DOT reverses course on local input, again

Oct. 04, 2013 @ 08:08 PM

Despite assurances its leader made to recently to a Durham business group, the N.C. Department of Transportation is once again saying its division engineers should have a say equal to that of local elected officials in some road-funding decisions.

The 14 division engineers will have equal weight with local governments when it comes to sizing up projects that are important at a regional level, according to a proposal DOT rolled out for legislators on Friday.

Locals will get a bigger share of the say only on projects that matter mainly to one DOT operating division.

The proposed split was released in time for a Friday meeting of the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee, state House and Senate members who are watching how Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration implements a new law that changes how the state allots money to road and transit projects.

Committee members debated the split but in the end appeared to concede that DOT has the authority to decide the issue, tweets from N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition Executive Director Julie White indicated.

The new law, a centerpiece of McCrory’s agenda, is supposed to make data rather than politics king when it comes to deciding how to allot money to projects of statewide and regional significance – major updates to its interstate highways, for instance.

But to get the bill through, the governor – a co-founder of the mayor’s coalition – had to promise that “local input” would have greater sway the less a project appears to affect the entire state.

Trouble was, the bill didn’t spell out who exactly it meant by local.

DOT acted to fill in that gap by suggesting a 50-50 split in local say between its in-house division engineers and the city and county elected officials who sit on metropolitan and rural planning groups.

The proposal drew fire from the oversight committee last month, and a working group at DOT advised giving elected officials roughly a three-fifths to two-thirds share of the local say over regional and division projects.

State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata appeared to embrace the working-group proposal late last month as he spoke to members of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce about the new law.

He said there had been “a good give and take” on the issue.

But sometime between Tata’s chamber appearance on Sept. 24 and Oct. 1, DOT backtracked. It overrode the working-group recommendation.

The position paper it sent to the oversight committee said a 50-50 split at that level “promote[s] both an equal partnership and a more global view of meeting transportation needs.”

It added that division engineers can “take a broader view of how to address transportation needs across all modes and individual planning-organization boundaries and support the interests of the traveling public.”

White’s group got wind of the change in tack and protested, sending the committee a letter over the signatures of Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain.

They noted that road planning in any particular two-division region involves hundreds of local elected officials.

“We believe this large chorus of voices should not bear equal weight to two division engineers who ultimately do not report to the people in our region, but to the [DOT] in Raleigh,” McFarlane and Swain said.

White’s tweets from Friday afternoon’s meeting suggested legislators were split.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, argued that local elected officials are closer to the people, and more sensitive to the wishes of taxpayers, she said, adding that Reps. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, and Phil Shepard, R-Onslow, voiced similar views.

But Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, supported the equal split. So did Sen. Kathy Harrington and Rep. Dana Bumgardner, both R-Gaston, and Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake.