New North Carolina Transportation Funding System

A Major Step Forward, but Further Reform Needed

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The Southern Environmental Law Center welcomed Wednesday’s release of scores for over 3,100 proposed transportation projects under North Carolina’s new data-driven funding formula.  The new approach to transportation spending aims to take politics out of the project selection process and focus scarce dollars more wisely by using data to score all proposed projects on their transportation benefits.  

SELC worked with legislators in the General Assembly to pass the new funding system last year. The initial scores demonstrate that the formula is largely working as it should, as politically-motivated and controversial projects such as the Garden Parkway and Mid-Currituck Bridge, which had been pushed forward with earmarked funding, received extremely low scores.

“The release of the data-based project scores represents a welcome departure from North Carolina’s old way of doing business,” said Kym Hunter an attorney with SELC. “Rather than rewarding politically-connected land owners by pursuing boondoggles that offer little transportation benefit, the state is now on a path to spend taxpayer dollars more wisely.” 

The data-driven scoring process is also a welcome departure from the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s (NCDOT) previous commitment to build the North Carolina “intrastate system”— a predetermined list of projects written into statute in 1989.  Before the General Assembly approved the new funding system, the Department continued to doggedly pursue this outdated list of projects regardless of the evolving needs of the state. 

One highly criticized project on that 1989 list would widen a stretch of U.S. 64 through the isolated Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  NCDOT’s stated rationale for building the $392 million project, which serves no transportation purpose, was simply that it was “on the list.”  Under the data-driven approach, the project scored in the bottom 15 out of 459 statewide highway projects.

Although the new legislation and scoring is an important step in the right direction, work remains to be done to improve North Carolina’s approach to transportation funding.

The legislation passed last year eliminated political earmarks for all highway projects – except one.  The proposed $900 million Monroe Bypass in Union County was specifically exempted from the formula by legislators.  SELC has long advocated that the costly Bypass, which has significant local opposition, should be scored on its merits just like everything else.

“With transportation dollars dwindling in North Carolina the state cannot afford to give special treatment to such a costly unpopular project,” explained Hunter.  “NCDOT’s new data show that many high-priority projects across the state will remain unbuilt for at least the next 10 years, so there’s no justification for squandering almost a billion dollars on the proposed toll highway when lower-cost solutions that would better solve Union County’s transportation needs are readily available.”

NCDOT’s formula also places a huge emphasis on highway projects — a decision made not by data, but by legislators and state administrators.  All transportation projects do not compete equally for funds.  Rather, rail (both passenger and freight), ferries, transit, bike, and pedestrian projects are required to share just 2.4-6% of all available funding.   

“To truly address our state’s needs as we continue to grow, all transportation projects must be allowed to compete equally for funding, without artificial political constraints that favor highways,” Hunter continued.   “Allowing our citizens the freedom to select the transportation mode that best meets our needs is the only way for North Carolina to stay competitive and to ensure a high quality of life for all.”   

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The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of nearly 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use. www.SouthernEnvironment.org