Local officials critique McCrory transportation plan

May. 16, 2013 @ 09:24 PM

Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed revamp of statewide transportation spending appears likely to continue to shortchange urban areas and may make it difficult for Wake County to finance its portion of a regional transit system, local officials say.

Members of the joint panel that oversees road and transit planning for Durham and Orange counties have asked their state senators for help as the governor’s proposal moves to their chamber.

They argue now’s the time to get it right.

“As this legislation may affect transportation funding for the next several decades, it is critical that a funding framework be put in place that can adapt to our changing future needs,” Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said in a letter for the joint panel, which includes officials from Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and their host counties.

The McCrory plan, as altered by the N.C. House on May 9, would govern the use of about $1.5 billion a year.

It reserves 40 percent of that – about $600 million annually – for projects of statewide importance that would receive funding strictly on data-determined merit.

Thirty percent – about $450 million a year – would be shared among seven legislatively defined regions and would be allotted to projects mostly on merit, with local officials given a bit of say over its use.

The remaining 30 percent, or $450 million a year, would be split equally among the N.C. Department of Transportation’s 14 operating divisions. Local officials would have a bigger say in its use.

McCrory’s plan originally called for allotting only 20 percent of the pie to divisions. But the House changed the split at the urging of rural legislators.

The division allotment is what Reckhow and her colleagues say is penalizing urban areas, as the division boundaries date from the 1930s and bear no relation to population patterns.

Division 5, DOT’s largest and the one containing Durham and Raleigh, has more than 1.4 million residents. But it will get the same allotment as Division 1, a grouping of northeastern and coastal counties that’s home to but 260,000 people, Reckhow said.

Moreover, DOT, in handing out the money, will have to count against urban areas some of the transportation grants they receive by right from the federal government. That means that in practice, Division 5, instead of receiving $32 million from the state, will only get about $16 million, Reckhow said.

Communities like Wilmington, Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Fayetteville will be in the same boat. And because the plan makes divisions solely responsible for many types of projects, the allocation will shortchange urban areas, she said.

While “it may be beyond the scope of what is feasible in this legislation,” state leaders “should consider changing these division boundaries to better align with population and metropolitan regions in the future,” Reckhow said.

On the transit front, Reckhow and her colleagues singled out a provision in the House bill that says a public transportation project can qualify for regional funding only if it spans two or more counties and two or more cities.

That’s no problem for the Durham-to-Chapel Hill light-rail system officials in those counties are planning, but it could turn into a major roadblock for a second line in Wake County, Reckhow said.

The Wake line would run from north Raleigh to the outskirts of Morrisville, which would meet the two-cities test. But because it would stop there, it would fail the two-county test and thus qualify only for division-level funding.

A third route, using heavier coaches on the N.C. Railroad to connect Durham and Raleigh, like the Durham-to-Chapel Hill light rail system would qualify for regional funding.

But officials from all three counties have been collaborating on the overall plan, making it “irrational” to classify their projects differently, Reckhow said.

She added that it’s also not clear in the bill that the state, in sizing up transit projects, will give extra credit to communities that, like Mecklenburg, Durham and Orange counties, are chipping in for them via local-option taxes.

The bill does clearly allow local contributions to sway funding decisions for road projects.

Reckhow’s letter went to state Sens. Eleanor Kinnaird, Floyd McKissick and Mike Woodard. All are Democrats. Kinnaird is from Orange County; McKissick and Woodard are from Durham.

The McCrory proposal split the two counties’ House delegations, with two members supporting it and three opposing it. One of the dissenters, state Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said afterward he voted against the bill because he thought it unfair to rural areas.

Woodard on Thursday said he has “a lot of serious reservations” about the governor’s plan, in part because of the federal-grant penalties on division allocations and in part because it “in essence punishes us for devising” a rail plan similar to the one McCrory advocated in Charlotte while he was that city’s mayor.

“It’s a real mixed bag with a lot of errors in there,” Woodard said of the bill, adding that he believes it “is going to undergo a lot of discussion in the Senate.”