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A New Momentum

by Christa Wagner

December 6,2007

North Carolinians want more commuter rail, more light rail, more buses and fewer cars on the road. That's the conclusion I reached after conducting an informal, statewide survey with members of the Sierra Club, the environmental advocacy group I work for in Raleigh.

Transportation issues are emerging as a major issue in public policy debates. The Governor's recently appointed 21st Century Transportation Committee has been charged with contemplating transportation issues in the interim between legislative sessions. When the General Assembly reconvenes in May, the Committee will report on ways to improve the transportation system and how to pay for it. It's a tall order but it's the right time to be thinking about these issues. The electorate appears to be, at least in Charlotte, overwhelmingly committed to a transportation future with more mass-transit options.

Resoundingly, voters expressed their continued support for the decisions of city leaders to invest in transit-oriented development in a ballot initiative this fall. Charlotte's good decision should provide a model for the rest of the state. And, taken from the responses to our informal Sierra Club survey, there are a host of smart transportation policy decisions the state can make now – many in the vein of the Charlotte example – which take the best advantage of local and state partnerships.

The state spends millions of dollars a year on infrastructure (water and sewer) and billions of dollars on transportation. Many believe that those funds could be better directed to promote smarter growth. One suggestion: local governments resume responsibility for local roads. Counties used to be in charge, but after the Depression when budgets were busted, the state assumed control of maintenance and construction for the majority of roads in the state. Another contributing factor was the thinking that the state would be a better gatekeeper of the intra-county transportation system in the interest of the larger community of users.

If road building is returned to the counties, the next important task is making a clear and concerted appeal to the electorate to pay for it. (The failed referendum to pay for some of the costs of growth on the ballot in 16 counties this election was a set-back, but not a permanent defeat.) If the assumption is that when local governments have financial responsibility for roads, it results in increased accountability and better land use planning, then this new local responsibility makes sense. A key lesson from Charlotte is that voters will pay for the projects if they are clearly defined. The ballot measure in Charlotte wasn't an arbitrary bid for “transportation funding;” it was a measure to keep in place the local revenue source for a project the community and local leadership was excited about. There was a shared future vision.

Good natured ribbing of the state's DOT for redacting information in reports and hiring expensive consultants hasn’t been beneath the punditocracy lately. Yes, we've got a problem. So where do we go from here? In North Carolina, the prevailing operating principle since our christening as the “good roads State” at the turn of the century is that roads are the main driver of economic development. But that contention rings a little hollow in the face of Charlotte’s light rail project becoming the anchor of at least $1 billion in new development. The components of road construction – concrete, petroleum based-tar and steel – aren’t the only things getting more expensive. The cost of building and maintaining a highway infrastructure will be hugely impacted when a price is assigned to carbon emissions and the cost of freight transportation and long commutes jumps. North Carolina can prepare for the new costs of doing business by establishing a protocol to carefully scrutinize the economic benefits from building new roads. How much are we going to spend and what will we get for it?

A lot of thinking about that question went into the light rail project in Charlotte – and it's paid off. Gobs of money was spent in the weeks before the election in a vain effort to assert that what the public really wanted was the freedom to choose to be stuck in traffic. But over 70 percent voted to have the freedom to enjoy a stress-free commute. Opportunity has rolled up and we’d be wise to take it.

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