- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - DMV fees are going up on average 30 percent next month. The gasoline tax is now higher than if the previous formula remained in place. And an annual $200 million-plus transfer in highway funds to support other government operations has ended.

Combine these transportation revenue add-ons with the 2013 law overhauling how the state decides which projects get built, and legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory have made significant strides recently to address anticipated transportation needs for the nation’s ninth most-populous state.

“In the last couple of years there’s been dramatic progress in beginning to deal with long-term transportation funding,” said Berry Jenkins a former state Depart of Transportation highway executive and lobbyist with the Carolinas Associated General Contractors, a trade group for road builders. A five-year federal transportation law approved this month also will bring more funds to North Carolina.

All of it, however, barely makes a dent in what the state needs to keep people and goods moving for the next 25 years.

A 2012 report commissioned by DOT calculated the cumulative gap between anticipated transportation funds and projected expenditures by 2040 at $32 billion to maintain current conditions. To improve conditions, the gap ranges from $60 billion to $94 billion.

In contrast, the transportation agency projects the 2015 state and federal changes will result in $2.8 billion to $3 billion more for the next 10 years to carry out the state’s construction schedule. DOT didn’t have updated shortfall numbers based on the cash influx.

The leftover shortfall will require legislators and the governor to make more difficult choices on whether to raise taxes, issue bonds, expand tolling or do something totally different to narrow the gap further.

A House study committee plans to spend 2016 examining road, public transit, aviation, and port and rail funding and how the state can be more efficient carrying out projects and saving money. So 2017 likely will be decision time.

“No matter how you work all of these issues, it does come back to the money,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, the House’s senior budget writer and a committee member. “Do we have the political will to do what needs to be (done)?”

In the short-term, the state budget approved in September found an additional $706 million through mid-2017 for DOT.

“But it doesn’t take a rocket science major to look at the population estimates for the next 25 years based on what funding levels we currently have to understand we will be increasingly further and further behind unless we do something,” said Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, the committee’s chairman.

Transportation funding study groups meet every several years at the legislature, the latest in 2007-08. Some of their recommendations were implemented just this year, such as driver’s license and registration fees going up Jan. 1. Others, like charging motorists a set price for every mile traveled on roads as an alternative to the gas tax, are still on the drawing board.

“You have to have this ongoing conversation,” said Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, a member of the new and previous study committees. “You never know when someone in this committee might come up with the golden magic button.”

Highway tolling has begun in the Research Triangle, but the recent flap over Interstate 77 express lanes north of Charlotte exposes its political dangers. McCrory, who has been criticized for failing to intervene after recent vocal I-77 toll opposition, now has a Republican primary opponent motivated by the issue.

McCrory has focused largely on bonds, pressing legislators in 2015 to let voters decide on $1.4 billion in debt for road construction. But Senate Republicans balked, preferring pay-as-you-go spending. Instead, a March bond referendum contains no debt for roads.

McCrory told a pro-business crowd last month he would again press lawmakers to authorize transportation bonds if he was re-elected next November.


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