Published 11:01 pm Friday, September 7, 2007
By Marc Finlayson
Highway 17 Association
Get the job done
The Highway 17 Association strongly supports convening a special legislative session this autumn to address the dramatic shortfall in revenues that fund our state’s transportation needs. The North Carolina General Assembly ran out of time to reach a consensus on a transportation finance package before its regular session adjourned in early August. Since then, much attention has been focused on the growing gap between available transportation revenues and the need for new state highways, adequate maintenance and upkeep of existing facilities and mass transit programs to relieve congestion in our urban centers. The Minnesota bridge collapse was a tragic reminder of the need for action.
Gov. Mike Easley indicated as of August 27 that he will meet with House and Senate leadership to name a task force to study transportation needs and finance options. Ostensibly, this panel would make recommendations to a future session of the General Assembly. The Highway 17 Association thinks the issue has already been studied thoroughly and that action needs to be taken now.
What previous study commissions have heard and what this task force would hear again is not encouraging. State fuel-tax revenues have been decreasing; federal highway appropriations to the state are less than the state collects in receipts; every year since 1989 millions in highway dollars are diverted to the state’s general fund; the cost of construction materials is skyrocketing; safety watchdogs rate North Carolina’s highways and bridges as well below par. The N.C. Department of Transportation has warned that the state faces transportation needs of some $122 billion over the next two decades, with revenues expected to be only $57 billion — creating a gargantuan $65 billion shortfall.
The long-term gap is so great that it may in fact be impossible for this 2007-08 General Assembly to conceive and implement the paradigm shift in revenue policy required to catch North Carolina up to its transportation obligations. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t make a good faith effort to begin the process now. At the very least there are some short-term issues that can be addressed, and several good proposals were being discussed in the waning days of the regular legislative session. Regardless of the solutions that are ultimately reached, our state’s transportation needs must be met, and the sooner our policy makers do so, the better. These are difficult problems and the answers will not be easy to calculate, but the Highway 17 Association believes the General Assembly has the courage and the fortitude to find the right answers. Another task force to study the issue will only postpone what must be inevitable action by the Legislature. The governor, or the legislators themselves, should reconvene the General Assembly this fall and begin to take that action.
It is our experience that the Department of Transportation Board members who represent the Highway 17 corridor do a terrific job allocating available funds to highway projects in their divisions - including Highway 17 - in a difficult climate where needs far outstrip resources. New and greater highway revenues for all of North Carolina will mean that there are also new and greater revenues for Highway 17. Our DOT Board members should have the resources they need.
It is also our experience that all 23 members of our Highway 17 legislative delegation care passionately about getting our highway fully improved as soon as possible. If they had a magic wand, U.S. Highway 17 would be finished tomorrow. However, since the task requires hard work and innovative solutions instead of magic, our legislators need to join their voices with ours. They need to ask the governor and their legislative leadership to enable them to return to Raleigh — and once there, they need to get the job done.