Pending NC toll road projects less a sure thing
By GARY D. ROBERTSON – Associated Press
Tags: NC Capitol Letter

RALEIGH, N.C. — An unusual probe by North Carolina Republican legislators into edited state Department of Transportation letters on funding for two divisive toll projects raised howls among Democrats who believed it was designed to embarrass Gov. Beverly Perdue.

“It’s a tempest in a teapot,” said Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, a former House speaker who couldn’t recall hearing before the kind of grilling DOT workers received from the Senate Rules Committee in the final days of the session that ended this month. “It’s much ado about nothing, and it’s all political posturing.”

Republicans defended their investigation as neither about politics nor the merits of the Garden Parkway and Mid-Currituck Bridge projects – but rather ensuring that lawmakers get factual information from state officials.

However, the investigation raised more questions about if or when shovels of dirt will be turned over for the bridge and parkway construction, which was mandated by the Legislature when it was in Democratic hands. A new crop of elected GOP lawmakers in the majority have questioned the efficacy of going through with the projects, giving hope to project opponents.

“I think they will expose some of the reasoning for this road,” said Marion Beach, 69, of Belmont. He and his wife’s home sits in what would be the westbound lanes of the current preferred route for the Garden Parkway. “I don’t see a benefit for Gaston County. I was opposed to the road long before it coming through my property.”

The proposed 7-mile bridge connecting mainland Currituck County with the northern Outer Banks and 22-mile parkway linking Gaston and Mecklenburg counties could cost $1.5 billion combined. Tens of millions of tax dollars will be paid annually to help pay a portion of expected revenue bonds that tolls won’t meet.

The state Department of Transportation and the North Carolina Turnpike Authority, which was formed 10 years ago to develop, build and operate toll projects, said the Perdue administration is committed to seeing these projects built. But Perdue leaves office in January. The projects currently are on track for completion in 2016 – unless potential environmental litigation delays them as it has with another toll project in Union County.

The Senate committee’s investigation into the letters shined the spotlight on the two projects and the $63 million combined that legislators have pledged to give annually as “gap funding” for the incurred debt.

Letters purported to be signed by DOT chief operating officer Jim Trogdon appeared to have reversed his earlier suggestion that the gap funding wasn’t needed this coming year. It turned out that two Perdue aides changed Trogdon’s draft of the letters and sent them to key legislators – affixed with his digital signature – without his express approval.

Trogdon disavowed the letters within hours of their release June 14. The enacted state budget still delayed the gap funding for another year. The governor’s aides attributed the letter changes to sloppy editing completed in a rush to affirm Perdue’s commitment to the projects. But the Republican majority on the Rules Committee wasn’t convinced and sent the findings to the State Ethics Commission for review.

Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, who spent his first full term in the Legislature trying to preserve the Mid-Currituck project, said the flap can only hurt a project that’s been discussed for 20 years. White’s predecessor, Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, was a powerful champion for the span.

White said the Mid-Currituck Bridge would reduce hurricane evacuation times and increase employment for northeastern North Carolina residents on the northern Outer Banks by making it easier to commute to work in places such as Corolla by bypassing Dare County.
“On a given Saturday or Sunday at this time of year, what normally would take 45 minutes is a four-hour drive,” he said.

But opponents said the project would only encourage more population in a region known for its seclusion and could actually make it more difficult to evacuate people. Improving existing roads near and on the Outer Banks is a better alternative, said David Farren, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“The obvious purpose of this project is to promote massive development on a fragile, shifting barrier island,” said Farren, whose group successfully sued the state to delay the Monroe Bypass toll project. Now the group is weighing whether to sue over the Garden Parkway by September on similar environmental grounds.

Opponents of the Garden Parkway said well-connected residents in the region – including former legislators – stand to win financially if the road is built because their companies own property near the proposed route.

Freshman Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Senate transportation budget subcommittee, said he wants to see the Legislature repeal its requirement that the Mid-Currituck Bridge and Garden Parkway be built. The projects should then be evaluated by DOT using the same measures as other road-building initiatives to minimize political considerations.

“If they are good projects and if we should invest in those projects, then they will rise and you can address them by whatever means we need,” Rabon said.

First-term Sen. Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, another transportation budget-writer, opposes the parkway. A GOP primary runoff this week for a Gaston County House seat also could result in ensuring another parkway opponent joins the Legislature.

Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said last week his agency is focused on carrying out projects directed by the Legislature – for example, the Garden Parkway – in a way that makes fiscal sense.

“If the Legislature decides that we shouldn’t do it, that’s a whole different story,” Conti said.

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