Friday, April 17, 2015

N.C. transportation funding: 'If you're not at the table, you're on the menu'

A Charlotte light rail station
If you were at the Charlotte Chamber's 2015 Transportation Infrastructure Summit this morning, you got two pointed lectures. The first, from N.C. Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, was about dealing effectively with the N.C. General Assembly.

The background: North Carolina's transportation dollars aren't keeping up with needs. This is true whether you'd prefer new light rail and no roads, or new roads and no light rail, or whether you're thinking about ports, aviation and ferries. (Wonkish but important point: North Carolina doesn't have "county roads." Roads are either state- or city-maintained (or private).The state has a larger role in road-building and maintenance than in some other states.)

The gas tax, intended to support state transportation needs, is not keeping up, because people are driving less and driving more fuel-efficient cars, and transportation projects today are more expensive than in decades past.

For cities like Charlotte, growth and congestion mean more voters and businesses want mass transit as well as expanded roads. But the General Assembly today is dominated by Republicans who are more likely to represent rural or suburban districts. Here's Brawley's advice:

"Whenever you do anything to raise money for transportation ... you make people mad," he said. In that atmosphere, it's important to try to build a statewide consensus on funding before you even approach politicians. But when Charlotte comes to Raleigh seeking money for transportation projects, he said, "Charlotte comes with Charlotte-specific projects.They don't talk about the state as a whole. They don't work on building support with the state as a whole." In other words -- and this is my wording here -- act like you care about more than Charlotte.

His final words: "In Raleigh, if you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

The second lecture was even stronger. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (whose successor is former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx) would have pounded the table if he'd had a table to pound. "Transportation infrastructure is at a crossroads. It's at a standstill," he said. "It's at a crisis."

"The long rich history of our country ... is about being No. 1 in transportation and infrastructure," he said. "We're not No. 1 in infrastructure any more. We're No. 16."

 "America is one big pothole!" he all but shouted. "Because we haven't invested. We haven't fixed up our roads."

As he's done for months -- years, really -- LaHood, a Republican from Peoria, Ill., pushed the idea of raising the federal gas tax 10 cents a gallon, and indexing it to the cost of living. The tax has not been raised since 1993.

"We need to bit the bullet," he said. "Voters are not going to vote you out of office if you fix a big problem"