North Carolina committee tackles transportation funding

| 8/25/2008

A committee studying transportation funding in North Carolina has been around for only one year, but it is already affecting the way the state pays for infrastructure projects.

The North Carolina 21st Century Transportation Committee, a 24-member panel of elected and appointed officials created by leaders of the state House and Senate in 2007, meets once each month in Raleigh, NC, to discuss funding.

Chairman Brad Wilson said during a meeting Aug. 20 that all options for funding remain on the table, including toll roads, an increase in the state fuel tax, and a possible tax on vehicle miles traveled.

“Everything is certainly on the table,” Canaan Huie, finance counsel for the North Carolina House of Representatives, told Land Line.

The General Assembly has approved, and Gov. Mike Easley has signed, several committee recommendations into law, including a provision that will pay for the state’s first toll road.

A budget bill – HB2436 – signed by Easley on July 16 came out of the 21st Century Committee earlier this year. It included a provision to recapture $172 million in annual funding that was being transferred from the state’s Highway Trust Fund into the general fund.

That money now goes back to transportation, although $75 million of it will be used by the North Carolina Turnpike Authority to build four toll roads. The list of projects includes the state’s first toll road, a loop in the Raleigh metro known as the Triangle Expressway.

Assembly leadership created the committee to address what Gov. Easley says will be a $65 billion shortfall for transportation over the next 30 years.

“In the coming months, the committee will be looking at ways to address that $65 billion shortfall,” Huie said.

The next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 10 and 11 in Asheville, NC. Meetings are open to the public, but public comments are received at the discretion of the chairman.

Huie said public participation up to this point has been from cities, counties and some stakeholder groups. He said he was not aware of any truckers coming forward with comments or ideas.

The General Assembly adjourned its session July 18 and will not return until January 2009 with the exception of a brief veto session, Huie said.

Other ideas being floated by committee members include uncapping a portion of the state fuel tax that state lawmakers capped during the 2007-08 session.

“Our gas tax is made up of fixed and variable components,” Huie said. “If the cap were to be removed, our gas tax currently would be about 5 cents higher than it is right now.”

Huie said the committee is also discussing a tax on vehicle miles traveled as an eventual replacement for fuel taxes.

Committee members are also discussing the possibility of tolls on Interstate 95, an increase in vehicle registration fees, and the possibility of issuing general obligation bonds to pay for specific transportation projects.

“These were up for discussion,” Huie said. “There were no concrete proposals at this time.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer