DOT clamping down on "local" input?

Agency wants 50-50 say on projects
Sep. 10, 2013 @ 04:15 PM

Looks like the "local" input Gov. Pat McCrory's transportation-planning reform bill promised might not be so local after all.

N.C. Department of Transportation staffers have rolled out briefing documents that indicate the agency's 14 division engineers will have a big say in how the state allocates money to regional- and division-level road and transit projects -- meaning a say equal in weight to that of local elected officials.

They justify that on the grounds that the metropolitan and rural planning organizations local elected officials sit on generally only speak for two or three counties and that some regions -- like the Triangle -- have more than one such group.

Because of that, the division engineers are best positioned to "bridge across competing priorities ... in their division to make decisions most beneficial to the state," DOT officials told the General Assembly's Joint  Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee on Tuesday.

Local input at the regional and division level was a key selling point of McCrory's reform plan, which passed the General Assembly in June as House Bill 817.

The bill promised locals a 30 percent say over the use of regional-level allocations and a 50 percent say over division allocations. The two levels combined will receive 60 percent of the state's construction money.

But legislators never really defined "local," so now DOT's doing it for them. 

N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition Executive Director Julie White attended Tuesday's meeting and live-tweeted it to her feed, @MetroMayors. She reports that the lead sponsor of H817, Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, was a bit surprised by DOT's approach.

Her key tweet: "B. Brawley-when we were using the phrase local we didn't envision that. The division eng[ineer] is a employee of the NCDOT, is he a local guy?"

The briefing materials also indicated that DOT will regulate the process local leaders use to decide on their own input. 

They'll have to clear their review process with DOT by May 1, 2014, or risk having local input discounted entirely.

A local review process has to include at least one of 10 DOT-dictated quanitative benchmarks and one of five DOT-dictated qualittative benchmarks if it's to pass muster.