- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:


Dec. 30

The StarNews of Wilmington on the state’s fast growth:

North Carolina’s population has now passed 10 million, a round number that gives us a reason to reflect on our state’s fast growth as we enter a new year.

The nation’s ninth largest state, we’ll likely gain a congressional seat in 2020, adding clout in Washington.

But the growth also brings challenges.

During this holiday break, the StarNews has been exploring transportation issues. In an article headlined “The slow ride to new roads,” we documented how it took 20 years to build the road we now call the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.

Most people agree that a freeway from Wilmington to Charlotte and Asheville would be good for the state. Wilmington’s port loses out to business from Charlotte’s busy freight hub because trucks find it far easier to cruise interstates to Charleston, S.C., than they do navigating U.S. 74 to Wilmington. But it costs $30 million per mile to build an interstate-quality road.

Federal support for the state’s transportation budget has dropped from 25 percent a decade ago to 20 percent.

Some 60 percent of our road dollars come from motor-fuel taxes. But cars and trucks are becoming more fuel efficient, straining that source.

Credit Republican leaders in Raleigh for stopping the annual raid on the state’s highway fund. But more will have to be done.

It’s vital that we maintain the infrastructure we already have in place, like the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

The effort to build a Cape Fear Skyway bridge has become so bogged down that officials don’t even like to call it the Skyway anymore.

Education brings another set of challenges. County school systems must cope with growing student bodies, made harder by uneven growth patterns.

The Charlotte Observer reported that two-thirds of the state’s growth from 2010 has been in the Charlotte and Triangle areas.

Mecklenburg County saw its population rise 10.1 percent to a little more than a million, while Wake County saw growth of 10.8 percent to just under a million.

Closer to home, New Hanover’s population rose 6.7 percent to 216,298 people from 2010 to 2014. Brunswick County’s population shot up 10.6 percent to 118,836, while Pender’s rose 7.8 percent to 56,520.

Pender is having a hard time convincing the state Department of Public Instruction of how fast it is growing. The state won’t allow the school district to count housing developments planned but not underway. When those subdivisions are built, student numbers could grow much faster than the county can build schools.

The state’s university system must also prepare for more students, being flexible in adjusting to new technologies and job markets.

Growth poses other challenges — more public safety workers, providing clean drinking and properly working sewer systems. We also risk rural areas continuing to founder or tread water.

There are no easy answers. Let’s hope leaders on the state level are at least asking the right questions.

And most important, all citizens and leaders must be willing to make hard decisions today that will benefit our state and cities and towns in the future.

Playing catch-up can be hard, if not downright impossible.




Dec. 29

The Asheville Citizen-Times on state aid:

It makes sense for North Carolina to favor the poor counties in distributing various forms of state aid. That’s more than can be said of the state’s system for determining which counties are poor.

Counties are classified into three tiers, with Tier 1 being the poorest. Criteria include average unemployment rate, median household income, percentage growth in population and adjusted property tax base per capita. We do not see the relevance of population growth, but the other criteria make sense.

But, as the TV salesfolk say, there’s more. First, the 40 poorest counties are in Tier 1, the next 40 in Tier 2 and the 20 most affluent in Tier 3. Never mind that the county ranked 20th might be far closer to the 21st county than to the 19th in the economic criteria.

Then there are the special criteria. A county is automatically in Tier 1 if it has been in Tier 1 for at least two consecutive years, if it has fewer than 12,000 people, or if it has fewer than 50,000 people and a poverty rate of 19 percent or greater. Other counties under 50,000 population are automatically in Tier 2.

Generally speaking, counties with few people are poorer than metropolitan counties, but there can be exceptions for affluent exurbs. Also, why should a county with a sharp economic improvement remain in Tier 1 just because it has been there two years running?

Only three Western North Carolina counties - Buncombe, Henderson and Watauga - are in Tier 3. Haywood used to be so ranked, but it was dropped to Tier 2 in the most recent Department of Commerce list. McDowell and Yancey counties have been dropped from Tier 2 to Tier 1.

How does it make sense to lump Henderson County with Wake County (Raleigh) and Mecklenburg County (Charlotte)? The case could be made that Henderson has more in common with Tier 1 counties to the west than with the state’s two most populous urban centers.

Haywood’s “demotion” is actually good news, according to Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood Economic Development Council. “Now, we’re eligible for more grants, which is a good thing,” he said. Haywood bounces in and out of the top 20 listing “like a yo-yo” depending on the year, Clasby said.

That’s what happens when criteria are arbitrary. The system’s quirks have come to the attention of some connected with the General Assembly. One of them is John Turcotte, director of the Program Evaluation Division.

A report from Turcotte’s office cites the population criteria, and also the fact that some state programs with no connection to economic development use the tier system. “They assume funding is going to the poorest counties, but that’s not true,” Turcotte said.

Turcotte sent the report to Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R- Concord, and Rep. Craig Horn, R-Weddington, co-chairs of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee.

The committee has voted “to prepare legislation in support of the recommendations of the report,” Horn said.

Horn said massive changes in the economy, population size and demographics of North Carolina make exploring the creation of a new system the prudent thing to do. But, he cautioned, “That doesn’t mean the committee will move forward.”

We can think of two possible reasons for arbitrary criteria. One is to benefit the home counties of powerful legislators. The other is to simplify budgeting by predetermining the number of counties in each tier. Neither reason is persuasive.

No system is perfect. But the General Assembly ought to be able to find a way to channel economic-development assistance where it is needed without relying on a hodgepodge of arbitrary rules.




Dec. 29

The News & Observer of Raleigh on cycling laws:

Raleigh rolled out some new bike lanes and safety markings without much fanfare, and the changes have been confusing to some drivers. The effort is well-meaning, designed to make things safer for bike riders and to mark off lanes to clarify things for drivers.

But the city, for its part, needs to do a major public relations campaign to explain the rules. When can drivers cross bicycle lanes, if ever? How do vehicles safely make right turns when a bike lane is on their right? Will bike-riders also have to more closely obey rules of the road as if they were regular motor vehicles? Many do not do that now.

Into the mix now come proposals from the state Department of Transportation for new laws that would encourage drivers to be more aware of bicycle riders but also would put new limits on cyclists.

Cyclists have gotten more and more privileges in cities such as Raleigh, with the addition of bicycle lanes being the main example. But there remain some cyclists who seem to want things both ways: more rights for them, but status quo for motorists. That’s not right, and DOT is trying to find a smart balance, and the first priority of that balance is going to be ensuring the safety of bicycle riders.

Toward that end, DOT would give drivers more leeway when it comes to crossing double-yellow lines that mark no passing zones if they needed to give a wider birth to bicyclists. Other ideas, despite opposition from some cyclists’ groups, also are sound: Cyclists could not ride more than two abreast, would have to have permits for large informal group rides and would be required to stay in the right half of travel lanes.

Cyclists argue these things are too restrictive. Some say, for example, that they ought to ride in the center of lanes so cars can see them and that their presence discourages drivers from passing other cars when they shouldn’t. The problem is that some drivers perceive somebicyclists as too aggressive in asserting their rights of the road.

Do bicyclists have rights? Of course they do. But streets in a city the size of Raleigh are designed to move automobile traffic efficiently and safely. Bicyclists have to understand that, and they also should appreciate the fact that the proposals are designed primarily to protect their safety, to reduce or eliminate disturbing statistics that an average 19 cyclists die and more than 600 are hurt on the state’s streets and highways each year. In many cases, accidents result from drivers trying to pass bicyclists and not giving them enough room.

In addition to the proposals, city and state law enforcement personnel should more strictly enforce the rules for motor vehicles as they apply to bicycle riders. If cyclists are going to demand their rights, and they should, they should expect they’ll be held to account to follow the rules of the road.



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