White: Politics driving probe

By Cindy Beamon

The Daily Advance

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

“Fraudulent” letters sent to the state Senate last week about the proposed Currituck Mid-County Bridge project may not be that inaccurate, say two local state lawmakers.

The News & Observer reported Tuesday that several members of Gov. Bev Perdue’s staff had changed letters from a transportation official about how soon the bridge project may need state funding.

In his original letter, Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer of the N.C. Department of Transportation, said $28 million for the proposed mid-county bridge and $35 million for the proposed Garden Parkway west of Charlotte was not needed next year.

The governor’s office later altered Trogdon’s letters to say funding is needed next year, the News & Observer reported.

After seeing the change, Trogdon, who had been out of town, retracted the letters as inaccurate.

Trogdon’s retraction of the letters has sparked a call by the Senate Rules Committee for an investigation to determine how the letter about the bridge project was changed.

But state Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, said a Senate probe on how the change came about is more “political fodder” than anything else.

He said the mistake has already been explained. Apparently, another transportation official had signed off on the change in Trogdon’s absence withoutknowing he would object, he said. The governor’s office followed proper procedure in seeking the change, he said.

White said he did not think the altered letter made any difference in the Senate’s debate of the topic.

White said he received the altered letter on June 14 just as he was headed upstairs to the Senate floor. He said he didn’t open the letter until after presenting a budget amendment on the Senate floor last week to restore funding for the bridge.

During his presentation, White referred to Trogdon’s original letter — initially agreeing to a possible delay in funding next year. White said he was more concerned at the time that funding not be cut in future years.

White said a year’s delay in funding could send the wrong message to bond companies needed to finance the project.

Companies may not want to support the project if the state keeps changing its funding plan for the $660 million project, he said. The state of Georgia has had that problem after lawmakers withdrew funding for projects, he noted.

White’s proposal failed, and the Senate’s version of the budget still includes cuts to bridge funding. In the House budget, funds for the bridge remain intact. A committee comprised of House and Senate members are expected to negotiate their differences before a final state budget is adopted.

Another area lawmaker believes the Senate is making more of Trogdon’s retracted letters than is warranted.

State Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, said the DOT official should have consulted with other state officials before saying funds for the bridge were not needed next year.

“He talked to nobody above him and nobody below him,” said Owens.

Trogdon’s timetable for the project is based on the assumption that the project will face a lawsuit before construction begins, Owens said. But a lawsuit is more likely to be filed after construction begins, he said. Waiting for a lawsuit to be filed beforehand will only delay the project another year, he said.

Owens also questioned the motives of lawmakers seeking to delay funding for a year. Some lawmakers want to divert bridge funds to projects they want funded, he said.

The delay in funding is just one cut being proposed by the Senate. Another would slice annual installments of gap funds — needed to subsidize construction costs for the toll bridge — from $28 million to $15 million. Both Owens and White say a cut that big would be a death knell for the project.

Despite the talk about big cuts to funding, Owens said he’s not too concerned. House Speaker Thom Tillis has assured him proposed cuts will not hold as the General Assembly hammers out its final budget, Owens said.