Q&A with DOT Secretary Gene Conti: The Road Ahead
The Walthour-Moss Foundation recently held an “update” meeting for opponents of a U.S. 1 bypass through Moore County’s Horse Country. The N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) insists there is no plan to route a U.S. 1 bypass through Horse Country or any other part of Moore County. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti traveled to Southern Pines this past week to discuss how his department plans to work with local officials to develop a Comprehensive Transportation Plan for Moore County that reflects the interests and concerns of its citizens. Conti spoke with Staff Writer Ted M. Natt Jr., Editor John Nagy, Opinion Editor Steve Bouser and Publisher David Woronoff. Here is an edited transcript of their recorded conversation.
Q: Even though NCDOT has said there is no plan to put a bypass through Horse Country, there is a lot of local mistrust of that statement. Where does NCDOT currently stand on the issue?
A: Well, what we’re trying to do is work with the county, and we’ve made a lot of progress. The process is complicated, and it’s that way because of federal laws. We’ve tried to make it simpler, but it’s probably still more complicated than it needs to be.
In order to do project development, we need a Comprehensive Transportation Plan for a jurisdiction. So we don’t just go in and start creating projects without a comprehensive plan. Moore County doesn’t have one. We’ve been working for several years now to do one. We’re at the very end stages of completing that plan, which looks at all the needs and all the demands on the system, and then looks at possible solutions.
This is not a DOT decision alone. This is a decision made jointly with the county, the rural planning organization and DOT.
Q: If the town of Southern Pines, the village of Pinehurst, the town of Aberdeen, the town of Pinebluff and Moore County commissioners have all passed resolutions in opposition to a bypass, is that enough for NCDOT to say, “OK, we’re not going to do it”?
A: By law, we probably do have the trump card. But by current practice, and I think by anybody’s rational approach, you would not do that. We certainly have no intention of doing that. If the locals are saying, “This is not only not a priority. It’s not even on a list of things we want,” then it’s not going to happen.
Q: Another topic of particular interest to this community would be the widening of N.C. 211 from the Pinehurst Traffic Circle to West End. How’s that project going?
A: Well, it’s under construction, probably a little bit behind where we would like it to be. But we are pushing hard to make sure that it gets done, finished, before the U.S. Opens in 2014.
Q: How does NCDOT plan to handle tying four lanes of 211 into the Traffic Circle?
A: Basically, if you ride out there to the Traffic Circle now, every approach with the exception of 211 has you transition to two lanes, so you’ll have the same thing. We plan to do nothing to the Traffic Circle to have a second lane that ties in on the 211 way. If you’re in that outside lane, you will automatically free-flow back into N.C. 2, going back toward the village. If you’re on the inside lane, you’ll have to yield to the traffic in the circle just like you do in the other four lanes that are there today.
Q: What else does NCDOT see coming down the pike that Moore County is going to need in the next couple of years?
A: There is some interest in the N.C. 24-27 corridor and building that out over the next several years to connect essentially back to Interstate 73/74, so that’s one of the areas where we’re focused. We’re also looking at a 211 bypass that would bring traffic south of Pinehurst and reconnect with U.S. 15-501 south of Aberdeen. We know there’s interest there.
Q: Under your watch, NCDOT has undergone quite a bit of change in how its board operates. Some might argue the changes have limited the effectiveness of the board. Others claim the changes have limited corruption on the board. What is your take?
A: I think it’s going very well and I would err on the side of saying it’s changed the way the board works in a very positive way for the state. When Gov. [Beverly] Perdue came in, she did the executive order that clarified things and who’s responsible for what. It really focused the board’s attention on policy direction and accountability.
Our work program used to be a grab bag of stuff, a lot of it just thrown out there to pacify people. We were delivering about 50 percent and that’s not a very good way to build public trust, right?
So what we did is revamp the whole program. We went through and right-sized it and said, “This is what we can truly deliver in five years. We have the resources, we know how to do it, hold us to this. We want to be held to a 95 percent standard of delivery, not 50.”
We put in place a prioritization process that’s based on data about safety, infrastructure, health, traffic counts, traffic flows, congestion and all that. We’ve tried to build now, as we move forward, more economic data that supports how investments are going to produce positive economic paths.
We’re making a lot of progress and getting better at defining clearly what the cost and benefits are for particular investments, and putting it in front of local governments and the board to determine their priorities. There’s some subjectivity in it, but it’s based on more subjectivity at the local level and less at the state level. That’s a better outcome for everybody, I think, than if the decision is purely data-driven without local input.
It has been a collaborative effort across party lines and I think the endorsement of the legislature for the process we’ve put in place is a strong statement about people are happy with what’s going on. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect yet or that we have all the answers yet, but we have put in place a process that’s much more transparent, much more accountable to the public and to public officials.
Q: Can you talk briefly about how highway building is funded? The gas tax here. Is that the way to go, or is there a better way to do it?
A: It’s something that I spend a lot of time on in national discussions, as well as within the state. The gas tax doesn’t work anymore in terms of a stable and predictable source of funding for transportation. It doesn’t work at the federal level. The federal government’s had to put in over $50 billion from general funds to support the level of funding, just to keep it at the level we’re at the last three years. So that’s not sustainable.
People are looking at alternatives, and some states have substantial sales tax revenues that go into transportation. We have the highway use tax, which comes off new vehicle sales. So everybody has a different mixture, but the basic foundation of it all is the fuel tax, and the fuel tax is not sustainable in its current form. If you go to a mileage base, that’s twice what we have today in terms of fuel economy; you’re giving up half your revenue right there.
Politically, it’s a very difficult transition because you’ve got local, state and federal levels of taxation. You’ve got distribution of money at all those levels. It’s a very complicated matter.
Tolling is another area that people just say, well, we just need to toll more. Well, I think we probably do. That makes sense to do, particularly on new construction.
There’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of tools people use, but the foundation is eroding pretty quickly, so we need to have a pretty serious national discussion about how we repair that foundation and move forward.
Frankly there hasn’t been a lot of leadership from anybody on that subject for several years. I hope there will be some emerging in the next few years.
That’s one of the reasons that we’re traveling around — to try to educate the public about the fact that this is a long-term challenge and the public needs to come to grips with it.
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