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McCrory unveils big-picture NC transportation plan

RALEIGH— Gov. Pat McCrory Wednesday presented his long-anticipated North Carolina transportation plan that sets regional and statewide infrastructure goals for the next generation while purposely leaving many details to the future.

McCrory, who with state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata scheduled four stops to announce the governor’s “25-Year Vision,” said the document will help ensure that people and commerce are well-connected as the state population is predicted to grow to 12.5 million by 2040.

The plan breaks North Carolina into four regions and sets out overarching transportation goals for each. In an interview before the plan’s rollout, Tata said these and statewide demands will provide standards on which DOT funding decisions are based going forward.

The Republican governor has talked about such a blueprint since before being elected, citing a similar plan in Charlotte while he was mayor.

“Transportation is the backbone of our state’s economy,” McCrory said in a statement as he and Tata traveled to the Wilmington, Greenville, Winston-Salem and Asheville airports. “Companies want to invest where they know there is a strong vision for moving people and products and that is why we have made this strategic vision a priority.”

Tata said projects will more likely receive funding if they measure favorably to the 22 “solutions” in the report.

For example, the coast needs to stabilize inlets and improve the Wilmington and Morehead City state ports, according to the report, while Down East would benefit from U.S. Highways 64 and 17 becoming interstates to improve travel to and from Virginia’s Hampton Roads. Relieving congestion and expanding mass transit options are among the central region’s priorities and improving highways to connect with Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina are key for the foothills and mountains, the report says.

Paying for projects to meet those goals, however, remains a huge challenge.

The plan estimates it will cost between $94 billion and $123 billion to maintain and improve the state transportation system. And while local planning organizations and state DOT have identified more than 3,100 transportation projects valued at $70 billion, there’s only $1.5 billion in expected funding annually for 10 years.

McCrory said Wednesday he would ask state legislators to authorize about $1 billion in borrowing — repaid with anticipated state road-building funds — to jumpstart some permit-ready projects that align with the vision’s goals. The revenue bonds wouldn’t require voter approval in a referendum, Tata said. Similar bonds have been issued previously based on anticipated federal road-building funds.

The report suggests potential options to locate long-term funding, including the expanded use of public-private partnerships such as the one to create tolls for high-occupancy lanes for Interstate 77 north of Charlotte.

It also anticipates “targeted revenue recommendations” for the 2015 General Assembly, but the report doesn’t say what they’d be. Tata said, however, the state’s gasoline tax is one of the nation’s highest and needs to be lowered. That would require replacement funds from other sources.

The report said without facing these challenges, North Carolina’s transportation network will become “inefficient, reliable and unsafe,” leading to more road fatalities and congestion, making it more difficult to move vacationers, deploy the military and attract companies.

“Now we have a vision, and we have a way to direct and guide investment,” Tata said this week. “There is a need and there is a risk of doing nothing. And that’s what we really want to point out.”

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