New studies show shortcomings in the state’s infrastructure with crumbling bridges and roads putting North Carolinians at risk.
A study commissioned by former Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon gave the state’s infrastructure a “mediocre” rating. The report called for an additional investment of at least $20 billion over the next 10 years to move it to a “good” rating.
The NC FIRST Commission, a 13-member group formed in 2019 to assess the state’s transportation status and needs, found that the state relies on revenue from only a few sources that are dependent on increasingly outdated forms of travel.
In a January letter to N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette, the commission’s co-chairs said the problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused millions of drivers to stay at home.
“We are entering a new era characterized by dramatic population growth and seismic technological, social and environmental disruptions to the transportation sector,” according to the letter authored by Co-Chairs Nancy McFarlane, former mayor of Raleigh, and Howard Nye, CEO of international building materials company Martin Marietta, headquartered in Raleigh.
“As a result, traditional revenues are already inadequate to meet our state’s increasingly growing needs; moreover, they will continue to decline.”
A national study, published in March, confirmed the state’s infrastructure needs.
The American Society of Civil Engineers report card, issued every four years by civil engineers across the country, gave a C-minus for the nation’s infrastructure. The findings in North Carolina showed that 9.3% of the state’s bridges are rated structurally deficient and drinking water needs are an estimated $16.8 billion.
“This deteriorating infrastructure impedes North Carolina’s ability to compete in an increasingly global marketplace,” according to the ASCE report.
“Success in a 21st-century economy requires serious, sustained leadership on infrastructure investment at all levels of government. Delaying these investments only escalates the cost and risks of an aging infrastructure system, an option that the country, North Carolina and families can no longer afford.”
The information on North Carolina’s struggling infrastructure takes place against the backdrop of a national conversation about infrastructure. In late March, President Joe Biden announced a $2 trillion plan to “rebuild the backbone of America,” including $621 billion for transportation and infrastructure.
“It’s a once-in-a-generation investment in America, unlike anything we’ve seen or done since we built the interstate highway system and the space race decades ago,” Biden said at a press conference in Pittsburgh.
If passed by Congress, Biden’s American Jobs Plan would modernize 20,000 miles of highways and roads, repair 10,000 bridges, double federal spending on existing public transit networks, provide $85 billion to repair and build new railroad lines, and build a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations.
Searching for solutions
NCDOT spokesman Andrew Barksdale declined to comment on the ASCE report but said the NC FIRST Commission report and a plan published by the department called NC Moves 2050 speak for themselves.
The shift in North Carolinians’ behaviors, especially around driving, creates shifts in infrastructure funding. An increasing number of drivers in electric or hybrid vehicles and more and more commuters relying on ride-share alternatives could create funding challenges, Barksdale said.
“Things are changing; how people get around is changing,” he said. “Over half of the department’s revenue comes from the gas tax (motor fuels tax). But guess what? When you drive an electric car, you’re not paying a gas tax.”
The NCDOT also faces funding challenges due to recent hurricanes and hundreds of lawsuits throughout the state caused by the now-defunct Map Act, which allowed the state to seize land for future highway projects without fair compensation to landowners. The N.C. Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional in 2016, paving the way for plaintiffs to collect roughly $600 million by May 2020, according to News and Observer.
The massive legal settlements and storm-related damage to roads and bridges caused NCDOT to fall below its legally mandated cash floor last year, leading to furloughs and long delays of urgent projects.
The Hampstead Bypass plan in Pender County would build a road connecting the burgeoning Wilmington area to an increasingly congested U.S. 17 along the coast. After a five-year legal battle with a national developer who owned 660 acres of land where the bypass will merge with U.S. 17, the department settled for $17.5 million last October.
In the coastal city of Wilmington, little developable land between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean exists today, causing growth to sprawl north to Hampstead and Jacksonville and west toward Leland — the state’s fastest-growing town.
In mid-February, McFarlane told the Wilmington City Council that the report provides “clear evidence” that NCDOT is underfunded while highway conditions are getting worse and becoming more congested and dangerous.
“Currently, our infrastructure rates a C, or average, and we know that’s not a great selling point. We’re trying to bring jobs and boost our economy, so we are looking at an additional investment of $20 billion over the next 10 years,” McFarlane said.
To move away from a reliance on the motor fuels tax, the commission recommended that the state legislature increase the highway use tax from 3% to 5%. Mcfarlane said neighboring states enforce a 5% tax, and if North Carolina adopted the same rate, it would pull in almost $600 million in additional transportation revenues.
McFarlane told Wilmington council members the commission also proposed increasing the sales tax from 4.75% to 5.25% while lowering the motor fuels tax by 9 cents per gallon, which would create a net $4.2 billion increase in revenues.
The commission also urged the General Assembly to consider increasing or adopting four fees paid by drivers to the Division of Motor Vehicles: increasing the electric vehicle fee and weight-based registration fees while adopting a new plug-in hybrid fee and road impact fee.
The proposals are centered on fairness and more efficiently taxing those who are using the state’s road system, according to McFarlane.
“People should pay based on their use of the transportation network and the damage caused by that use,” McFarlane said.
The department is “building for resiliency,” according to Barksdale, and it recently completed a feasibility study after Hurricane Florence on how to improve stretches of I-95 and I-40 to better withstand future storms.
The commission presented its recommendations to the House Transportation Committee.
Politics at play
The NC FIRST Commission’s recommendations rest with Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly, according to Barksdale.
“This is now in the hands of the governor and state legislature. We’ll be following what they decide to do,” he said.
The governor’s recently proposed budget includes $1.1 billion toward infrastructure, “and the state has strong budget availability with almost $5 billion in unreserved money in the general fund,” said Cooper spokesperson Dory MacMillan.
The governor’s budget also proposed a $4.7 billion bond “to address some of these critical needs,” MacMillan said.
“Additionally, the American Rescue Plan will provide the state with nearly $5.6 billion, which the governor will offer recommendations for in the coming weeks and could include more resources to strengthen the state’s infrastructure,” she said.
On Friday morning, state Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, who co-chairs the House Transportation Committee, drove to Castle Hayne, just north of Wilmington, to meet with NCDOT officials about the most pressing infrastructure needs in his district, one of the fastest-growing in the state.
The highest-priority projects are the Carolina Bays Parkway — officials are tasked with figuring how far inland it needs to be constructed to connect the future bypass from South Carolina to the Shallotte Bypass, and later to the Wilmington Bypass — and the construction of a new, higher bridge across the Cape Fear River near downtown Wilmington, he said.
Iler wants a focus on improving the connection of the state’s railroad network to the Port of Wilmington and the U.S. military’s Sunny Point ammunition port — the world’s largest military terminal.
The two ports are within 5 miles of each other on the Cape Fear River. Lumber, chemicals, plastics and other commodities are transported from the Port of Wilmington on a rail line that passes through the city.
Iler said he supports the commission’s proposals, especially for a region that needs to keep up with a major influx of new residents from across the country.
“People are buying houses and bringing in businesses almost over the phone,” Iler said. “They buy houses on the phone right now — (people) from New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Ohio, just all over, getting out of the cities right now.”
Drivers of electric and hybrid cars should “pay their fair share” in the form of the commission’s proposed road usage fee, “because they are wearing out the roads at the same rate that gasoline-powered vehicles are wearing out the roads,” he said.
Some of the proposals are problematic for Iler, such as a mileage usage fee that would be difficult to determine for many drivers, especially those coming from out of state. A device that might enable usage tracking would present considerable privacy concerns, according to Iler.
As the new proposals make their rounds through the halls of the General Assembly, Iler also said it will be a challenge to determine the state’s highest infrastructure priorities.
“It’s hard to come up with a simple answer,” Iler said.