North Carolinians are more upbeat about their state than they are about the nation as a whole, according to election-season polls by Meredith College, Survey USA (for Spectrum News), and Harper Polling (for the Civitas Institute). To my mind, that shows good judgment on the part of the state’s voters.
By most measures, North Carolina has been doing better than the national average lately. Our economy is adding jobs at a rapid rate. So far this decade, North Carolina’s rates of unemployment and underemployment have dropped faster than those of almost every other state in the country. Our median household income reached $52,752 in 2017, up more than 8 percent from 2010, after inflation. That’s the second-fasted growth rate in the Southeast.
In public policy, too, there are unmistakable signs of progress. Take transportation, for example. A decade ago, North Carolina ranked an unimpressive 31st in the cost-effectiveness of its highway system, according to annual reports published by the Reason Foundation that examined pavement conditions, congestion, deadly accidents, and other variables.
But as of 2015, the most recent year for which all the data are available, North Carolina’s highway system ranks 14th in the nation. We rank 14th in rural interstate condition and 7th in urban interstate condition. As recently as 2009, those rankings were 36th and 22nd, respectively. The fatality rate on North Carolina’s highways has improved markedly, as well.
By no means should we be satisfied. Too many of our bridges are structurally unsound and need repair or replacement. We still have too many bumpy, jammed-up roads. Still, there is no question that North Carolina as a whole is a better place to commute or travel than it was just a few years ago.
That is no accident. It reflects hard work and tough choices by policymakers of both parties. The progress actually began during the second term of former Gov. Mike Easley and extended through the administrations of Bev Perdue and Pat McCrory. Years earlier, state legislators had decided to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars a year in gas and car taxes — money collected from motorists in rough proportion to their usage of the state road system — to non-highway uses within the state budget.
While lawmakers had believed they were doing the right thing at the time (the origins of the various transfers from the Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund are complicated), the practical effect was to constrain the ability of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, its contractors, and local governments to keep up with the transportation needs of a fast-growing state.
Those transfers are no more. The General Assembly has ended them. North Carolina is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars more a year building, expanding, resurfacing, and maintaining our highways. The results are evident not just in official government statistics but in the personal experience of nearly everyone who drives significant distances in our state.
To say there are signs of progress — in our economy, our road network, and other areas — is not to deny the unease with which many North Carolinians approach the current midterm elections. People are angry. They are shouting at each other. Activists are chasing cars, confronting politicians, banging on the doors of the U.S. Supreme Court. To most of us, Washington looks like either a circus or a cesspool, depending on what day we’re watching the news.
North Carolina has its own controversies, its own shouting matches, its own instances of furious activists taking the law into its own hands. But North Carolinians are more upbeat. It may be because so many were living somewhere else not too long ago. They have a direct basis for comparison.
Despite the many problems that remain unsolved or even overlooked in our state, North Carolina is headed in the right direction. We are growing. We are innovating. We are making significant progress. Many newly arrived residents know this to be true. That’s why they are here and not there — wherever that “there” may be.