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The long road ahead 

"Gimme money," Charlotte says

If last Wednesday was any indication, debate over state transportation needs could again be dominated by a pull between rural and urban interests.

Mayor Pat McCrory, fresh off his gubernatorial campaign announcement in Jamestown, urged the 21st Century Transportation Committee to scrap the equity formula devised in 1989 to divvy up road money. "We firmly believe the equity formula is no longer equitable," McCrory said.

The formula uses several factors -- some which favor cities, some which benefit rural areas -- to allocate road money. McCrory criticized the formula, which has support among rural leaders, for not factoring in congestion, safety, or environmental concerns, or the number of cars a road handles. "We need to put the roads were the cars are," McCrory said.

The rural-versus-urban split is nothing new, but this time state leaders have promised to deal with transportation woes plaguing the former Good Roads State.

In October, Gov. Mike Easley, Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight and House Speaker Joe Hackney announced the formation of a committee of politicians, transportation officials, experts and citizens.

Three Charlotte-area legislators, all Democrats -- Sen. David Hoyle of Gaston County, Rep. Becky Carney of Mecklenburg County and Lorene Coates of Rowan County -- are among the 24-member committee that's supposed to address short- and long-term ways to address problems.

The problems? For one, almost everyone last Wednesday seemed to agree that North Carolina lacks the money to address road needs. And several folks, including McCrory, suggested that the N.C. Department of Transportation needs significant retooling, particularly how regional divisions are set up. McCrory pointed out that the regional office serving Charlotte is in Albemarle -- an hour drive at best.

Taxes, however, were scarcely mentioned, although Tom Crosby, AAA Carolinas' vice president of communications, told the committee that the driving club's members were largely in favor of increasing the state gas tax, which Gov. Mike Easley in 2006 capped at 29.9 cents per gallon, if revenues were guaranteed to go for roads. (More than $100 million has been transferred annually in recent years from the highway trust fund to the state's general fund.)

"It's never the wrong time to do the right thing," Crosby said.

But toll roads, a largely untested form of road funding in North Carolina, were discussed. Steve Zelnak, chairman of the committee's finance subcommittee, said a toll could fund construction of a new I-85 bridge across the Yadkin River at Rowan and Davidson counties. The bridge is consistently labeled substandard in safety reports. "That very likely will be the direction we go in," said Zelnak, whose committee will make recommendations.

Charlotte's mass transit was hailed as a success by McCrory and other speakers. "I know it's working: When it wasn't, it was called the McCrory Line. Now that it's working, it's called the Blue Line," he said.

Problems with the light-rail fare machines were a byproduct of demand, said Keith Parker, chief executive officer of the Charlotte Area Transit System.

McCrory offered his own suggestions for relieving congestion, several of which he said came from a recent trip to Europe with U.S. DOT Secretary Mary Peters and S.C. Governor Mark Sanford. He said some cities he visited allow drivers to use road shoulders during peak drive times, and safety hasn't been a problem. He also suggested using more reversible lanes, toll roads, high-occupancy toll lanes and private-public partnership in road building.

The 21st Century Transportation Committee is supposed to make a preliminary report to the legislature by May 1, with a final one due by year's end.

Carney said urban concerns would be something the General Assembly has to consider. "There's two sides to it, obviously," she said.

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