Lawmakers in 2009 introduced new local tax options – which will have a considerable affect on North Carolina over the next decade – to finance public transportation, pavement construction and light-rail expansion. Despite further spending, under the guise of “transportation reform,” North Carolina has yet to tackle the real issues plaguing state transportation.
There is a need in the state to concentrate on transportation reform by following ridership trends and implementing the best policies that will mirror the needs of the state, not the home districts of legislators. But the trend to push legislation that raises taxes and introduces more wasteful spending continued in the 2009 long session. . HB 1005, “DOT Participation in Fixed Rail Projects,” was introduced by Reps. Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg) and Nelson Cole (D – Rockingham). This bill will allow the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to fund fixed rail projects that do not include federal funds. Effective July 1, 2009, the bill provides a backup funding source for the state to use in constructing light rail projects in Charlotte and the Triangle area. Light rail projects are not the best use of state funds as ridership numbers do not warrant spending taxpayer money to subsidize an inefficient light rail program that will only benefit a few communities.
The “Congestion Relief and Intermodal Transport Fund” was introduced as HB 148 by Reps. Carney, Lucy Allen (D – Franklin), Deborah Ross (D – Wake) and Bill McGee (R – Forsyth). This bill will create a Congestion Relief and Intermodal Transportation 21st Century Fund. The fund will give money to local governments and transportation authorities for public transportation purposes, including a light rail system in the Triangle and Triad areas.
The bill allows six urban counties to levy (upon voter approval) a ½ cent sales tax increase and a ¼ cent sales tax in all other counties to finance the fund. The fund’s purpose is to provide congestion relief by building a light rail system; however, it is actually a massive tax increase that will have little to no impact on reducing congestion. The Triangle Transit Authority estimates light rail ridership numbers to equal roughly 2 percent of the current Triangle population. The reality; HB 148 will relieve less than 1 percent of congestion but raise taxes to subsidize the commute of urban workers.
What is more, the funds collected will be used exclusively for mass transit, and will not be allowed for use in road construction or repair. A recent study conducted by the North Carolina Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) concluded that North Carolina’s roads are a “D” grade and require $60 billion in infrastructure improvements. This bill does nothing to solve that problem and instead increases taxes and spends money on a light rail that will be used by a tiny fraction of commuters.
Twenty years ago, state leaders established the Equity Formula to require State Transportation Improvement Project (STIP) funds be distributed equally throughout the state. STIP finances over 2,000 transportation projects totaling about $13 billion, including funding for the state’s highway, public transportation, aviation and Governor’s Highway Safety programs.
Today, the Equity Formula distributes transportation funds with little objectivity and disproportionately across the state. The result; unnecessary roads built in areas losing vehicles, while those gaining vehicles are left with more potholes and traffic jams. The solution is to establish an objective, transparent system to prioritize transportation spending where project selection is decided on performance-based criteria and not on the inconsistent Equity Formula Another reform would target North Carolina’s 19-member, politically appointed board of transportation. According to a study released in 2007 and authored by McKinsey & Co., the NCDOT is inefficient, unfocused and inflexible. Despite the findings of the $2.5 million study, the NCDOT has yet to introduce real reform and continues to be unproductive and wasteful. If North Carolina is to return to the “good roads state” of the 1930s, serious reforms should be implemented now.
Reforms should start by reducing the board size and replacing the district system with at-large appointments based on appropriate areas of expertise. Political fundraising by board members should be banned and ethics requirements strengthened, specifically relating to conflicts of interest based on board members and their home districts. The appointed transportation board is in charge of overseeing the Highway Trust Fund. Disappointingly, the goals of the nearly 20-year-old Highway Trust Fund continue to be unmet – instead nearly 60 percent of the outer beltway projects remain un-built and large cities continue to fight over highway loops.