Officials question DOT plan for local input on transportation spending

Sep. 15, 2013 @ 01:45 PM

Local officials are worried that the input they were promised in Gov. Pat McCrory’s transportation-planning reform bill might be diluted by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

DOT staffers charged with implementing the new law have rolled out a proposal that indicates the agency’s 14 in-house division engineers will have a big say, equal in weight to that of local elected officials, in how money flows to regional- and division-level road and transit projects.

The idea has already sparked discussion and dissent at both the state and local levels. Elected officials from Durham and Orange counties who sit on a joint road-planning group will weigh in via a letter to the state.

“We think that it should be revisited because we feel that we should be the local input,” said Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, chairwoman of the cross-county Transportation Advisory Committee. “It probably gives too much weight to the state.”

The proposal also sparked questions at a meeting last week of the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee, a group of state House and Senate members who keep an eye between General Assembly sessions on what DOT is up to.

The lead sponsor of the reform bill, state Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, was among those who questioned the idea of giving DOT’s division engineers so large a say.

“Part of my concern is I’m not certain how much local people consider a state employee to be ‘local’ input,” Brawley said in an interview a couple days after the oversight panel’s meeting.

DOT officials justify the proposal on the grounds that the metropolitan and rural planning organizations that 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 oversight committee.

But 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.

It 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 – about $900 million a year, out of the $1.5 billion a year the state intends to spend.

But legislators never really defined “local,” so now DOT’s doing it for them.

Brawley said when he was “running” House Bill 817 for the governor, he hadn’t necessarily realized that DOT had long given its division engineers a big say in how the state allots money to project.

The current proposal in some sense is therefore formalizing past practice. But Brawley said House Bill 817 was meant to be “a new start” for road planning in North Carolina.

“I was working very closely with staff, other legislators and representatives of the governor’s office, and I was concentrating on how we should do it, not [on] how we’ve done it in the past,” he said.

Brawley indicated he wouldn’t necessarily oppose a 50-50 split in say between division engineers and local officials, provided “everybody involved is comfortable with” it. Talks on the implementation of the new system are continuing.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell, a city representative on the Transportation Advisory Committee, said local officials may also raise the issue with state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata.

“We are going to strive to make this thing have as broad a support [base] and as much transparency as possible,” Brawley said. “The key is we must do a better job in the way we fund roads in North Carolina and in the way we allocate the money so people will have confidence their state government is spending their tax money well.”