A version of this article first appeared in the Charlotte Observer.
Recent media reports about state Senator Tony Rand’s (D-Cumberland) grip on N.C. transportation resources have stirred up the Hornet’s Nest. Despite the fact that old Fayetteville buddies Secretary Lyndo Tippett and Sen. Rand have been content to let road resources get funneled down east for years, all this is apparently news to people in Charlotte. That’s a shame.
Sorely-needed projects – such as the Yadkin river bridge bottlenecking 85 at Salisbury, or the completion of 485 – have been perennially pushed aside by eastern N.C. projects supported over the years by powerful politicians with pork on their fingertips. Let me explain.
In 1989, way back when the movie Field of Dreams was in theaters, the Governor and General Assembly introduced highway reform legislation. They would use more transportation revenues to build roads in rural areas around the state for the sake of economic development. In other words: “if we build it, they will come.” Trouble is, nobody came. The centerpiece of that legislation – the Equity Distribution Formula – remains to this day. But as it happens, the formula is not terribly equitable if you think resources ought to track road usage. Instead, here’s what the Equity Formula actually does:
It takes a quarter of the state’s Highway Trust Fund resources for building out the “intrastate system.” Sounds okay, right? Till you get the translation—build four-lane highways in the middle of nowhere. They’ve been doing this for decades. Clearly it hasn’t worked. All you have are pricey highways, exits and bridges in areas losing population, according to demographic data. (All of which is great for eastern politicians, of course, who can claim they “brought” goodies to their districts. Want vinegar sauce with that, Senator?)
Now, another quarter of the funds are divided “equally” among seven geographical super-districts. These super-districts have no connection whatsoever with population-centers, traffic patterns, or any other factor that might help you get road money to places that need it. Instead, they are drawn based on pre-Depression-era prison regions, because the state used to use chain gangs to build roads. So in the 21st Century, we’re distributing a full quarter of precious Highway Trust Fund resources by consulting a map drawn in the heyday of Henry Ford.
Finally, half of the Highway Trust Fund money is distributed based on population. This is the best thing we can say about the Equity Formula—and that’s not saying much. People are not necessarily vehicles. Nor do population numbers take into account seasonal traffic patterns—for example, traffic created by folks down from Jersey here to see the Outer Banks, or up from Florida to see the Blue Ridge. In short, the way we distribute road resources in North Carolina makes about as much sense as Secretary Tippett dropping bags of cash around the state from Governor Easley’s airplane.
But there is method to the madness. Leaving aside dubious discretionary projects ordered by members of the Legislature and the Board of Transportation, powerful Eastern North Carolina politicians like Senator Pro Tem Marc Basnight (D-Dare), Lt. Governor Beverly Perdue (D-Craven), and Senator Rand benefit from the Equity Formula as it is. As long as we’re not distributing resources based on vehicle usage and maintenance needs – you know, where the cars and potholes are – eastern North Carolina benefits at the expense of all the major urban centers. Charlotte sits in traffic. Ole boys win elections.
As Charlotte recently learned, Sen. Rand’s hometown loop – added by statute in 2003 – is way ahead of Charlotte’s loop (485) added in 1989. Charlotteans may also be interested to know that the exorbitant $120 million Neuse River Bridge in New Bern was a pet project of then-state Senator Bev Perdue, and was, at the time, the largest public works project ever built in N.C. This year, her Democratic primary challenger suggested Perdue benefitted personally from that project, citing a 150-acre residential development she co-owned and profited from once the bridge was finished. Whether or not there were conflicts for Perdue is unclear. Suffice it to say that compared with other potential projects around the state, the Neuse River mega-bridge would never have passed any cost-effectiveness smell test, had any been in place.
And that’s a good note on which to close. We have got to move away from political networks and outmoded Formulas towards a system of prioritization that eliminates projects of excess. How? We allocate resources based on vehicle usage, maintenance needs, and safety—not highway boondoggles attached to “Field of Dreams” hopes or quid pro quo deals.
Soon the General Assembly will come, hat in hand, to ask the citizens for more money to build roads. Until the Equity Formula is scrapped, however, this will virtually assure cities like Charlotte and Salisbury continue to pay more for roads and get less. We need political leadership who will be stewards of our tax dollars—putting road money where it’s needed, instead of using it for a down payment on re-election. The transportation status quo is no longer sustainable. It’s time for an overhaul.
Max Borders is an original Charlottean and analyst at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh (nccivitas.org).