Roadwork in northeastern North Carolina has been on a bumpy and uncertain path since state officials implemented new, urban-focused criteria for new road projects.
Turns out, it could get worse, thanks to the federal Highway Trust Fund driving toward a “fiscal cliff” courtesy of U.S. Congressional gridlock. The fund pumps more than $35 billion a year into road projects nationwide, including 48.3 percent, or $1.14 billion, of road repair funding in North Carolina.
The federal HTF is projected to run out of money in late August or early September, something the Obama administration says would delay 112,000 road projects and cost 700,000 construction jobs next year. Dwindling gas tax revenue means the fund needs some $9 billion more to avoid going bankrupt this year.
This new fiscal cliff, like previous ones, is looming because lawmakers haven’t settled on how to shore up the HTF, including through reauthorizing a six-year surface transportation bill before the current one expires on Sept. 30.
The fund running out of money would impact 108 projects in North Carolina and cost more than 20,000 jobs, according to Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-Wilson, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, a national nonprofit advocating better funding for US roads and bridges.
How these dire predictions filter down to northeastern North Carolina isn’t clear, however, according to NC Department of Transportation Engineer Jerry Jennings. He represents NCDOT Division 1, covering 14 counties including Chowan, Perquimans, Pasquotank, Camden and Currituck. The state’s new “Strategic Mobility Formula” already has future road projects in the area in flux, he said.
To start, there’s a glass-half-full way to look at the latest HTF shortfalls: it’s possible DOT wasn’t going to fund local projects in the first place.
Under DOT’s new formula, 40 percent of DOT roadwork funds are supposed to go to projects of statewide importance, along with 30 percent each for projects of regional and divisional importance. DOT is still finalizing scores for every project, including factoring in public feedback like that collected in Edenton on Wednesday.
How exactly federal funds will be distributed to DOT’s state, regional and divisional pots of money isn’t clear yet, he said.
They won’t get even shares, he explained, because federal HTF monies must be used on Interstates, U.S. highways and, generally, routes that support them.
That means federal funds will likely be concentrated in statewide projects, he said. That’s a category Division One fared poorly in, based on DOT’s preliminary transportation improvement plan. The highest-scoring statewide project in Division One only got 33.83 out of 100 points; that’s widening U.S. 158 in Dare County from U.S. 64-N.C. 12 to the Currituck Sound Bridge, an estimated $85.4 million project.
Fortunately, Jennings added, local projects under construction won’t be affected if the HTF runs out of money. Money is already set aside to finish the Elizabeth Street-Camden Causeway reconstruction and the replacement of Knobbs Creek Bridge in Elizabeth City, he said. The same is true of widening U.S. 158 in Camden, he added.
Despite all the uncertainties right now in state-federal road funding, Jennings said it’s clear that the HTF going bankrupt — and taking almost half the DOT’s road money with it — would make competition for road funding much more intense.
Only the highest scoring projects would receive funding, and the only guaranteed money Division One receives under the road formula comes at the division level.
Each division must receive one-fourteenth of the 30 percent allocated to division needs, he said. On the regional level, Division One’s projects would have to beat Division Four’s to receive funding. Division Four includes Edgecombe, Halifax, Johnston, Nash, Wayne and Wilson counties.
In Washington, lawmakers are debating numerous ways to shore up the HTF whose current gas tax of 18.4 cents is increasingly unable to pay for the nation’s growing “infrastructure crisis,” in the words of U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. The Congressional Budget Office in April estimated the HTF needed an extra $100 billion beyond what the gas tax generates to cover highway costs for the six-year transportation bill.
A direct though likely unpopular solution would be to raise the gas tax. Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., are proposing to raise the tax 12 cents a gallon over two years and then index it to inflation. Published reports say the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AAA are among groups supporting the idea.
Northeastern NC’s Congress members offered mixed reactions to that idea this week. Through spokespersons, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan opposed the move, while her Republican counterpart Sen. Richard Burr declined to support or oppose the idea. The spokeswoman said only that Burr hoped to support a “bipartisan solution” to the issue.
Also through a spokeswoman, Butterfield didn’t directly endorse increasing the gas tax. But Butterfield called for Congress to find a long-term solution to highway funding that eluded it in 1993, when the gas tax was last increased. Rep. Walter Jones, R-Farmsville, could not be reached for comment.