08/26/07 — Special session possible to talk roads

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Special session possible to talk roads

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on August 26, 2007 2:11 AM

With legislators home from Raleigh only three weeks, the legislative rumor mill has already begun speculating whether Gov. Mike Easley will call the General Assembly back this fall for a special session to focus on transportation issues.

"I've just been hearing some rumors about it," Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne said. "We've got some big needs, but we did absolutely nothing for transportation this year.

"It does (need to be called). If it isn't, we're talking about it being next May before anything substantial can be discussed."

But as of now, nobody knows for sure what the governor might do. Even Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, who serves on the House leadership team as one of three majority whips, said that while he has heard talk of the possibility, he has not been told if it will happen or not.

In the meantime, North Carolina is maintaining about 79,000 miles of roads -- second only to Texas in the nation. By way of comparison, there are only 19,000 miles of state roads in Georgia. The rest of the pavement is paid for by counties and municipalities.

That difference, said Christie Barbee, executive director of the Carolina Asphalt Pavement Association and treasurer of state transportation coalition NC GO!, is the reason why North Carolina has one of the highest gas taxes in the region -- 29.5 cents per gallon.

"Don't let people compare your gas tax, which pays for 79,000 miles, with a gas tax that pays for 19,000 miles," she said.

But even that amount is not proving to be enough, she said.

According to the coalition's estimates, North Carolina will be faced with a $6.5 billion shortfall in transportation funding over the next 25 years -- $122 in needs, $57 billion available.

"That's a fairly conservative estimate of what we're going to need and fairly liberal estimate of what our revenues will bring," Barbee said.

One solution is a bond issue. Another is toll roads. A third solution would be to eliminate the recently enacted cap on the gas tax, which was originally intended to fluctuate with wholesale prices.

To Pate, though, a better option would be to raise the fixed rate. That, he said, would create higher revenues, while still protecting people when prices skyrocket.

But the other problem, he said, is that the money that is available isn't being spent as efficiently as it could be.

One issue is that money is still being transferred out of the Highway Trust Fund every year -- $170 million annually, according to the agreement creating the fund in 1989.

"It may be time to take a look at that," Pate said.

The other issue is that he doesn't feel the funds are being doled out equitably across the state.

"Right now we are donating money to other parts of the state," he said. "It seems to me that the gas tax collected here, should be going to projects around here."

Among those are the U.S. 70 bypass around Goldsboro and the completion of the freight rail connection between Wallace and New Hanover County. Other concerns include the status of the state's bridges and the sheer number of people and trucks on the road.

But even as important as those needs are, Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, thinks that a rush to legislate would be a bad idea.

"I would expect a study commission myself. It's a very complex issue and right now the money isn't there, and we don't have all the answers," he said.

Before any action can be taken, he cautioned, they need to know exactly what the problems are and what solutions are feasible.

"I think you've got to be careful. Every time somebody burps, you can't have a special session of the legislature," Kerr said. "My experience is that when you start on one thing and get into a special session, it's hard to get out. There's a lot of mischief that goes on when we're up there.

"I've said it before -- the legislature is like a train. Once you get it going and fired up, it's hard to stop."