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McCrory comes to Asheville, calls for $1 billion transportation bond, I-26 and Hwy 74 overhauls
ASHEVILLE — Gov. Pat McCrory said Wednesday that he hopes to overhaul North Carolina’s transportation system and wants dollars to help fund the widening of Interstate 26 and turn Highway 74 into an interstate.
“We’re trying to take the politics out of transportation planning,” McCrory said during a press conference held at the Asheville Regional Airport, one of four he and N.C. Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata held across the state yesterday. “Our main goal is to connect citizens with our airports, our water ports, our health care, our education and our jobs.”
McCrory invoked President Dwight Eisenhower frequently as he spoke to a small boardroom packed with legislators and local officials as he presented his “25-Year Vision Plan,” which he said will have as similar an effect on the state as Eisenhower’s interstate building of the 1950s.
“I think we can do the same thing here in North Carolina,” McCrory said, framing the issue primarily as one of economic development.
“The governor’s 25-year vision is about connectivity,” Tata said. “Some areas are seeing a boom, and some areas could use some help. This plan is intended to connect small towns with large cities. It’s intended to address the congestion we’re seeing in those larger cities.”
To that end, McCrory hopes to make the overhaul of I-26 around Asheville a major priority.
The project, debated for decades, saw some pieces approved earlier this year, though it will likely be years before construction begins.
While endorsed by some elected officials and business leaders as necessary to relieve congestion and improve the economy, the plans for the highway’s expansion have been controversial due to concerns about the its impact on the city, environmental impacts and the number of homes that will be demolished in the city’s Burton Street neighborhood.
“It’s a $153 million project that will better connect people,” McCrory said. “That is a major priority of our 25-year transportation plan.”
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The plan also makes the relocation of Highway 74 in Graham County a big priority as a part of the multistate Corridor K transportation network to Asheville to help create a “clean shot to Wilmington,” McCrory said, and make goods move more efficiently and “get rid of these choke points as quickly as possible.” Road improvements around Boone are also a priority.
The presentation of the plan also included mentions of funding for improved rail — in Western North Carolina the focus will be on freight rail — and mass transit and even improved broadband.
Without these changes, the plans assert, local economies will decline.
“This is not just about transportation; it’s about all infrastructure,” he added.
But good ideas or bad, the plans will require lots of cash — infrastructure isn’t cheap. The state is currently facing an anticipated budget shortfall and requests for over $70 billion in transportation projects, according to the plan.
So when the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes early next year, McCrory said he plans to go to the legislature and ask for a $1 billion bond.
When asked, McCrory said there are no plans to use toll roads on I-26, though he does want to engage in more “public-private partnerships” to overcome flat or declining transportation revenues, and “we’re examining all options.”
“We’re open to any way to increase the amount of revenue we have at this time; we have to think outside the box,” he said.
Asked after the presentation if the plan will mean the I-26 connector is completed more quickly than currently anticipated, Tata replied that “we’re still working through the timing and phasing. We have to make sure that the permits are there and so forth. I’ve asked my staff to look at the connector as a potential project down the road.”
“We’re not done analyzing the phasing of the I-26 project,” he added.
County commissioners, Asheville City Council members, sheriffs and state Rep. Nathan Ramsey (R-Buncombe) were all in attendance for the announcement.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer praised McCrory’s plan, especially the prioritizing of I-26.
“Please continue to focus on I-26, it’s a big priority for us,” she said.
She also praised the proposal’s intent to connect multimodal infrastructure to the new roads, and McCrory noted that “we’re trying to use art to de-emphasize the hard infrastructure.”
Asheville City Council member Jan Davis noted that he felt the state’s formula had improved for despite the emphasis on I-26, turning it into reality might still prove difficult, as “we still have a $90 million shortfall on making that project happen.”
“It’s still kind of a glimmering hope for us,” Davis said.
My question on the prospect of tolls on I-26:
The “experiment” on pay lanes as he calls them, is the I-77 widening project. It has caused massive controversy in the region between Statesville and Charlotte, especially within the GOP. If Thom Tillis loses the election, I guarantee you that his support for privatized toll lanes on I-77 will be cited as a major contributor. But they pushed for it anyway, despite the opposition, and the initial contracts with a Spanish company to build and operate these HOT lanes, or “Lexus Lanes”, is moving ahead. Leaked studies have suggested that motorists in that region can expect to pay up to $20 per roundtrip commute during peak usage periods. That contract will run for 50 years.
The argument justifying this radical step is that the State simply doesn’t have the money to pay for widening I-77 with general purpose lanes, and so is forced to solicit outside funding sources. Given the growing revenue shortfalls created by this Governor and General Assembly, does anyone believe that this argument won’t re-appear when the I-26 widening project comes around? The materials presented by Gov. McCrory indicate that they already are planning to accelerate the use of “public-private partnerships” and “managed lanes” to pay for highway construction.
“Managed lanes” is code for tolls, and I think we can expect them to come to I-26 if there isn’t a strong opposition mounted early.