The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

October 12, 2012

Fixing something that is actually broken

Scott Mooneyham

Friday, October 12, 2012 — RALEIGH — It is a rather remarkable campaign season in North Carolina.

Some politicians argue that government is broken. Against that backdrop, state legislators huddle to draft a major overhaul of tax policy.

Meanwhile, few talk about what is very near the breaking point in North Carolina: the state’s system of financing road construction and maintenance.

The signs that the breaking point is near are everywhere, and they go back quite a bit in time.

They can be seen in legislators’ comments that the state can’t afford a new major coastal bridge, even when tolls would pick up 30 percent of the cost. They can be seen in the state’s ambivalent and piecemeal approach to tolls, where it isn’t exactly clear what the priority is for tolling.

They can even be seen in a decade-old change to road financing that allowed road construction dollars to be used more effectively, a change that the then secretary of transportation deemed the most significant change to state road-building policy since the creation of the state’s Highway Trust Fund.

That a change in cash-flow management could be characterized that way is a bigger reflection on the looming problems than the actual policy.

The policy problems for road building and maintenance are pretty straightforward.

The state’s road building and maintenance money largely flows from the gasoline taxes paid by motorists. As more cars and truck move to alternative sources of fuel, and more cars become more fuel efficient, that source of money will dwindle.

Already the cost of road construction and maintenance is rising. One reason is that a primary component of asphalt is petroleum.

So far, the state’s road-building finances haven’t suffered drastically because of a rising population and an increase in miles driven by motorists has meant that dollars collected in the state’s two road-building accounts have risen too.

The taxes paid are also tied to the price of gasoline, furthering the increased collections.

The state’s Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund take in about $3.1 billion a year right now. With federal highway dollars, the state spends about $4 billion on transportation.

That money, though, supports the second-largest state-maintained road system in the country, with over 78,000 miles of roadway the responsibility of state government.

The other day, I spoke to a group in Elizabeth City and one of the first questions was about the fate of a proposal to build a second bridge across Currituck Sound, a project that would cost $650 million but alleviate congestion created by tourists traveling to the Outer Banks.

A legislator, speaking about the project a couple of days later, said that the numbers don’t add up.

Maybe he is right. Perhaps, in this case, the costs don’t justify the need.

If, on the other hand, the state’s response to every major bridge or road proposal becomes some combination of can’t, won’t or toss your quarters here, maybe state leaders ought to start examining something that isn’t just broken when a catchy campaign slogan is needed.

Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist for Capitol Press Association and covers activities of the N.C. Legislature.