Editorial: Transportation solution won't be painless

May. 05, 2013 @ 01:10 AM

Everyone thinks someone else’s ox deserves to be gored.

Prepare for the wailing when the details of Gov. Pat McCrory’s transportation funding proposal eventually get translated to dollars and asphalt.

No one much likes the current transportation formula, established in 1989 as a compromise between Republican Gov. Jim Martin and the Democratic legislature. But the reason no one likes it is that no one gets as much money as they want.

McCrory isn’t proposing to increase funding, so how is it that anyone expects a majority of people to be happy with the changes?

“The key point is being data-driven, to get the politics out of it,” state Sen. Neal Hunt of Wake County told the News & Observer a couple of weeks ago.

“It gets the money to projects where it is needed most,” House Speaker Thom Tillis said.

Uh huh.

Your definition of what is needed most varies quite a bit based on where you live. If you live anywhere near Charlotte, you want another 13 lanes of pavement on every highway in the metro region so you can speed home at 65 mph at rush hour instead of 5 mph. If you live in Dare County, you might want a better highway to get up to potential jobs in Hampton Roads. If you live in Boone, you want a way to get all the students and tourists the heck out of your way so you can get to the grocery store.

As the N&O’s Rob Christensen reported, regional leaders rarely agree on bigger statewide needs, which is exactly why, as McCrory has noted, sometimes one region’s four-lane road peters out into another region’s two-lane road, the widening of which remains a lower priority for that region than other road projects.

So what happens if McCrory’s new formula determines that the bigger statewide needs require spending the lion’s share of funding in the big corridors between urban regions, leaving little elsewhere? Or if it says that the big, pet project in Tillis’ district is not one of the big statewide needs? (Anyone want to lay odds on any House speaker sitting still for that?)

Indeed, McCrory's idea isn't even law yet, and already legislators are trying to carve out pet projects that would be immune from its funding formula. The House Finance Committee added an amendment Thursday to authorize a bridge project in the Wilmington area, another in the far northeast corner of the state, and a parkway between Charlotte and Gaston County. The legislators defending these projects have perfectly good reasons -- but so would everyone else with a pet project.

McCrory and his team acknowledge there isn't enough money to keep everyone happy. Their solution seems to be: Trust us. Jim Trogdon, the Department of Transportation’s chief deputy for operations, told legislators last week that DOT should move to a more efficient spending model right away, and then figure out for the long run how to raise more money to meet the state’s overall transportation needs.

So Caldwell County, like all the other rural areas, agrees to give up whatever portion of highway money currently is guaranteed to it by the complex, compromise formula no one really likes, and then if the new formula doesn’t send any of that money back we should just rest easy until the no-new-taxes administration and legislative leadership discovers the magic, painless pot of money that must be out there that will let the state get more revenue than ever to address everyone’s needs?

The 1989 funding compromise didn’t come about because Martin and the legislative leaders of the time were idiots (not all of them, anyway). It came about precisely because no one could agree on what McCrory is aiming to create: a system that sets overall, statewide priorities.

The problem now is that the funding is less and less able to keep up with the state’s needs. The funding is largely from the gas tax, which means inflation eats it away, and increasing fuel efficiency means each car contributes less and less. Already that translates to an ever growing list of unmet needs across the state. Changing the system without raising taxes, by definition, means some will see even fewer of their regional needs met in order to send more money to others' needs.

Oxen will be gored. The only questions are whose, and where.

We wish McCrory luck, but we will not be holding our breath waiting for a harmonious outcome.