Among them are projects to remove highway bottlenecks, coordinating logistics improvements with other states, and developing clear measures of road performance.
“The McCrory administration has set ambitious goals for the state’s transportation system,” Hartgen said. “To accomplish these goals, North Carolina will have to identify practical options from among numerous suggestions and make tough choices within budget limits.”
Transportation planning must keep several key factors in mind, Hartgen said. “First, significant new money is unlikely for transportation,” he said. “State budgets are tight, the state’s gasoline tax has recently been raised, the system is improving in condition, and federal funds are unlikely to increase.”
Maintenance of existing roads is “paramount,” Hartgen added. “If nothing else is achieved, the state’s vast investment in its transportation systems must be passed down to future generations in good shape,” he said. “Failing this would be an abrogation of government’s responsibility.”
North Carolina must set transportation priorities, Hartgen said. “North Carolina cannot afford all the transportation elements that every region wants,” he said. “With several very large expenditures coming up, including rehabilitation of the state’s interstate system, the most important needs must be identified for the good of the state as a whole.”
State transportation priorities must include planning for the future, Hartgen said. “It has been almost 25 years since the last transportation ‘vision’ was articulated,” he said. A new vision for North Carolina’s transportation system should set the stage for future investment.”