McCrory roads plan splits local legislators

May. 11, 2013 @ 03:10 PM

Gov. Pat McCrory’s plan for changing the way the state spends its transportation dollars split Democrats in the western Triangle’s N.C. House delegation, with some favoring it and some against it.

A bill encoding the governor’s plan cleared the House on a 102-15 vote, putting its fate in the hands of the state Senate.

The final vote saw state Reps. Larry Hall, D-Durham, and Val Foushee, D-Orange, support the governor’s proposal, as amended by their fellow House members.

Reps. Paul Luebke and Mickey Michaux, both D-Durham, joined Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, in voting against it.

Hall, the House minority leader, said the issue lent itself to divided sympathies.

“It helps Durham, it helps Charlotte, it helps metropolitan areas, but rural areas are going to take a hit,” Hall said, acknowledging that his vote and those of a couple other local legislators had switched from one day to the next.

Hall, in fact, had opposed the measure in preliminary balloting. McManus and Insko switched from early support to final-vote opposition. Foushee, Luebke and Michaux held to their final-vote positions throughout the debate.

McCrory earlier this spring asked legislators to allot 40 percent of the state’s transportation-related capital dollars to projects of statewide significance and 40 percent to regional projects. The remaining 20 percent would go to the N.C. Department of Transportation’s operating divisions.

The amount of say that local officials would have over spending decisions would follow similar lines, with decisions about state-level projects being driven entirely by data and decisions about regional projects being driven mostly by data.

Decisions about division-level spending would be a half-and-half mix of data and political advice from elected officials and residents.

House members tinkered with the formula by allotting regions a 30-percent share of future spending and divisions a 30-percent share. They thus increased the say of local leaders.

The governor’s proposal had strong support from city interests that have long complained that the state’s present system of allocations, last revised in the late 1980s, has tolerated high degrees of traffic congestion in urban areas.

“We think it’s a very positive bill, a significant step forward for the whole state,” said Julie White, director of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition.

The coalition, co-founded in 2001 by McCrory, former Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson and former Chapel Hill Mayor Rosemary Waldorf, lobbies for the interests of 28 of the state’s largest cities and towns. Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Cary, Apex and Raleigh are all members.

Local administrators are taking a wait-and-see stance to whether the plan will produce a major change in construction priorities. They won’t know how it’s working until they see DOT start ranking projects, Durham city Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen said.

“It’s difficult to say what it’ll do for any particular county because of the way the funding is addressed in three different categories,” Ahrendsen said. “Forty percent of the $15 billion [the state expects to spend] over 10 years goes to statewide projects. Some could be in Durham, others not. It’s hard to say.”

The regions that the governor’s proposal identifies are arbitrary and split the western Triangle.

They group Durham in one region with Raleigh and its suburbs, Orange County in another with the counties centered around Greensboro and Winston-Salem and Chatham County in a third with a largely rural assemblage of counties centered on the Pinehurst area.

The existing three-way scattering of Durham, Orange and Chatham into as many DOT’s operating divisions would also continue, contrary to the views of local officials who “would prefer that boundaries be modified to capture metropolitan areas,” Ahrendsen said.

Luebke – whose district covers the western and southern suburbs of Durham – said he opposed the bill for fear of its effect on rural areas.

“Without infrastructure, these rural counties are just going to shrivel up,” he said. “My conclusion was that this bill did not provide enough emphasis on the needs of the rural areas; in fact, the rural areas need more help than do the metropolitan areas right now.”

His analysis alluded to the sharp rural-urban split of unemployment patterns in the state. Durham and the rest of the Triangle have weathered the recession well, in relative terms, but double-digit unemployment percentages remain common in rural counties.

Luebke criticized bill sponsors in the House who argued that the governor’s proposal could accelerate work on links between small communities and major cities.

That’s in line with a strand of thinking about economic-development issues that contends healthy city industries are what drive rural development past subsistence-level sorts of enterprise, the two operating in symbiosis.

But Luebke said he thinks a city-centered approach “doesn’t really solve the problem of poverty and population loss in rural counties.”