News: CJ Exclusives

Serious Road Problems Go Begging

Depleted highway trust fund leaves many projects unaddressed

Dan Wise says nobody has been killed at the intersection on U.S. 70 near his business since the N.C. Department of Transportation restricted turns there a couple of years ago. For that reason, he doesn’t complain about the inconvenience.

Wise has an auto dealership at the junction. The scream of sirens used to be commonplace, and Wise could see the ambulances and smashed cars from his showroom.

DOT lacked money for a fancy solution, such as an overpass. There are plans for a four-lane, limited-access cut-through that would speed traffic around Goldsboro and eliminate deadly intersections such as the one near Wise’s business. But the money for that won’t be available in the Highway Trust Fund for years.

Ask 10 people in eastern North Carolina what should be done about congested U.S. 70, and you will get at least 11 different opinions. All would require money from the trust fund.

One suggestion you won’t hear is stoplights. They are relatively cheap, but there is already an average of one stoplight every two miles on the 135-mile stretch from Raleigh to Morehead City. And sometimes, when motorists are cruising along at 60 mph and approach a light unexpectedly, the stop can add to the danger rather than diminish it.

So until the Highway Trust Fund is flush enough to afford a better solution, drivers approaching the Dan Wise intersection from north or south cannot turn left. Those wishing to go left must instead turn right, buzz down U.S. 70 for a bit, and turn around.

That is one way the state’s dearth of road money might nettle you if you live at LaGrange. Traffic jams in this town of 2,800 are not a concern as they are in the more populated areas. Still, LaGrange folks and city folks share a common desire for which they are dependent on the Highway Trust Fund: to be able to drive to a given destination in the shortest and safest way.

The trust fund is fueled mainly by North Carolina’s tax on gasoline, which is 29.9 cents a gallon. It increased by 2.8 cents last month because state law triggers tax increases as gas prices go up, and prices last year were the highest ever.

There was talk of a special legislative session to roll back the increase. But when a special legislative committee met in early January, Gov. Mike Easley, House Speaker Jim Black, and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight didn’t want to.
They say that while motorists are having to pay too much for gas, the 3-cent addition to the state tax is negligible. Instead of rolling it back, they appointed a committee to study the situation.

Basnight and Black sent a letter to North Carolina’s 12 members of the U.S. House and two U.S. senators. It infuriated U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican who is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The letter complained about the high prices of gasoline and home-heating fuel, and it charged that the federal government “has not adequately funded its heating assistance program to help some of our most vulnerable citizens stay warm through the winter. Nor has Congress taken action to lower gasoline prices or provide relief to consumers in these times of record oil profit margins …”

Ms. Myrick dispatched a reply that blamed Easley and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly for “raiding” the state’s Highway Trust Fund, making a high state gasoline tax necessary.

Whether or not taxpayers would call it raiding, the legislature has indeed been dipping into the road fund and putting some of its money into the state’s general fund for other expenses.

As Ms. Myrick noted, the trust fund was established under then-Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican, in 1989. Revenues from the gasoline tax and some other revenues were supposed to go there, and the fund was to be used mainly to build and maintain roads.

“Yet, under your watch,” Ms. Myrick wrote to Black and Basnight, “the General Assembly raided the Trust Fund, took monies promised for roads, and spent it on personal pork projects to help build personal fiefdoms of power.”

The congresswoman then listed year-by-year amounts that had been spent for other purposes. They totaled more than $600 million from 2001 to 2005.

In fact, however, it was even more. Michael Lowery, who keeps tabs on the fund for the John Locke Foundation, gives these numbers:

• Fiscal years 1992 to 2002 — $170 million per year.
• Fiscal year 2003 — $377 million.
• Each year since — about $250 million.

Ms. Myrick told the legislative leaders that this was why North Carolina’s roads are underfunded. “If you had not spent this money … you would not have felt you needed to raise gas taxes on the people of North Carolina,” she wrote.
Black, also from Mecklenberg County, said Ms. Myrick must have been having a bad day.

As for the trust fund, he said, the law that created it stipulated that a portion of the money would go back to the General Fund for spending on programs not related to transportation. So, he said, it isn’t “raiding” when the legislature removes some of the money.

He said Ms. Myrick had refused “to ask the oil and gas companies to reduce their record breaking profits so consumers can get some relief from high gas and heating fuel price.”

Basnight said it was too bad “that Congresswoman Myrick is unwilling to help provide meaningful cost relief for consumers of North Carolina …”

The letter from Basnight and Black reached Ms. Myrick as she and other members of the energy committee bathed in euphoria over a year in which two significant pieces of their legislation had progressed.

One, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, was signed into law in August. The other, the Gasoline for America’s Security Act of 2005, has been passed by the House and is pending in the Senate. Mainly they address the supply and price of gasoline.