Cover Story: NC road funding formula

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

Signs of a down economy are written in potholes and unfinished projects on roads all around our area.

Consider I-485 broke ground 22 years ago.  Now, the outer belt--stalled.  The state wants to turn Independence Boulevard into a freeway.  It's taken forever.  The I-85 Yadkin River Bridge AAA calls structurally deficient.  A replacement? Not on the books yet.

The common factor--not enough cash to finish the job.  Critics say one possible reason for that is North Carolina's transportation equity formula.

Tuesday, the North Carolina legislature began opening that law up for a review.

Say "equity formula" to most people and you'd get a blank stare.  But show people roads being built for very few drivers and you're sure to get drivers who sit in congestion in the city fired up.

Ribbon cutting six weeks ago on US Highway 17 in eastern North Carolina.  A great example critics say of what's wrong with the equity formula.  A brand new four-lane road that in 2000 carried an average of 21,000 cars a day.  And had the same daily traffic count 8 years later in 2008.

Tell that to Charlotteans who stew congestion.

Charlotteans like Stan Davis.  It takes him ten minutes to get out of his neighborhood onto Monroe Road if he comes out at the wrong time.  It doesn't matter if it's morning or night.

He says, "You can't go hardly anywhere between 6:30 and 9 o'clock without congestion. Or from about 3:30 to 6:30 without congestion."

Under the equity formula road money is divided into seven districts.  Half the money that goes to each district is based on population.  The other half is what's at issue.  25-percent of the funding is determined by the miles of unfinished roads a district has.  The last 25-percent is divided equally among the seven districts.  So an urban district gets the same amount as a rural district.

The formula was created in 1989 when North Carolina was a much different state.  It had the goal of ensuring every North Carolinian would live within ten miles of a four-lane highway.

A worthy goal but as the state's cities have exploded over the last decade critics say it's a model that needs changing.  Especially now when gas taxes and other revenue can't keep up.

"It's one of the reasons we're having the problem now is we have been unable to raise our gasoline tax," says AAA Carolinas' Tom Crosby.  "We've been unable to fund our needs and so now everybody's now squabbling over the smaller pie that's left."

For years, few in the General Assembly have been willing to tinker with the equity formula.  Rural lawmakers, who wield a lot of power, say the state promised them roads too which they need for economic development.

"Transportation is like a business," says Rep. Nelson Cole, Democrat of Rockingham County.  "Where you have good transportation corridors you will local businesses. It's location, location. But for rural areas it's transportation, transportation."

Urban mayors have become vocal.  And lawmakers from the big cities are hearing from their constituents.  Congestion their number one complaint.

Today, a joint House-Senate transportation committee began discussions on the equity formula starting a process that some hope could lead toward reform.

Are the cities really not getting their fair share?

When you look at spending on a per-capita basis Mecklenburg county ranks near the bottom 89th out of 100 counties in the state.  Union and Gaston county fare even worse 97th and 98th out of 100.

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