03/01/13 — Transportation secretary outlines goals for new administration

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Transportation secretary outlines goals for new administration

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 1, 2013 1:46 PM

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Transportation Secretary Tony Tata watches a PowerPoint presentation by N.C. Department of Transportation Division 4 Engineer John Rouse during the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce Transportation Forum at Goldsboro Country Club.

Tony Tata, North Carolina's new transportation secretary, didn't bring promises of new highway projects or money for old ones during his Thursday stopover in Goldsboro.

Rather, Tata used his time at the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce's Transportation Forum to introduce himself to the community and to talk about his charges from Gov. Pat McCrory.

"He said, 'Tony I need you to fix DMV (Division of Motor Vehicles) and improve customer service throughout the Department of Transportation,'" Tata said. "'The second thing is that I want you to find a way to leverage infrastructure creation to create more jobs and sustain more jobs for North Carolinians. The third thing is to find a way to be more efficient. See what you can do to save money and reinvest that.'"

Tata said one way the Department of Transportation is working to improve customer service will start this weekend when the state rolls out a pilot program expanding hours at certain DMV offices.

As for using infrastructure to create jobs, Tata noted that the state has a strategic prioritization program. Projects are ranked on several criteria: Does it reduce congestion; does it enhance safety; does it extend the reach into the rural area?

"The bottom level is economic competitiveness," he said. "There is a model that is used to calculate how many jobs a specific project will take to actually do, and then the ancillary benefit of second- and third-order effect of jobs."

Tata said he has asked for something a "little more sophisticated" to see if the value can be increased so that job creation will not be the bottom priority.

"So that we might be able to, without risking safety, lessening the reduction of congestion and the extension into rural areas, how we might increase the value of economic competitiveness so we can bring more second- and third-order impact jobs," he said. "You also have to look at the equity (funding) formula which I know everybody is interested in.

"We are reviewing the equity formula and whether we can tweak that. When we put these two things together, I think we will brief the governor in the next week or two, you can create more projects and you can create more jobs over the life of a 10-year plan."

Part of the infrastructure piece is to create a 25-year plan similar to what McCrory did as mayor of Charlotte, he said.

"When we look at our ports and rail, we don't get anywhere near what I think that we could get out of our ports and our rail," he said.

Tata said he has visited the port at Wilmington and would soon visit Morehead City.

Tata said he thinks the state can be "far more strategic and far more mindful" of the impact that it can have.

A small example, he said, was that during his first week he was looking for "low-hanging fruit" -- projects that had been around for a while.

He was presented with 10, one of which was a refrigeration facility inside the Port of Wilmington. A public-private partnership has made that possible, he said.

North Carolina ranks second in the nation in pork and poultry production, he said. However, the majority of the pork and poultry farmers truck their products to the ports at Hampton Roads, Va., or Charleston, S.C.

"That is hundreds of miles driven in each direction," he said. "It is also port taxes and fees that we are not making here in North Carolina. "It makes no sense to me since we have two great ports why we didn't have that (refrigeration unit) already approved."

The project is expected to be completed within a year.

That will mean the long trips out of state will no longer be necessary resulting in savings that the producers can put back into their operations, he said.

He also expects jobs and higher wages to result from the project as well. The project will create 300 jobs to build and sustain it, he said.

The state also needs to look at the port depths since two-thirds of the tankers are too big for the state's ports, Tata said.

"So we have work to do if we are going to compete or are we going to look at different markets. We have had both of those discussions. We have got figure out how we are going to move forward economically there."

Finally, to be more efficient, the department has turned over a number of jobs to the state budget director.

"I have hundreds of jobs that are vacant now, and have been vacant for years," he said. "I am like, 'We are doing all right so let's turn that over and be more efficient and use that money for something else or turn it in as savings.'

"We have begun that process and took a 2 percent cut and turned that over as well to the budget director."