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This story originally appeared here and is published by Carolina Public Press through a content-sharing agreement with The Charlotte Observer.
By Steve Harrison
A year after Gov. Pat McCrory created data-driven rankings to “take politics out of road building,” the governor has proposed borrowing $1 billion for new highway construction, possibly for road projects that scored near the bottom of his new evaluation system.
McCrory’s plan, unveiled last week, is designed to kick-start highway projects to spark economic development, with much of the spending in rural areas.
But some critics say the program is bringing politics back into the N.C. Department of Transportation.
One project being considered for special funding is part of a proposed bypass around Rockingham, costing $128.3 million.
When the DOT released its new data-driven rankings earlier this year, as part of McCrory’s Strategic Transportation Investments, the Rockingham bypass ranked near the bottom.
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In the state’s ranking of 458 highway projects of statewide significance, only 30 projects had a lower score than the U.S. 220 bypass in Rockingham.
The DOT’s draft list also includes a $62 million highway widening in Northampton County. The U.S. 158 project near Roanoke Rapids also scored poorly in the DOT’s data rankings earlier this year, with only 64 projects having a lower score.
Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter, who was a state senator when McCrory’s Strategic Transportation Investments ranking system was passed last year, said Friday he hadn’t studied the issue in detail.
But he added the new $1 billion borrowing plan “doesn’t seem to be fully consistent with STI (the Strategic Transportation Investments ranking system).”
The N.C. DOT defended the proposal, stressing that the list of projects under consideration for the special funding isn’t final.
State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said in a statement an important criterion for projects under consideration for the $1 billion proposal is that they be “nearly permit ready.”
Mike Charbonneau, a DOT deputy secretary for communications, said he couldn’t answer whether any of the other higher ranked projects were nearly permit ready because he said the STI rankings are still being adjusted.
Tata said the criteria for being funded from the proposed bond is that a project has completed planning documents and has been scored by the state’s new rankings system. The DOT didn’t say whether a project needed a minimum score.
“We are looking at projects that will help connect rural areas to jobs, health care, and education centers,” Tata said. “A transportation bond will help us address critical needs with our limited funds, especially in rural areas.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill has sued the state over several transportation projects, including the proposed Monroe Connector/Bypass in Union County.
The law center said it supports the data-driven rankings that were passed last year. But the group said McCrory’s plan last week strays from those rankings.
“It’s back to politics,” said Kym Hunter, a law center attorney.
Transportation consultant David Hartgen, a former UNC Charlotte professor, said McCrory’s first vision of using data-driven rankings was “an important step.”
But he said borrowing money for low-scoring highways is questionable.
“We seem to be going back,” he said. “Under the current scoring, some of these projects would have difficulty faring well.”
Replacing the Equity Formula
When McCrory was Charlotte mayor, he and others in urban areas complained about the 1989 Equity Formula for transportation funding. McCrory said the formula favored rural areas over cities.
McCrory, a Republican, persuaded the General Assembly last year to replace the Equity Formula with his new data-driven rankings. That formula gives weight to factors such as economic development and congestion relief, which can favor cities.
Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College, said McCrory’s new proposal could have been planned with an eye to 2016, when he is up for re-election.
He said rural N.C. voters are now the Republican base.
“The fastest-growing parts of the state are in urban areas,” Bitzer said. “Rural N.C. is saying, ‘What’s there to help us catch up with urban areas?’ ”
There are no Mecklenburg County projects under consideration for the $1 billion bond, although a few in the region made the list.
There is a $12.4 million project in Cabarrus County to widen Derita Road and a $21 million project to improve N.C. 273 in Gaston County. The state is also considering speeding up improvements to U.S. 74 in Cleveland County.
Part of the lack of local projects could be because the state already is advancing a number of large highway projects in the area. For instance, the state recently widened Interstate 85 in Cabarrus County and is nearing completion of the outerbelt in northeast Charlotte and the widening of I-485. It’s also rebuilding a section of Independence Boulevard.
DOT is also planning to widen I-77 in north Mecklenburg with toll lanes, though motorists would pay for much of the cost through tolls.
The Charlotte Chamber issued a statement that said it supports McCrory’s plan unveiled last week. Natalie English of the chamber said that the data-driven ranking remains part of McCrory’s vision.
“There isn’t enough funding to address our state’s transportation infrastructure needs,” she said. “This bond proposal is in addition to the (rankings) and is a start to finding additional funding and financing solutions.”
Ned Curran, CEO of Charlotte-based Bissell Cos., is the chairman of the N.C. DOT board. He declined to comment on how the bond proposal compares with the rankings, referring Observer questions to Tata’s statement.
Some scored well
Some projects on the DOT’s draft list for bond money scored well in the data-driven rankings system.
Building part of a Winston-Salem outerbelt – at at cost of more than $180 million – is on the draft list. When ranked earlier this year, the Winston-Salem loop scored higher than 364 out of 458 projects. Most of the projects that scored higher are already funded.
Another outerbelt project, in Fayetteville, could also be fast-tracked. The loop project – costing more than $186 million – ranked 131st-best out of 485 projects.
But in addition to the Rockingham bypass and Northampton County highway widening, there are other projects that might not be funded if the state stuck to its new rankings.
One is a nearly $155 million project to build a new section of N.C. 24 in Sampson County. Its STI score put it in the bottom half of statewide projects.