Good for Gene Conti. North Carolina’s new transportation secretary did a few remarkable things Friday. He sat in front of a room full of local elected officials and took questions – something no N.C. transportation secretary in recent memory has done.
And he said, out loud and in front of those officials, that the state’s so-called equity formula for divvying up roads money needs a change. “We’re a more urban state,” he said. “It’s time to take a look.”
We’re not naampïve enough to believe that just because a transportation secretary says something in Mecklenburg County, his words automatically translate into action in Raleigh. Conti himself warned the collection of politicians and planners gathered in Pineville that any change in the road-funding formula would need approval in the legislature.
But his remarks to the Planning Coordinating Committee – a collaboration among the county’s seven municipalities, county commissioners and school board – and earlier to the Observer’s editorial board gave a consistent message. It was this: The old way of letting politics trump policy is over at the N.C. Department of Transportation.
The appointed board of transportation will focus on setting broad policies, he said, not approvals for individual projects. This, of course, would be a seismic shift in ancient political routines, in which big campaign donors got appointed to the board and then set about approving projects to help political and business allies – and sometimes themselves. Plenty of state road projects over the decades were built through, or next to, board members’ property. It’s also a not-very-beloved state tradition for projects favored by politically connected developers to mysteriously pop up atop priority lists.
Conti’s remarks on the equity formula were welcome in this urban county, whose leaders believe it doesn’t get an equitable share of state road-building money to fight growing congestion. The funding rules are nuts. In trying to balance rural and urban needs, certainly a legitimate concern, the 1989-era formula divvies funds using DOT highway divisions, which were set up decades ago based on where state prisons were. For example, Wake, Durham, Orange, Chatham and Johnston counties – all part of one metro economy and commute-shed – are in four different funding regions.
N.C. Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, who also spoke at the Pineville event, predicted a legislative study of the equity formula would start when this General Assembly session ends.
Good. State transportation needs are vast and complicated. Any system based on where prison road gangs could be found 50 years ago is overdue for change. Cautions from Carney and Conti are well-founded: Legislative votes will be needed and rural votes outnumber urban ones. But it’s long past time to get started on sensible changes, and Conti appears to recognize it and to have Gov. Bev Perdue’s backing. That’s a most welcome start.
- The Charlotte Observer