N.C. transportation ‘reforms’ are gestures, not true reforms

By Shannon Binns, June Blotnick and Martin Zimmerman
Special to the Observer

Those of us who are encouraging reforms to address pressing travel needs have been tracking the Strategic Transportation Investments Act (STI) since its passage in June 2013. Most folks would probably support the goal set by Gov. Pat McCrory and North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Tony Tata that funding under this act be spent on an “objective” basis. But that is easier said than done.

Defining what objective really means has become a convoluted affair involving complex methodologies and lengthy discussions throughout the state. In mid-January NCDOT finally asked for public input. Here is our response:

Citizens have been told a new ranking system replaces the state’s long-standing “equity formula.” As Charlotte mayor, McCrory criticized the old formula for favoring rural areas at the expense of cities. And he was right about that. But from the standpoint of needs in his home town and neighboring communities, what he wants now may be as bad, or worse.

Funding methodology for STI’s “Strategic Mobility Formula” is cumbersome at best.

The formula has three “tiers.” Tier 1 is statewide (mostly interstate highways). Tier 2 is regional (i.e. some state roads, Amtrak, ferries etc.). Tier 3 is divisional including other state and local roads, bus and light rail, bicycling and walking.

“Statewide” is supposed to be 100 percent “data-driven” – a well-intended effort to overcome special interest politics. “Regional” equates to 70 percent data-driven and 30 percent local input. “Division” is defined as 50 percent data-driven and 50 percent local input. Kym Hunter of the Southern Environmental Law Center points out, however, that “each mode has its own scoring system. This translates to 20 different systems.” “Local input” is hardly that because 50 percent of the local scoring points are delegated to NCDOT division engineers.

Scores are supposedly derived by applying metrics to “economic competitiveness, access to employment, congestion relief, and safety” criteria. But is it really possible to objectively compare different travel modes? How can one measure the needs of the elderly and poor who can’t afford a car, but who must ride transit to get medical care? Or a child who wants to pedal to school? How can those kinds of users possibly compete for state dollars with cross-state freight travel, ferry boats or commuting motorists?

Although the public was initially promised that all travel modes could compete equally, the facts indicate otherwise. NCDOT has actually set hard limits on the percentage of funds that can go to anything other than new roads or freight rail: a minimum of 2.4 percent and a maximum of 6 percent of all available funds is all that is permitted for other modes.

Regional tier efforts such as the proposed Red Line commuter rail to Iredell County are more restricted than the statewide tier. Not only must they compete with other projects in the same tier, they must also compete with all statewide projects not funded in Tier 1. In addition, rail systems cannot qualify for regional funding unless they span “two or more counties.” This implies that the proposed LYNX Red Line would qualify for state funds only if Iredell County were to join with Mecklenburg in the project.

Funds for bicycling and walking needs will likely get a big hit. STI calls for the traditional state match of federal dollars to end in July 2015. This means that local governments will have to look elsewhere for their bicycling or walkway construction. In addition, by law, “stand-alone” bike-ped projects, defined most often as off-road bikeways or greenway trails, will no longer qualify for state funds. “Complete streets” projects, a crucial source for on-road bike lanes and sidewalks, will continue, but only if tied to street widening or new street construction; this eliminates “road diets,” such as Charlotte’s successful East Boulevard project.

The bottom line is now as bright as a red stoplight at midnight. Modes of travel which one hoped would qualify for state funding were severely restricted by the STI law, and subsequent attempts to determine a ranking methodology have proven to be virtually impossible to rationalize on “objective” or “data-driven” grounds. It’s a process that sets out highways as the winners from the outset. And NCDOT is in the driver’s seat.

Vanished are the high hopes of former N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration for a balanced mobility policy based upon funding parity for all urban modes – walking, bicycling, transit and passenger rail, and driving. As Paul Morris, formerly NCDOT deputy secretary, expressed in a recent phone call: “We undertook a broad culture change and technical reform to transform the department into a 21st-century, multimodal agency.”

Current “reforms” do nothing of the sort. And gestures to engage citizen input at this late stage will probably amount to little more than gestures.

Shannon Binns is executive director of Sustain Charlotte. June Blotnick is executive director of Clean Air Carolina. Martin Zimmerman is director of Green Mobility Planning Studio USA.

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