When you ask North Carolina voters to name the top election issue in state politics, the most common answer — unless we are in the midst of a recession — is education.
That answer makes good sense. North Carolina state and local governments combined spend more on education, from preschool to grad school, than on any other program or service. While we may disagree about how best to improve student learning, most of us see that goal as closely linked to the health of families, the growth of the economy, and the strength of our republic.
Nevertheless, I’d also like to see candidates for governor, legislature, and local offices present and debate their views about the other major categories of government expenditure. One of them is transportation. North Carolina governments spend about $4.5 billion a year on transportation, with about 90 percent of it devoted to roads and bridges.
Over the past 10 years, there have been significant changes in state transportation policy, on both the spending side and the revenue side. Beginning under former Democratic governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue, and then accelerating under current Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, North Carolina has changed its funding formulas and explored new ways for motorists to fund the roadways they use.
The single-biggest change occurred in 2013, when McCrory and the state legislature enacted the Strategic Transportation Investments law. It changed the way states, regions, and localities set their priorities. Projects now compete with each other based on clearly stated goals such as reducing traffic congestion, increasing safety, and moving people and freight more efficiently.
In practice, North Carolina’s new “Strategy Mobility Formula” will have the effect of shifting scarce road dollars from projects that would have transported relatively few people to those that will transport lots of people. That’s good for North Carolinians as a whole — even those who may live in less-populous communities, because congested urban interstates can deter business locations or expansions and keep rural residents from accessing jobs, retail, and other amenities in metropolitan areas.
North Carolina is on the leading edge of a national movement to rethink how transportation dollars are spent. A couple of months ago, the Congressional Budget Office released a study of federal transportation priorities. It found that if a rigorous cost-benefit test were applied to federal dollars, they would go more to adding interstate lanes in congested urban areas, repairing other highways in and around metros, and repairing bridges on rural interstates, primary, and secondary roads.
On the revenue side, policymakers have added hundreds of millions of dollars a year to North Carolina transportation budgets. The most significant change was last year’s decision finally to end the transfer of gas tax revenue from the Highway Fund to the state’s General Fund. That followed efforts during the late Easley and Perdue administrations to phase out similar transfers of gas and car tax revenue from the Highway Trust Fund. Lawmakers also increased some Division of Motor Vehicles fees and changed the way North Carolina’s gas tax is calculated. The latter reduced tax collections in the short run but will allow them to rise more in the future in tandem with overall inflation.
Finally, the state reintroduced pay-for-use in roadways by constructing the Triangle Expressway, a toll road now in use along the southern side of the Raleigh-Durham metro, and contracting with a private firm to build and operate additional toll lanes on I-77 north of Charlotte.
Do North Carolina voters like the idea of paying tolls? Not according to a recent High Point University survey, which found 32 percent saying yes and 63 percent saying no. But that was actually the least-unpopular option for raising road revenue. Respondents disapproved of hiking gas taxes by a margin of 72 percent to 23 percent and overwhelmingly opposed charging motorists per vehicle mile traveled (87 percent to 10 percent).
These findings suggest the first priority should be to spend existing transportation revenues more wisely — something that North Carolina is already beginning to do. Stay on course.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.