A lack of funding to relieve the region’s clogged arteries and political grandstanding are the biggest impediments to transportation improvements in the Charlotte area, a panel of elected and appointed officials involved in transportation issues said Wednesday.
They spoke during a breakfast discussion at the Carolinas Aviation Museum, hosted by The Mecklenburg Times and sponsored by Commercial Real Estate Women’s Charlotte Chapter and HomeTrust Bank.
Seventy-five people from the business community and public sector attended the event, dubbed Future Charlotte: Building a Vision, to hear Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain, N.C. Board of Transportation Chair Ned Curran, N.C. Sen. Joel Ford, and N.C. Rep. Bill Brawley give their views on improving transportation connectedness for commuters, commerce and regional travelers.
Mecklenburg Times Managing Editor Sharon Roberts moderated the discussion, launching off with a question on what the panelists viewed as the largest transportation challenge.
Curran, who also is chief executive of development company Bissell, cited lack of funds and a burgeoning population. He said Charlotte is the 10th fastest-growing city in the nation and that four-fifths of the 3 million people expected to move to North Carolina in the next 25 years will reside in Charlotte or Raleigh.
A lack of funds, he said, is squelching the improvements needed to accommodate them. Curran said North Carolina currently has $1.7 billion in its coffers to spend annually on infrastructure over the next 10 years. That’s not nearly enough to meet the $70 billion in transportation improvements needed in the same period, he said.
The state, he said, has relied too heavily on diminishing returns from gas taxes.
“At some point over the next 10 years we have to radically change how we fund transportation,” he said. While admitting it was an unpopular option, he cited the state’s recently completed deal to install toll lanes on Interstate 77 from Brookshire Freeway near uptown to Exit 36 in Iredell County as a necessary method to ease congestion.
“Public-private partnerships have to be part of the solution,” he said.
The N.C. Department of Transportation recently closed on a 50-year deal with Spanish developer Cintra to build 26 miles of toll lanes north of uptown. The project is valued at $648 million, with taxpayers footing $95 million of that.
A grassroots opposition group, Widen I-77, has filed a lawsuit in Mecklenburg County Superior Court that aims to stop the project. The suit alleges that terms of the contract, as well as the authority of the N.C. DOT and Cintra subsidiary I-77 Mobility Partners to set toll fees, are unconstitutional.
Such outrage over what some call the state’s imposition of “Lexus lanes” has stalled the potential for widening projects on Interstate 77 from the S.C. border to the central business district, Curran said.
Curran said the state of Virginia had an innovative method of cutting dependence on gas-tax revenue. He said the Commonwealth had lowered the gas tax and increased the sales tax so that transportation was treated more like a utility in which all pay more evenly into the system.
Brawley agreed that clogged roadways were a huge issue. The Republican, who represents Mecklenburg County in the state legislature, called Charlotte “the heartbeat of the region’s 14 counties.”
He said he had spent an hour and 10 minutes driving the 18 miles from his Matthews home to the museum off Billy Graham Parkway that morning.
“If I could have spent $7 to take HOT lanes, I’d have done it,” he said.
He preferred to look at recent successes, saying the state has taken measures to relieve the funding gap by ending the practice of transferring money from the N.C. Highway Fund into projects unrelated to transportation. In addition, he said, a recent increase in fees charged by the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles will bring in millions each year.
Brawley also mentioned the state’s Strategic Transportation Investment law, which he helped shepherd through the legislature in 2013, as a highlight. That regulation bases the allocation of funds on data-driven input instead of the state’s previous, and more political, method of funding projects.
“We’re going to see much more results in transportation over the next 10 years,” he said.
Swain echoed her fellow panelists’ views on the root of the issue.
“Transportation is the biggest problem we have in the state,” she said. “We don’t have the funding to catch up.”
She said it was important to be innovative and visionary. The area’s 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan needs to be revamped, she said, because when it was adopted in 2006 it didn’t take into account later developments such as driverless cars.
Land-use planning is vital to helping to solve congestion issues, she said. She proposed more high-density development closer to travel options, as well as placing residential projects closer to commercial space to encourage walking and bicycle riding.
She agreed with Curran on the importance of adding toll lanes, and said that doing so publicly would hurt her chances at re-election this year.
“You look at any urban area with general-purpose lanes,” she said. “They get filled in five to 10 years.”
Ford, a Democrat who represents Mecklenburg County, said the biggest challenge to improved transportation was political.
“We’re going to choke on our own growth if we don’t do things different in Raleigh,” he said, citing a perceived anti-urban movement in the state. Legislators recently approved a rule that capped N.C. DOT funding for urban light-rail projects at $500,000.
“There’s a tremendous challenge in the way Mecklenburg County is treated,” he said.
Brawley countered that “Mecklenburg County gets 14 percent of the money with just 10 percent of the population.”
He said cities such as Charlotte exacerbated existing jealousies between urban and rural areas.
The biggest complaint he hears among constituents, he said, is, “What is with that Charlotte USA stuff? Doesn’t Charlotte want to be part of North Carolina?”
He said city representatives must show respect to rural areas in order to expect respect in return.