North Carolina’s recent claim to national news is state lawmakers’ nullification of a Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance. Transportation issues in the Tar Heel State do not make for such prominent headlines, but follow a similar pattern. In North Carolina’s fast-growing cities, advocates and elected officials are pursuing new policies and practices to create high quality urban places. Yet they face deep-seated conservatism (in this case, the conservative bias toward highway expansion) at the state level, both in the legislature and at the state department of transportation. The situation is not unique to the southeastern U.S., but the severity of North Carolina’s schism between metropolitan and state priorities makes it an emblematic example and key state to watch.
North Carolina’s rapid population growth is overwhelmingly concentrated in cities. The census indicates that the two metro areas of Charlotte and the Research Triangle (Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh) will comprise two-thirds of the state’s growth in this decade. North Carolina’s total population increased by more than 5 percent from 2010 to 2015 and topped 10 million for the first time last year. Accentuating the increased urbanization, however, 49 of North Carolina’s 100 counties actually lost population during that same period of time.
Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham boast impressive lists of newly constructed or recently proposed transit projects. Charlotte opened its ten-mile LYNX Blue Line light rail in 2007, with an additional nine mile extension to UNC-Charlotte scheduled to open next year. The Blue Line is part of a long-term plan for over 60 miles of passenger rail service in the Queen City, along with an expanded bus network and several bus rapid transit routes.
In the Research Triangle, voters in Durham and Orange counties approved half-cent sales tax increases for transit in 2011 and 2012 (by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin in Durham and 59 to 41 in Orange), and the local transit agency has been steadily increasing bus service since. Plans in Raleigh and surrounding Wake County would triple bus service, increase the frequent bus network from 17 to 83 miles, and build a commuter rail line from the southern suburbs of Raleigh to the Duke University campus in Durham. These plans depend on passage of a measure on the ballot this fall in Wake County that would increase the sales tax by a half-cent. Additionally, there is a proposed 17-mile Durham-Orange light rail line connecting Duke and Chapel Hill. In her state of the city speech last month, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane argued that “a robust public transportation system…is key for our economic development. Without it, we will be overcome with our success and choke ourselves off with congestion.”
These and additional initiatives to develop better sidewalk networks and cycling infrastructure signify a major step forward for urban transportation in North Carolina, even if development density and urban design still have major room for improvement. In stark contrast, however, the state legislature abruptly capped spending on light-rail projects at a meager $500,000 last fall. The move killed the state’s commitment of $138 million to the Durham-Orange rail line and jeopardized other rail projects across the state. The new law not only creates a massive opportunity cost, but also additional incentives for suburban sprawl in areas that need increased density and infill development. During the same legislative session, Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Greensboro) attempted to insert language into a bill that would have prohibited most road diets. Her biggest campaign contributor in the last election cycle was William Kotis III, a commercial developer who specializes in big-box strip malls.
Wade’s attempt was unsuccessful, but it’s still difficult to find a corner of the state that NCDOT—which spends 97 percent of its budget on roads—has not slated for highway expansion. One segment of Interstate 40 was being widened during a TransitCenter visit to Raleigh earlier this year, and in another part of the Research Triangle debate is raging over the “Complete 540” plan to add 28 miles of six-lane road to the Raleigh beltway (with a price tag of $2.2 billion). Critics, such as the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Kym Hunter, say the time savings of the new highway will be slim. “We think [the project] is tremendously destructive, too expensive, and just doesn’t provide the level of transportation benefit to match up with the cost,” she told the News & Observer in February. Other highway widening and relocation projects include the Interstate 26 connector near Asheville, new portions of a beltway and other highways in the Piedmont Triad, Interstate 85 widening northeast of Charlotte, and construction of the Monroe Expressway construction southeast of the city. One of the hotly contested transportation issues in the Charlotte region is not whether Interstate 77 should be widened, but if it should be done with toll lanes or simply with new freeway lanes.
Ironically, these trends come just three years after the state passed a landmark “Strategic Transportation Investments Law,” which was intended to do away with pork-barrel projects and move the state toward greater use of performance metrics in transportation funding. In practice, highway and non-highway projects are now being scored separately with funds apportioned to roads and transit according to historical investment levels, which means the status quo prior to the law has essentially been restored.
The brief policy detour appears to be a story of politicians seeking neutral project-selection criteria, then being unhappy with the results. It’s a cautionary tale of too much faith placed in technocracy amid the inherently political process of allocating transportation funding. If North Carolina is to make any progress in the near term, transit advocates will have to redouble their efforts and pressure elected officials in the urban parts of the state to draw attention to the inequities inherent in North Carolina transportation politics. Demographic trends are on the cities’ side, but that will not spare billions of dollars and acres of North Carolina pine forest from being crushed under the steamrollers of NCDOT’s current program.
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